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Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive

prepared by the archdiocese of philadelphia and 
the pontifical council for the family

our sunday visitor, 128 pages, $9.95

Love Is Our Mission, a preparatory catechesis on family tied to the Catholic Church’s upcoming World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, begins exactly as it should: with Jesus revealing that being ­created in the image and likeness of God means being created to offer others the gift of ourselves.

The sexual difference between men and women is deeply connected to this giving. One of the catechesis’s virtues is the way it treats not only sex but also celibacy as open to this giving—and not just the celibacy of professed religious but the far more common celibacy of those who are unmarried but seeking to live chaste lives. For both celibates and married persons, “the internal motion of soul, the heart’s offering of itself, is similar at its core.” We might think that Christian married couples have more in common with other married couples of different values, whereas celibacy is a much different vocation. In truth, the catechesis notes, “a happy marriage—the kind that endures over a lifetime—has more in common with the generous, patient, self-giving powers of celibacy than what Pius XII called ‘a refined hedonism.’” Marriage also includes openness to procreation and to the purpose of parenting, which is to prepare children to become saints.

After articulating this vision of sexuality and the human person, the catechesis treats the more controversial topics, including contraception, divorce, and same-sex marriage. It notes that the Church’s injunction to chastity for Christians is uniform, no matter what sex they are attracted to: “All Christians are called to face their disordered sexual inclinations and to grow in chastity—not a single human individual is untouched by this summons—and hence in their capacity to give and receive love in a manner consonant with their state in life.”

The catechesis has one weakness: The authors frequently talk about God’s covenant without fleshing out what God’s covenants are and how they work in Scripture. That said, the term “preparatory catechesis” does not do this small book justice. Yes, it can help prepare those who read it for the World Meeting of Families. Much more than that, it provides a winsome, well-ordered, readable, and thorough introduction to the Catholic understanding of human sexuality and marriage. It explains what the Church believes and why in a merciful and charitable manner. It can serve as an important tool for evangelization and still teach those who have read widely on the subject.

—Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.

The Constitution: An Introduction
by michael stokes paulsen and luke paulsen
basic, 368 pages, $29.99

Our civic religion, centered on the Constitution, is tainted with superstition. We speak as if the founders instituted a magis­terium—the Supreme Court and the college of federal judges in communion with it—that stands supreme over the other branches of government and infallibly interprets the ­Constitution.

For many law students, unsurprisingly, this creed doesn’t survive three weeks of an actual course on constitutional law. Too many constitutional rulings seem contrived for political ends; too few display craftsmanship—disciplined submission to authorized sources and technical categories. If the Constitution is what judges say it is, our basic law is made up on the fly.

The truth is that both this cynicism and the naive faith it shatters are based on ignorance about public matters that a healthy republic can hardly afford. The problem is that introductions to the Constitution tend to be tomes or screeds or seventh-grade civics texts.

The Constitution: An Introduction by University of St. Thomas law professor Michael Paulsen and his son Luke is the rare exception. It’s short but layered. It displays a professor’s insights and a recent college graduate’s sense for the lay reader’s needs. It tells good stories at a fast clip in limpid prose, with input from a dream team of fact-checkers including Yale law scholar Akhil Amar and Princeton historian James McPherson. It is innocent of polemic. And yet the lessons of its well-told history bid fair to soften our superstition and cynicism.

The first part is an anatomy of our national charter itself—really an evolutionary history, explaining each part’s functions by its survival value for the world’s first continental republic. Familiar themes—federalism, separation of powers, the Bill of Rights—are treated with enough texture to enable novice readers to judge several central disputes. At times, though, the authors focus on the text at some cost to context. Thus, I suspect they give the sporadically enforced and morally incomplete Bill of Rights too much credit—and our system’s sharp divisions of power, not quite enough—for staving off tyranny.

In the second part—on our history’s major constitutional disputes—the book reaches its dramatic climax: an expertly told story of the constitutional transformations wrought by the Civil War. It’s this story that occasions the Paulsens’ strongest therapy for our civic-religious distortions. Against the law student’s disaffection, the Civil War experience shows that careful legal interpretation can be an engine of history in its own right—a real motive and limit, not just an instrument of judges’ will to power. Lincoln really was guided by his view of what the Constitution required of him: to fight secession; flout the Supreme Court’s fabrications in Dred Scott; and in these great causes deploy all his lawful powers as ­commander-in-chief—including that “seizure” of enemy “property” called the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Paulsens also think Lincoln’s story exposes our excessively court-centric pieties. Along with episodes from Jefferson’s and Jackson’s presidencies, they argue, it shows that the political branches within their domains should apply their own constitutional interpretations, as coequals of the judiciary (whose domain is discrete questions among particular parties). It reminds us that our most pressing constitutional questions (on slavery and secession) were settled out of court; that it took more than a wiser judge to reverse our most villainous chief justice (Roger Taney); and that our Constitution’s most consequential interpreter wasn’t a robed philosopher-king but a self-taught lawyer from Kentucky by way of Illinois.

