Recompense for a serious mistake

I won’t venture into classical Roman literature, which is not my forte, but I will say with assurance that the greatest modern Latin pun was the result of a schoolgirl prank. In 1844, General Charles James Napier, commanding a British army during the heydays of imperialism in South Asia, was ordered to subdue the province of Sindh (which is now in Pakistan). His methods were criticized in Parliament, and young Catherine Winkworth remarked to her teacher that Napier’s report to his superiors should have been a one-word double-entendre, “Peccavi,” (literally, “I have sinned,” but also, phonetically, “I have Sindh”). Miss Winkworth sent her pun to the humor magazine Punch, which then published it as a factual report from Napier under the headline, “Foreign Affairs.” General Napier later commented that, “If this was a piece of rascality, it was a noble piece of rascality.”

Alas, I can claim no such nobility for my own recent fall into grave literary sin, which involved my annual books-for-Christmas column. There, I described my old friend, Leon Kass, as a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. This was very, very bad. For as I have long known, Dr. Kass is a lifelong Chicago White Sox fan, and to ascribe enduring Cub fanhood to a Chisox partisan is the baseball equivalent of describing Ronald Reagan as a lifelong communist. I can only imagine my reaction if some scribe had, stupidly, described me as a New York Yankees fan; but Dr. Kass, a true gentleman, merely noted that, when his beloved Pale Hose finally won the World Series in 2005, he had written that this miracle “proved….that not all hope is foolishness.”

So: may my fingers freeze on the keyboard before I ever again locate Leon Kass’s baseball rooting interests on the North Side of Chicago: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

In addition to a firm purpose of amendment, though, a confession of grave sin should also include a suitable penance. My self-chosen penance, which is really no penance at all, is to make my unconscionable error the occasion to suggest that my readers use all those unexpired Christmas gift cards to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or whatever, to thicken their personal libraries with three more books written or edited by Leon Kass.

First among equals here is Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. Bioethics is a cottage industry today, and far too much of the bioethics professoriate functions as a permission-slip industry for those advancing dubious projects under the banner of the new genetics. In sharp contrast, Toward a More Natural Science offered a brilliant introduction to deep thought at the intersection of science and moral reasoning, just as bioethics was taking off. Decades after its first publication, it remains an essential primer in a crucial field of reflection, the moral health of which is critical to the human future.

Then there is Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying, an annotated anthology Leon Kass assembled and edited with his late wife, Amy. Leon and Amy Kass were the premier husband-and-wife teaching team of the past half-century; they knew how to summon from university students the best thinking of which they were capable; and one result of those labors at the University of Chicago is this collection of readings from a host of sources on some of the most important questions of life. Unapologetically pro-marriage, this mini-library between two covers – which includes selections from Jane Austen and Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus and Shakespeare, Homer and C.S. Lewis, and many others – also revives the notion of “courtship;” a concept and experience some may be willing to reconsider after our national dog-paddle through the cesspool of sexual harassment.

The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis is another by-product of Leon Kass’s exemplary teaching: a fresh exploration of the first book of the Bible, undertaken without theological presuppositions, in order to unpack what Genesis has to say about the perennial human struggle to find the truth, live in it and through it, and chart a decent, honorable path through history. Agree or disagree, wrestling with Kass’s interpretations of this foundational text in the civilization of the West will armor those willing to fight for that civilization’s future with some tools necessary for the battles ahead.

And once more, with feeling: White Sox, not Cubs!

COMING UP: Books for Christmas

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The flurry of instabooks published shortly after the election of Pope Francis didn’t shed much light on the formation, character and interests of Jorge Mario Bergoglio or the likely trajectory of his pontificate. Now comes something serious and useful: “Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend – Personal Recollections About the Man Who Became Pope,” edited by Alejandro Bermúdez and published by Ignatius Press. In 20 interviews, longtime friends and associates of the pope “from the ends of the earth” give readers real insight into the radical Christian disciple who is leading the Church “into the deep” of the new evangelization, following the call of John Paul II in 2001.

This coming July, the world will mark the centenary of the First World War, the seismic calamity that began the 20th century as an epoch and that, in another hundred years, may well be regarded as the sanguinary first act in the end of Europe as “Europe” had been known for over a millennium. Three new books try to explain how this civilizational disaster happened. Sean McMeekin’s “July 1914: Countdown to War” (Basic Books) lays primary blame on Austria-Hungary; Christopher Clarke’s “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” (Harper) and Max Hastings’ “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” (Knopf) spread the responsibility around, with both Clarke and Hastings assigning Wilhelmine Germany the decisive role amidst a desperately inept performance by the Great Powers. All three books are helpful antidotes to the confusions created by Barbara Tuchman’s eminently readable, but dubiously argued, 1960s bestseller “The Guns of August.”

Evelyn Waugh was one of the supreme English prose stylists of the 20th century. Many of his novels are profoundly Catholic without being pious, cloying, or sentimental – literary gems shaped by a Catholic sacramental imagination that is both unyielding and redemptive. Waugh fans have long indulged friendly arguments about the master’s greatest work; a recent re-reading of “The Sword of Honour Trilogy” (Everyman’s Library) persuaded me (again) that these three books easily stand with “A Handful of Dust” and “Brideshead Revisited” at the summit of Waugh’s achievement, even as they brilliantly lay bare the European cultural crisis that was vastly accelerated by World War I.

The finest piece of biblical exposition I’ve read recently is C. Kavin Rowe’s “World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age” (Oxford University Press). This is theological exegesis at its finest: informed by historical-critical scholarship, but going far beyond the biblical dissecting room to show how the experience of the Risen Christ both formed the Church and impelled it into mission. Rowe, a Duke Divinity School professor of New Testament who is not a Catholic, thus makes an important contribution to the evangelical Catholicism of the future by reinforcing the biblical foundations of the new evangelization.

On several previous occasions I’ve noted that my friend Rémi Brague, who teaches at the Sorbonne and at the University of Munich, is one of the smartest (and funniest) Catholics in the world – his brilliance being recently recognized by the award of the Ratzinger Prize. In his most recently translated book, “On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others),” published by St. Augustine Press, Brague explores the God who is Father but not male, the God whose way of being One is to be Trinity, the God who doesn’t bestow goodness but who is the Good, the God who respects human freedom while inviting humanity into the tangled journey of a salvation history in which God himself is an actor.

Francis Rooney’s “The Global Vatican” (Rowman & Littlefield) is a timely reminder of the Holy See’s important roles in world politics

And perhaps I may be permitted to note two recent books of my own: “Roman Pilgrimage: The Stations Churches” (Basic Books), co-authored with Elizabeth Lev and my son Stephen, and “Practicing Catholic: Essays Historical, Literary, Sporting, and Elegiac” (Crossroad). I’ve never recommended an eBook before, but I’ll happily note that the glorious color in the eBook edition of “Roman Pilgrimage” may yet convert me to reading-(at-least-some-books)-on-a-tablet, a confession this veteran paper guy never expected to make.