Books for Christmas – 2020

How bad a year has it been? Let me not count the ways. Good books can hearten us in 2021 and beyond, though. Herewith, then, some suggestions for Christmastide book-giving: 

Prison Journal, Volume 1, by Cardinal George Pell (Ignatius Press): The remarkable spiritual diaries of an innocent man who would not be broken, who refused to be embittered, and who finally bested a corrupt media/legal complex hellbent on ruining him.  

American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, by Joshua Mitchell (Encounter Books): A highly original analysis of what ails America and an intriguing proposal for a biblically informed Great Awakening that can redeem us from the scapegoating now destroying the Republic’s cultural fabric.   

What It Means To Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, by O. Carter Snead (Harvard University Press): A dissection of the false ideas of the human person that warp public policy today and the outline of a truly humanistic alternative. Professor Snead’s book should inspire everyone who believes there is more to freedom than doing things “my way” – and it might persuade some who haven’t understood that yet. Brilliant and entirely accessible.   

Conciliar Octet: A Concise Commentary on the Eight Key Texts of the Second Vatican Council, by Aidan Nichols, O.P. (Ignatius Press): Exceptionally timely, given the torrent of nonsensical, conspiracy-mongering commentary now impeding Catholic efforts to live Vatican II’s teachings through the New Evangelization. Father Nichols’s book should be required reading in every seminary and every parish’s Christian Initiation program.   

Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, by Russell Shaw (Ignatius Press): The online and social media “debates” about the Catholic future are too often rebarbative because the combatants are woefully ignorant of the recent Catholic past that helps account for the Catholic present. I tried to do something about this in my 2019 book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History; Russell Shaw covers similar historical territory much more succinctly in this useful primer on How Catholics Got Where We Are Today.

Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body, by Scott Hahn with Emily Stimpson Chapman (Emmaus Road Publishing): It’s a sad fact of pastoral life that the Church’s pastors have largely ceased to talk about death: what death is for the Christian; what the “resurrection of the body” means for the future and for now; why the burial of the dead is, from a Christian point of view, preferable to cremation. Biblical scholar Hahn and co-author Chapman discuss these crucial topics with sensitivity to the traditions of Christian orthodoxy and the confusions of the present. Lots of apt Lenten homiletic material here; good spiritual reading, too.   

A Most English Princess, by Clare McHugh (William Morrow): An impressive first novel about “Vicky,” daughter of Queen Victoria, and her marriage to the ill-starred “Fritz” Hohenzollern (the future German Emperor Frederick III), whose premature death was one of the factors leading to that civilizational catastrophe known as World War I.   

Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, by Ashley Rogers Berner (Palgrave Macmillan): The next few years are going to be tough for the advocates of school choice. They should take comfort, and intellectual firepower, from this carefully reasoned argument that the virtual monopoly of state funds by government-run elementary and secondary schools is ill-serving future citizens, their families, and the American Republic. Without shirking difficult issues, Hopkins professor Berner makes a powerful plea for achieving serious educational reform by making a wider range of educational options more available to parents, especially poor parents.  

100 Ways John Paul II Changed the World, by Patrick Novecosky (Our Sunday Visitor): A concise introduction to the extraordinary achievement of John Paul II and an invitation to dig deeper into his life and teaching; especially helpful for young adults who have no memory of the great Polish pontiff.  

Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Review, Bits, by Joseph Epstein (Axios): A cornucopia of insight and wit from one of America’s most engaging authors (and the best lunch companion imaginable). 

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, by Evelyn Waugh (Back Bay Books): Why not mark the end of a hallucinatory year with a hilarious tale about a victim of hallucinations?  

And then there is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (Ignatius Press), which is also about every Catholic’s responsibility for the New Evangelization. I wrote it as a hopeful pointer into the Catholic future, and I’ve been pleased by those who’ve told me that’s what they found in it: hope for the future, amidst great challenges. 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.