Over at First Things George Weigel offers "Books for Summer Reading – Deepening a Thoughtful, Catholic Faith." Slightly intimidating framing, I thought. And after looking at it, I came away with the impression Weigel may be something like the Catholic version of his hero George Will, and NeoCaths (if that is what they are) as a group pretty close to Reagan-era Republicans in their ethos. For better and worse. Weigel plugs Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism series [I'd call it Catholicism, Sanitized for the Public Schools Humanities Class, if not simply Catholicism Decaffeinated. I'd also note a rose window for a book cover is probably the least imaginatively-inspired choice for packaging since Baker Book introduced its equally lackluster efforts for its Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. But there I go being spoilport in the middle of a new spingtime]. Weigel also singles out Divided Friends: Portraits of the Roman Catholic Modernist Crisis in the United States, by William L. Portier. How, one wonders, does this compare with Thomas Woods' revealing The Church Confronts Modernity? The comparison might produce a telling list of what does or does not differentiate Traditionalist priorities from those of NeoCaths, not to mention make clear that affection for the Latin Rite as a mere cultural artifact is quite the rhetorical bogeyman these days in thoughtful Catholic discourse. With those ramblings as a backdrop, and in honor of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, I thought I’d attempt my very own Counter Syllabus for summer readers, which follows....
In terms of theology, Fr. Walter Farrell’s Companion to the Summa is dated but remains one of the most accessible guides to Aquinas, and subsequently to basic Catholic thought. No less a literary critic than the late Wilfrid Sheed called his four volume set “magisterial,” and that was his verdict after lapsing in faith. It is available online, and can also be acquired cheaply via internet used bookstores. Another last century Thomist who after Vatican II was surreptitiously consigned to the Catholic attic like an embarrassing uncle was Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. As a theologian whose output was remarkable for both its precision and scope, his reputation deserves rehabilitation, and Aidan Nichol’s Reason with Piety is a nice start at that task. Even better is Richard Peddicord’s Sacred Monster of Thomism. Though not out until October, Peter Kreeft’s Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas looks to be a fitting third installment to such a course of readings. Slightly outside of the Angelic’ Doctor’s immediate pull but still with his gravitational field is Martin Mosenbach. A novelist and not a theologian, his reflections on the interconnection of liturgy and life may therefore be more immediately accessible to many than Thomistic constructs. His Heresy of Formless displays those qualities that distinguish period classics: original thought, grand subject, and exceptional writing (even in translation). This is one supporters of the Extraordinary Rite ought to have on their shelves.
Catholic have their own celebrities, and in his day Fulton J. Sheen published so many books one might be forgiven for dismissing him as a brand. But at his best he was also a brilliant communicator. His best includes not only the justifiably popular Life of Christ but two much lesser known items, God and Intelligence (also a course in Thomism!), and The Mystical Body of Christ. Given all the contemporary confusion over the place of reason and the place of the laity, both are timely and (despite some caricatures of FJS) not at all treacly.
Converts get a lot of attention – and a lot of static – from fellow Catholics. Thus what is inexplicable about Benedict J. Groeschel’s benchmark I Am With You Always is the almost total lack of attention it’s received since it was released four years ago. It is presented as famous the spiritual director’s “Study of the History and Meaning of Personal Devotion to Jesus Christ for Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians,” and it’s irenic, eye-opening, and inspiring. If the saner version of Louis Bouyer has a contemporary successor, I’d argue Fr. Groeschel is the man. Another ecumenical expedition guide worth considering is David Wells: in God and the Whirlwind he surveys our modern (Postmodern? Millennial? Whatever…) landscape from a perspective orthodox Catholics may be surprised they so heartily share.
Several biographies provide beach reading of a little less demanding order than theology. Trad Catholics might be excused for asking, “Can anything good can come out of Cambridge?”, or wondering what could possibly have ended up between the covers of any biography on Pius XII that’s published by Harvard Press. But Robert A. Ventresca’s Soldier of Christ will surprise them with its even-handed, mostly positive account. Another, less heroic if arguably more high profile Catholic also receives a full-fledged treatment in Sylvia Morris’s Clare Booth Luce: The Price of Fame. The story careens back and forth between gossip sheet and cautionary tale, with Luce’s conversion to the Church providing a moving centerpiece. A name that also ought to ring a bell with reading Catholics is that of Pat Buchannan, and the controversial commentator tackles a different political life in Nixon: The Greatest Comeback. Say what you will about these subjects or authors, the stories and writing on display in both books are pretty mesmerizing. On a quite different note: an enjoyable easy read (not to mention a counterpoint to the current immigration strife) is Elizabeth Borton de Treviño’s My Heart Lies South: The Story of My Mexican Marriage. She studied at Boston’s Conservatory of Music, spent five seasons in Hollywood interviewing film personalities, and was then dispatched as a reporter to Mexico. There, her life as career woman was interrupted by the romance that provides the pivot point of this book. Borton wrote for younger readers (she won a Newberry Medal for another effort), but that only adds to the charm. Elsewhere, younger readers will not find themselves alone in appreciating the window onto faith in Japan opened via Cathy Brueggmann Biel’s The Samurai and the Tea. This one is fictional biography for kids, but it’s carried off in fine form. Also in his usually fine form is George Rutler, heir to the literary mantle of William F. Buckley and Richard John Neuhaus. Not quite biography, his Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943, is WWII history written with the theological virtue of hope and the stylistic virtue of verve.
Two last items for those who may enjoy Twilight Zone type tales for waveside conversation fodder. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield has a striking name and an even more striking conversion story to go along with it. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor's Journey Into Christian Faith is also very much about her journey out of homosexuality. As such, at a juncture where reparative therapy is today vilified, her account seems to come out of an alternative universe and is one over which it’s hard to remain indifferent. Randall Sullivan’s The Miracle Detective is now more than a few years old, but it too features a conversion, as well as good writing, Medjugorge madness, Rolling Stone Magazine, and an interview with then-Cardinal Ratzinger inside the Vatican. What’s not to love? (Don’t answer that one…)