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Over the past few years I've reviewed a number of
books, including several Ignatius Press titles (all before working for
Ignatius, I should note). Here are reviews of three of my favorite Ignatius
Belief of Catholics by Ronald
Ignatius Press, 2000. 242 pages.
Originally published by Sheed & Ward, 1927.
Review for This Rock magazine, July/August 2001.
years ago, as an Evangelical Protestant investigating the claims of the
Catholic Church, I had the good fortune of coming across a tattered copy
of The Belief of Catholics in a used book store. It didnt
take long, once I began reading, to recognize that the author of this
classic work had much in common with another Catholic apologist, G.K.
Chesterton. Both were former Anglicans who had crossed the Tiber in rather
dramatic fashion, and both were writers of immense talent. In fact, Knox,
who was fourteen years Chestertons junior, was an admirer of the
famed journalist, calling him "my earliest master and model."
Knox was a priest and a superb spiritual director who wrote several books
about the spiritual life for both religious and laity. As I recently reread
The Belief of Catholics, I was even more deeply impressed by Knoxs
insight into human nature and the various blindnesses that afflict mankind.
It is this penetration into the human soul, combined with a dry (and occasionally
cutting) wit and a vibrant style that makes Knox such a compelling read.
These qualities are in abundance within this book, his best-known work
of apologetics, first published in 1927 and now attractively republished
by Ignatius Press.
Recognizing that the Catholic apologist can easily fall into the trap
of being a defensive reactionary, Knox states that his book "is an attempt
to write constructive apologetic, to assert a claim . . ." One way Knox
accomplishes this is by starting with what the observant Catholic notices
about modern man and society, not with what people say about the Catholic
faith. In the opening chapter, "The Modern Distaste for Religion," a number
of problems unique to modernity are observed, including the influence
of modern media, the dumbing down of education, the mindless use of cliches,
and the rise of materialism. "A rush age," Knox observes, "cannot be a
reflective age." In many ways this book, nearly eighty years old and written
in England, could just as easily have been written about modern-day America
and the problems faced by Catholics in our country: apathy, relativism,
feel-goodism, the shunning of dogma, and sexual amorality. For example,
writing about the latter, Knox observes that "A steady, ceaseless flow
of literary propaganda has shaken the faith of our generation in the indissolubility
of marriage, hitherto conceived as a principle of natural morality."
Having started with a critique of the modern situation, Knox notes the
intriguing fact that many people are both repulsed by what they falsely
believe Catholicism teaches, while being attracted to many elements of
the Catholic faith. Many intelligent people admire (often secretly) something
about Catholicism, but find issues sufficient to keep them outside the
doors. Whether they know it or not, people, "especially the young people
of our time, want authority." And so one of the tasks of the apologist
is to demonstrate that the authority of the Catholic Church in faith and
morals is not arbitrary or dictatorial, but based in truth and love, established
by God for the good of man.
The book logically progresses to belief in God, rooted first in natural
observation and philosophical consideration, and then fully realized in
Catholic teaching, based on divine revelation. Two chapters are then devoted
to the person of Jesus Christ ("Our Lords Claim Stated" and "Our
Lords Claim Justified"), before moving on to the question of "Where
Protestantism Goes Wrong." Here Knox demonstrates that how one views the
Church will either make or break the basis of their view of Christ, the
Bible, and authority since "it is from that living Church that we take
our guidance. Protestantism claims to take its guidance immediately from
the living Christ. But what is the guidance he gives us, and where are
we to find it?" Later he points out the faulty logic by which Protestants
discarded the belief in transubstantiation but maintained the inspiration
of the Bible, even though both are squarely based on the authority of
the Church. "Did they," he wryly inquires, "suppose that Biblical inspiration
was a self-evident fact, like the axioms of Euclid?"
The final chapters are devoted to the positive vision of the Catholic
faith, showing how Catholic doctrine meets reality and addresses every
aspect of human existence. Man is made for God, and the place to meet
God and have communion with him is within the divine institution founded
by Jesus Christ. "In a word," Knox writes, "we do not think of our Church
as the best religious body to belong to; we believe that those who do
not belong to it, provided that they believe in our Lord and desire to
do his will, may just as well belong to no religious body at all." Imagine
my good fortune in reading this classic work of apologetics once again.
Related Links: Monsignor
Ronald Knox's author's page.
Converts by Joseph Pearce
Ignatius Press, 1999. 452 pp.
Reviewed for This Rock, July 2000.
Pearce, English author of critically acclaimed biographies of G.K. Chesterton
and J.R.R. Tolkien, has written a book certain to please those who enjoy
conversion stories, appreciate contemporary English literature or have an
interest in the modern struggle between Christianity and secular humanism.
As the inside cover explains, Literary Converts is a "biographical
exploration into the spiritual lives" of several 20th century converts,
including many whose literary efforts remain as influential today as when
they were first written.
Literary Converts opens with Oscar Wildes dramatic deathbed baptism
in 1900 and winds its way through a century of spiritual conversion, cultural
upheaval and literary greatness, concluding with the death of Scottish poet
George Mackay Brown in 1996. In between these two deaths, separated by nearly
a century, Pearce masterfully weaves together sketches and biographical
snapshots of luminaries such as Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox,
Christopher Dawson, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene,
Dorothy Sayers, Malcolm Muggeridge and, surprisingly, the actor Alec Guinness.
In addition to these more famous names, Pearce introduces readers to a number
of less familiar converts, such as Maurice Baring, journalist and close
friend of Chesterton and Belloc; Siegfried Sassoon, poet and hero of the
first world war; and Alfred Lunn, long-time anti-Catholic and eventual Catholic
While the men and women in Literary Converts range from Anglican
clergy to Welsh poets to German born economists, their respective journeys
to the Catholic Church were marked by common features and influences. Perhaps
most important was the realization that the theories and schemes of secularism
were not only flawed, but inherently opposed to life and truth. As Evelyn
Waugh noted in 1930, reflecting upon the growth of secularism and the loss
of basic morality in European society, the issue was no longer between Catholicism
and Protestantism, "but between Christianity and Chaos." Pearce explains
that converts such as Waugh recognized that political utopia, social order
and personal fulfillment could never be founded upon the fads and fashions
of their timesthese spiritual seekers were dissatisfied with
"Above all, there was a deep disillusionment with the world
and what it had to offer, a longing for depth in a world of shallows, permanence
in a world of change, and certainty in a world of doubt. To many of these
twentieth-century literary converts an acceptance of God went hand in hand
with a rejection of the world and its materialism."
Acknowledging the profound influence of Newman and his Development of
Christian Doctrine, Pearce shows that the phenomenon of high profile
Catholic converts in the British Isles during the 1900s was largely influenced
by the writings of Chesterton, Belloc and Knox. The impact of their workespecially
that of Chestertonis traced throughout Literary Converts, demonstrating
the lasting genius and insight of these great Catholic apologists. Orthodoxy,
Chestertons brilliant defense of Christianity against secular "progress"
and atheism, and The Everlasting Man, his examination of the Incarnation,
are referenced often by a variety of other converts, including C.S. Lewis
and Dorothy Sayers. Pearce also traces the effect of distributism, the political/economic
theory which Chesterton and Belloc articulated and championed as an alternative
to capitalism and communism. Few embraced distributism during Chesterton
and Bellocs lifetimes and it appeared to have gone to the grave with
them. But its premises were revived and newly articulated by renowned economist
(and recent convert) E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 bestseller Small Is
Beautiful, making distributism "for a time at least, the most fashionable
economic and political creed in the world."
Pearce offers balanced and thoughtful ideas about the motives and thinking
of the coverts, always backed up by selections from their writings, including
many illuminating quotes from letters, journals and other unpublished works.
However, Pearce does not sugarcoat his subject matter, documenting various
flaws and failings, such as Bellocs harshness, Waughs bitterness,
Eliots cold detachment, and C.S. Lewiss anti-Catholic sentiments.