Indeed, the sixty years following Reconstruction saw the Supreme Court itself deviate from the Constitution wildly, even wickedly. It ­vitiated the states’ power to regulate for the common good, and sanctioned legally mandated segregation and eugenics. It repented of most of these interpretive infidelities—and quickened long-­dormant rights to speech and religion—in the ’40s and ’50s. But too often since then, it has again mortgaged its authority to enact sheer policy preferences—this time despite the historical evidence that an im­perious judiciary promises no straighter path to justice. That, anyway, is the understated upshot of the authors’ story, which is otherwise keener to report disputes than to settle them.

But the book’s greatest achievement is preternaturally good dis­cretion in distilling hundreds of cases and ­copious scholarship and centuries of good stories to tell. It leaves some ends loose (for example, on state nullification of federal laws) and undertreats some areas of current interest (for example, the electoral college). But remarkably, it doesn’t overlook a major topic or case.

All this erudition the book wears lightly, with humanizing insets, ­orienting lists and superlatives, smooth writing, and the occasional chatty one-liner to undo years of distortions. (Against having the Supreme Court fix every awful policy, for example: “There is no ‘It Would Be Unthinkable Clause’ in the Constitution.”) This, then, isn’t just our Constitution’s best short introduction; it might help make our civic culture at once more sober and more hopeful.

—Sherif Girgis is a J.D. ­candidate at Yale and a Ph.D. ­candidate in philosophy at ­Princeton. 

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings
by philip zaleski and carol zaleski
farrar, straus and giroux, 656 pages, $35

The name they chose for their group was, J. R. R. Tolkien self-effacingly recalls, “a pleasantly ingenious pun . . . suggesting people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.” The description conjures a picture of “donnish dreaminess,” a rag-tag band of tweed-clad writers who met for a pint from time to time.

The English novelist John Wain, himself an occasional Inkling in the 1940s, remembers the group as something wholly different. To him they were a veritable “circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.”

What, then, were the Inklings, ­really? Philip and Carol Zaleski set out to show us that they were something in between—or, rather, both things at once: whimsical and ponderous, very learned and very fantastical. As David Cecil recalls, “Their fantasy was not indulged independently of their ideas; it was fantasy about their ideas.” And even more importantly, the Zaleskis then ask the question: What are the Inklings to us now? Even if they had conceived of themselves as ruffled, ink-stained, and rather inconsequential, the truth is that they did unleash both a mythic and a Christian awakening of sorts.

In more than six hundred rich ­pages, these are the two main questions at hand. But as they are being answered, something else comes into focus and, perhaps accidentally, emerges as central: that is, the bond of friendship that existed between these men. The personalities are recounted, the oddities, the attractions, the convergence of views, the ­misunderstandings. For instance: “The three companions formed a perfect debating circle, a study in types: Barfield, slender, elegant, gently but insistently advancing esoteric doctrines; Lewis, boisterous and belligerent, his face turning bright red as he bellowed objections and distinguos; Harwood, quiet and observant, the go-between, a summoned voice ­rather than a ­vociferous one.”

They resembled “an intellectual orchestra, a gathering of sparkling talents in a common cause, each participant the master of his own chosen field,” but there are, of course, many moments of discord and readjustment. Their temperaments cause friction; one bristles at another’s religious convictions or aesthetic sensibilities, and so on. A study of the Inklings is, then, at its heart, a study in friendship—the continuous conversion that it engenders, the lasting fruit that it can bear.

—Bianca Czaderna is a junior fellow at First Things.

George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father
by thomas s. kidd
yale, 344 pages, $40

In 1775, a group of American soldiers raided George Whitefield’s five-year-old grave in Newbury, Massachusetts. Hoping that his relics would secure their protection in battle, they extracted a clerical collar and wristbands from the ­celebrated preacher’s remains and divided the cloth among themselves. The staunchly Protestant Whitefield no doubt rolled in his grave when they returned him to his resting place.

