Books for Christmas

George Weigel

Take a stand against the electronification of everything — give (real) books this Christmas. Some recommendations:

Paul: A Biography, by N.T. Wright (HarperOne): Dr. Wright’s remarkable ability to explicate the New Testament gives familiar passages new depths of meaning. His reconstruction of what Saul of Tarsus experienced on the Damascus road is deeply moving, even thrilling. And in this season of Catholic anger and grief, Wright’s analysis of Paul’s pastoral struggles is a helpful reminder that the Church has always been something of a mess.

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, by John W. O’Malley, SJ (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press): Father O’Malley completes his conciliar trilogy (which includes works on Trent and Vatican II) with a nicely rendered account of Vatican I that’s fair to all those involved in some serious ecclesiastical elbow-throwing. Now that ultramontanism — an excessively Petrocentric concept of the Church — has migrated from the starboard to the port side of the Barque of Peter, Vatican I is also useful in explaining why that 19th-century council’s work had to be completed by Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine, by Thomas G. Guarino (Eerdmans): As the Church continues to debate the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, Father Guarino’s carefully crafted argument that Vatican II was a council of development, not rupture, is a much-needed antidote to some current oversimplifications.  It’s the perfect gift for both the Tradinista millennial who has no idea why Vatican II was necessary and for those who believe the Catholic Church does “paradigm shifts.”

The Last Homily: Conversations with Fr. Arne Panula, edited by Mary Eberstadt (Emmaus Road): Want a window into why the New Evangelization has engaged hundreds of young professionals in the nation’s capital over the past decade or so? Mrs. Eberstadt’s conversations with the leader of that effort, recorded in the months before his death, introduce those who never met Father Arne to a model priest and spiritual director — and remind those who knew and loved him how privileged we were to enjoy his company and to glimpse sanctity and intelligence working in tandem.

How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art, by Elizabeth Lev (Sophia Institute Press): You’ve never really seen a painting or a sculpture until you’ve “seen” it through the discerning eye of Elizabeth Lev, a master teacher and guide. In our confused culture, beauty just might create new pathways to truth and goodness; Professor Lev’s story of how something like that happened 500 years ago is thus evangelically challenging and pastorally suggestive for missionary disciples today.

In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking): At a moment in which American public officials too often act like petulant toddlers, it’s good to remember that character counts in politics and that insight, courage, and selflessness can rally the confused, the cowardly, and the self-centered to act for the common good. That was Washington’s great accomplishment in the months leading up to the decisive American victory at Yorktown in October 1781: By force of character, he held together a tottering revolution even as he displayed a shrewd understanding of how seapower shapes history.

Vatican Flags: Keys & Crowns Since 1800 – The Flags of the Papal States and Today’s Vatican, by William M. Becker (North American Vexillogical Association): I’ve been a flag buff since childhood. But until a few months ago, I hadn’t known there was a discipline called “Vexillology” (the study of flags), or that it had an association. I’m glad I found out, as Father Becker’s beautifully illustrated book is full of wonderful flags (like the naval ensign flying on a papal warship), even as it offers a brief course in modern Vatican history. Get it from the association by going to the “Shop” tab at the Web site: nava.org.

Corduroy Mansions, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, and A Conspiracy of Friends, by Alexander McCall Smith: This series of charming novels features a winsome Pimlico terrier named Freddie de la Haye and a cast of human characters whose foibles McCall Smith treats with humor and deep sympathy. It’s the literary equivalent of comfort food. And as this year has taught us, we all need that from time to time.

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA