The 2021 Summer Reading List

Liberation from lockdowns and quarantines ought not be liberation from serious reading, opportunities for which being one of the few boons of the recent past. Here are some suggestions for summer enrichment.  

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., may have retired from the tasks of episcopal governance, but he certainly hasn’t abandoned the fields where the battle for decency is being contested. To some bears of little brain, this makes him a “culture-warrior;” to those with more discernment, it makes him a bishop-teacher in the great tradition of churchmen like Charles Borromeo and Francis de Sales. Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living (Henry Holt) is the latest contribution to a serious Catholic consideration of our present moment, its discontents and possibilities, from this model bishop.

Catholic priests have taken a beating in both popular culture and the Church in recent decades. All the more reason, then, to celebrate the life and accomplishment of a priest who spent out his life for the poorest of the Lord’s poor in some of the toughest parts of the Third World. In Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz (Ignatius Press), Kevin Wells tells the extraordinary story of a Washington native, “Father Al,” who displayed a distinctively American form of sanctity as he walked the Way of the Cross throughout his ministry and in his suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. 

How did the Calvert family, founders of the Catholic colony of Maryland, and the Carroll family, who gave America its first bishop and its sole Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, navigate the rocks and shoals of anti-Catholic British penal laws and absurdly expansive Roman notions of the papacy’s role in civil affairs? Michael D. Breidenbach sheds new light on that fascinating question in Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America (Harvard University Press), an original, provocative contribution to the study of U.S. Catholic history. 

Erika Bachiochi is, like Michael Breidenbach, a former student of mine, of whom my colleagues and I in the Cracow-based Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society are very proud. In The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (University of Notre Dame Press), legal scholar Bachiochi, a mother of seven, builds an intellectual bridge across the generations of feminist thought from Mary Wollstonecraft to Mary Ann Glendon; offers a bracing critique of various currents in contemporary feminist theory, including the autonomy-driven thought of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and thereby makes an important contribution to thoughtful reflection on contemporary American culture and society.

Yes, I read novels occasionally. One to which I’ve returned several times since it was  assigned for summer reading in 1967 is Paul Horgan’s masterful tale of the settlement of what’s now Arizona, A Distant Trumpet (Nonpareil Books). The author anticipated Larry McMurtry in giving us the Old West without gloss; what Horgan added to the mix in A Distant Trumpet was a keen insight into what it means to grow into manhood and what loyalty to moral principle means — and can cost. Paul Horgan never wore his Catholicism on his literary sleeve, but the Catholic sacramental imagination shaped his fiction nonetheless.         

Father Robert Imbelli is an adornment of the American Catholic theological scene. Friends recently honored his 80th birthday with a book, The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself: Essays on Revelation, Salvation, and Evangelization in Honor of Robert P. Imbelli (Catholic University of America Press). The title is an apt summary of Father Imbelli’s theological project, which has always aimed at deepening his students’ and readers’ love for the Lord. 

We say it so often that the prayer Jesus gave us risks becoming mere routine. Father John Gavin, SJ, makes the greatest of prayers come alive again with the help of the Fathers of the Church in Mysteries of the Lord’s Prayer: Wisdom from the Early Church (Catholic University of America Press). 

The first two volumes of Cardinal George Pell’s Prison Journal (Ignatius Press) have introduced a world audience to the truth about an oft-caricatured man: that he is a Christian hero whose grace under extraordinary pressure was and is rooted in his profound faith. The third volume, due out in October, will complete a remarkable trilogy that, in the ways of Providence, grew out of a grave injustice.        

I’m pleased that many people have told me that they’ve found my Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius Press) “encouraging” in these challenging times. I hope you will, too.  


Featured image by Ben White on Unsplash

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”