Our surprise at this devotion to Whitefield reflects how underap­preciated his legacy is today. In his new biography of Whitefield, Thomas Kidd attempts to restore him to his proper place as America’s foremost early Evangelical, providing a clear-eyed yet sympathetic portrait in the process.

Born into relative poverty, young Whitefield did not seem a promising candidate for the ministry. Despite fitful interest in spiritual things, he, by his own account, was lazy, lustful, and more interested in theater than theology when he began studying for ordination at Oxford. Only after an agonizing period of soul-searching there did he experience the conversion that shaped the rest of his life.

In his early years as a young Anglican minister, Whitefield was a firebrand. Famous for his moving delivery, he attracted massive crowds on both sides of the Atlantic, calling them to repentance and faith in ­Jesus Christ. Some of his fellow clergy, stung by his vigorous criticism of their spiritual torpor, suggested that he was “pious overmuch.” Others, alarmed by the weeping and screaming and fainting of his audiences of thousands, worried that he preyed on “injudicious” people.

Whitefield, at least in his early years, was not at all bothered by the accusations of “enthusiasm.” He responded that “every Christian, in the proper sense of the word, must be an enthusiast—that is, must be inspired of God or have God in him.” Undaunted by criticism, or even ­cease-and-desist letters from his ­superiors, he continued to preach with excellent results, adding thousands to the rolls of churches in the regions he visited. Unfortunately, he was also unmoved by pleas for unity and broke with many clergy, including John and Charles Wesley, over questions of Calvinism.

Attributing Whitefield’s shortcomings—pride, failures of discernment, thoughtlessness—to extremism is tempting. Fortunately, Kidd avoids that trap. Whitefield’s humility and patience did increase as he aged, but these improvements were increases in virtue, not results of compromise in his doctrine. In one of the few instances of his views substantially “moderating,” the result was bad: His early objections to slavery had been half-hearted to begin with, and as he moved toward the center, he abandoned them to argue for slavery’s legalization in Georgia.

Not all of Whitefield’s converts persevered, but many did. Not all of the charismatic manifestations exhibited by his audience were genuine, but some were. Drawing on both his Christian and academic sensibilities, Kidd reports both Whitefield’s ­serious failures and lasting achievements. Today’s evangelicals would do well to sort through his legacy and learn.

—Bria Sandford is an associate editor at Penguin Random House.

A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power
by jimmy carter
simon & schuster, 224 pages, $16

This book, Jimmy Carter’s latest, reads with all the intensity of a lullaby to liberal orthodoxy. Presenting a sympathetic face to the myriad forms of suffering that women experience in the world, the ex-president’s reputation as a ­Southern gentleman is retained. But his analysis and solutions are lacking at best, and at worst offer only a ­restatement of platitudes that ­permeate our culture.

Virtues and values Carter learned at home are mentioned throughout the book, but are never offered as solutions in the situations he describes. His obviously happy marriage is based on a strong foundation of a shared faith, long-term commitment, and the security that comes from abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within it. Yet he suggests that such joys are merely relics of a time long past. He points to women’s ordination as a sine qua non for women’s rights, and castigates Christian denominations that don’t allow it. ­Theology ceases to be the angelic ­science, and becomes yet another tool in the struggle for women’s rights.

One of the stranger accolades he offers is in pointing to China as a country making positive strides in women’s rights and equality. He refers to the large numbers of women in high positions in business, but ignores the punitive one-child policy that tyrannizes women and families in their most intimate sphere. In mentioning his own opposition to abortion, he speaks of the hope he has that increased sexual education and contraception will lower abortion rates. But no amount of “sex ed” or birth control will solve this problem. It is the content of these programs that matters, not the numbers of them.

Strangely, much of what the book discusses are not issues Carter’s own philanthropic organization works on. Indeed, that work provides only a powerful interlude in the book; his efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease are detailed in a moving and personal manner, and are a lasting and important contribution to global health. But a book about Guinea worm disease, without touching on other areas dear to the modern mind, would not have the same social cachet. A true call to action would have presented us with concrete and innovative ideas. Lacking that, this book merely allows sleepy consciences to flatter themselves.

Anna Halpine is the chief ­executive officer of the World Youth Alliance.

