A Christmas book sampler

A number of fascinating books that haven’t received all that much attention, but richly deserve it, have crossed my desk in recent months. Each would make a fine Christmas gift to someone on your list who likes to think outside the box.

I am a suspect witness in the case of Erika Bachiochi, who as Erika Schubert was my student in Cracow in the late 1990s. Armed with a law degree, a theology degree, a husband and five small children, Erika has become one of the intellectual leaders of the new Catholic feminism in the United States. Her edited volume, “Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching” (Pauline Books and Media), includes 10 stimulating essays on just about every hot-button issue at the intersection of women’s lives and the Catholic moral imagination. But as Boston College’s Father Paul McNellis puts it, Erika’s book is not-for-women-only: “It should be required reading for every son, brother, fiancé, husband, father, seminarian and priest,” because the women who think out loud here “know something about life, and in listening to them you come away wanting to be a better man.”

“Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West,” by Matthew Hanley and Jokin de Irala (National Catholic Bioethics Center) is a literary antidote to the condomania that warps so much discussion of HIV/AIDS, ignoring the empirical evidence that abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage drive down the incidence of this terrible plague as latex manifestly does not. Hanley and de Irala know the empirical research cold; their critique of what they term the “AIDS Establishment” and its deprecation of the human capacity for changed behavior is a particularly welcome complement to their scientific studies.

Father George William Rutler is a true clerical “man of letters” in the line of Ronald Knox. His talent for the penetrating insight and the scintillating phrase is never better displayed than in his new collection, “Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive” (Scepter). As the people Father Rutler knew, and here eulogizes, run the gamut from Mother Teresa to Wellington Mara, longtime owner of the New York Giants, it’s a rich feast of reminiscence that the pastor of Our Saviour’s Church on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan provides in this Baedeker of human diversity.

Giulio Meotti is an Italian journalist with a rare talent, among that breed, for getting the story right. And in “A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism” (Encounter Books), he tells a heart-wrenching story that almost never makes the front pages—or even the back pages—of the world’s newspapers: the story of what jihadist terrorism has done to the lives, souls and memories of the people of the State of Israel. The European edition of the Wall Street Journal called the book “a monumental study of pain and grief, of mourning and remembrance, of hatred and love,” which is not an exaggeration. Nor is the title of Meotti’s study misplaced, for he powerfully asserts the continuity between Nazi-era Jew-hatred and the annihilationist project of Hamas and similar jihadist organizations today.  It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to measure the full human drama underway in the Holy Land.

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner were close colleagues in the George W. Bush White House. Their collaboration in “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era” (Moody Publishers) is a welcome contribution to a discussion that is becoming increasingly urgent, as aggressive secularists seek to drive religiously-informed moral argument out of the American public square.

John Allen’s “The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church” (Doubleday) is the odd-man-out here, for the book deservedly got a lot of attention at its publication. But I’m happy to add my overdue dollop of praise to the accolades “The Future Church” has already received for its striking tour d’horizon of world Catholicism. Here is a primer on the current, complex state of global Catholicism that every informed Catholic should ponder.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.