Initiative to Stop the Violence
by al-gamāʿah al-islāmīyah
translated by sherman jackson
yale, 184 pages, $85

In the 1970s, the radical Islamist organization al-Gamāʿah ­al-Islāmiyah (Islamic Group) stormed onto the scene in Egypt, calling for Egyptians to return to the correct form of Islam by waging jihad and applying Shari’a. The Gamāʿah quickly resorted to violence, confronting the Egyptian state and terrifying Egyptian society. In 1981 it orchestrated the assassination of Egypt’s president Anwar al-Sadat, not only because they viewed him as the apostate leader of an apostate state, but also because he dared to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Fifteen years later, on April 18, 1996, Gamāʿah murdered eighteen tourists in an attack on a hotel near the pyramids of Giza. The attacks were deliberately aimed at Egypt’s main source of national income, tourism, in order to destabilize the Egyptian economy and government. Gamāʿah also targeted Egypt’s Coptic Christians, especially in the southern parts of Egypt, where it had its strong radical roots—kidnapping them, looting their businesses, and destroying their churches.

However, on July 5, 1997, the Gamāʿah did something extraordinary in the history of radical Islam. It issued “Initiative to Stop the Violence,” a formal statement declaring its renunciation of all violence. The statement was signed by six influential imprisoned leaders of the Gamāʿah, and announced by one of its members during his trial in a military court. The Gamāʿah’s spiritual leader and renowned amīr, ʿUmar ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (currently serving a life sentence in the United States for his role in the World Trade Center attack in 1993), called on his Muslim brethren to endorse and follow it.

Four months later, a faction of the group that viewed the initiative as an unacceptable compromise orchestrated the murder of fifty-eight tourists who were visiting the Temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor, but the Gamāʿah’s main leaders continued to affirm nonviolence, issuing manifestos, tracts, and statements.

As Sherman Jackson notes in an introductory essay to his translation of the statement into English, Gamāʿah’s conviction was that “things had degenerated to the point that it was the exception rather than the rule that Gamāʿah violence was animated or executed on the basis of sharī’ah—or even Gamāʿah—principles themselves.” As a political tool, terrorism is difficult to keep within any bounds—including religious ones. In the end, the Gamāʿah agreed that “Jihad against the Egyptian state is not Islamically sanctioned.”

This new consensus hardly constituted a full acceptance of liberal ideals. When it came to the troubled question of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, the initiative did not reject the principle of forcing them to pay the religious tax of the jizya but simply declared all decisions about it “the exclusive preserve of the state.” As J­ackson notes, “this inadequate handling will almost certainly detract more from than it adds to any ­confidence the Gamāʿah might hope to inspire among Coptic Christians.”

In fact, the Gamāʿah’s change was never as thorough as one might have hoped. After the toppling of Mubarak, key Gamāʿah members such as Ṭāriq al-Zumar and ʿĀṣim ʿAbd al-Mājid (who signed the initiative) supported the Muslim Brotherhood regime under President Morsi. Islamist preachers warned Egyptians against revolting “against Allah and his sharīʿa,”—represented, of course, by Morsi—and began labeling the Copts as “crusaders,” threatening repercussions if they joined demonstrations against Morsi. In April 2013, the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo was brutally attacked. Morsi’s government failed to defend the Copts, or even to condemn this unprecedented violence. In August 2013, the world witnessed the complete burning and destruction of various Bible Society bookshops in Upper Egypt, Assiut, and Minia, and of fifty-two churches, all in apparent reprisal for the Copts’ role in toppling Morsi. In November 2014, ʿĀṣim ʿAbd al-Mājid, a Gamāʿah Council member who signed the initiative, continued to threaten Egyptians, particularly Christians, in response to what he called an illegitimate coup.

Can Islamists reject violence? Can they accept coexisting with non-­Muslims in a contemporary multi­religious context? The answers to these questions are entirely in the hands of Muslims. As Jackson argues, Muslims who seek nonviolence, mutual respect, and multireligious coexistence can ground their arguments “in the sources and tradition of Islam in a manner suggestive of genuine ideological change.”

Political pressure on Islamist groups can achieve very little in the long run if the change of Muslim ideo­logy is not genuine. ­Non-Muslims can do nothing to change the ­so-called Muslim “jurisprudence of violence.” If the Muslim community itself fails to counter the violent argument of Islamists, there can be no hope of extinguishing those ideologies ­altogether, and the cycle of violence will continue.

Ayman S. Ibrahim, a post-doctoral fellow of Middle Eastern History, holds a Ph.D. from Fuller Graduate Schools, California.