The drama of conversion and the mystery of faith is especially poignant
in the chapters dealing with journalist Malcom Muggeridge and novelist Graham
Greene. Their lives, Pearce notes, "serve almost as parallel parables of
the century itself." Muggeridge was a skeptic who had been involved with
Communist causes as a young man and did not enter the Catholic Church until
very late in life. Greene became Catholic as a young man, but increasingly
doubted the Catholic Faith as he grew older. Muggeridge was a hedonist for
much of his life, but died revered as a mystic. Greene wrote powerful novels
of faith early in his career, but later succumbed to adultery and the lure
of Communism. These and many other remarkable contrasts and stories fill
this wonderful book, providing both an entertaining read and a compelling
look at those who have gone before us in the Faith.
Related Links: Joseph
Pearce's author's page.
Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking The Myths by Régine Pernoud
Ignatius Press, 2000. 179 pp
Reviewed for This Rock, September 2000.
Middle Ages lasted for a thousand years and were filled with bloodshed,
slavery, superstition and ignorance!"
Anyone who has attended a history class, conversed with an "enlightened"
secularist, or debated with an anti-Catholic is familiar with this sort
of remark. The "Middle Ages", that period from about 500 to 1500 AD commonly
called the "Dark Ages" is in the minds of most people characterized by dim
thinking and dull livingnot to mention bloodshed, disease and hypocrisy.
Not so, insists the famed French historian and archivist Régine Pernoud
(1909-1999). The author of numerous books about the Middle Ages, most notably
Joan of Arc: By Herself and Witnesses, Pernoud has an axe to grind
and isnt afraid to let the sparks fly when it comes to expressing
her frustration with the lack of accurate teaching about the Middle Ages,
sarcastically writing that the "Middle Ages is privileged material: one
can say what one wants about it with the quasi-certitude of never being
contradicted." Originally published in 1977 and intended for a French audience,
Those Terrible Middle Ages! is both a helpful introduction to the
real Middle Ages and a pithy commentary on the importance of a sound education
in history, something many Americans have never been exposed to.
Pernoud notes Chestertons statement "that a man is truly a man only
when he has looked at the world while standing on his head with his feet
in the air", an observation that captures Pernouds ability to right
the record by turning stereotypes and fallacies upside down. Her concern
is that what passes for an education in history within public schools is
often little more than a string of stereotypes held together by the glue
of gullibility: "The Middle Ages still signifies: a period of ignorance,
mindlessness, or generalized underdevelopment, even if this was the only
period of underdevelopment during which cathedrals were built!" She laments
that the strides made in scholarship in this area have yet to reach the
general public, a situation which hasnt changed much since the 1970s,
at least on this side of the Atlantic.
The heart of Pernouds argument is that the revival of Roman law and
the infatuation with Greek and Roman culture which occurred in France and
much of western Europe during the sixteenth century resulted in an eclipse
of all that had existed between the "two periods of light: antiquity and
the Renaissance. . ." The intermediate period (the "middle" age) quickly
became viewed as "crude" and "obscure", failing to measure up to the eternal
standards of ancient Greece and Rome. In the realm of art the result was
"an anathema on the Middle Ages. All that was not in conformity with Greek
or Latin modeling was mercilessly rejected" and even purposefully targeted
for destruction. Ironically, the great cathedrals were all built during
the Middle Ages; in addition, the literary forms of the epic and the novel
were both products of the same era, as well as the bound book (codex), which
replaced the use of scrolls.
Far from ignorant or dim-witted, the Middle Ages produced scholars of incredible
learning such as Isidore of Seville, Bede the Venerable, Gregory of Tours
and Hildegarde of Bingen. The latter is not, as Pernoud demonstrates, an
exception. Many women religious were outstanding scholars and theologians,
and one, Petronilla of Chemillé, was an abbess who presided over
convents of both women and menat the ripe age of twenty-two! Far from
being a time when women were "oppressed", the Middle Ages witnessed an amazing
flowering of the feminine in the Church, society and home. It was in the
seventeenth century that women began to lose privileges and authority, essentially
reverting to the status of property under the revived Roman Law. A similar
situation occurred with slavery, which died out during the Middle Ages but
emerged again with the "colonial expansion that characterized the classical
period." As Pernoud takes pains to show, the feudal system was a far cry
from slaverydespite modern misconceptionsand was a way
of life built upon honor, specific rights and a deep commitment to the agrarian
Pernoud also addresses the two issues most commonly mentioned in ordinary
conversation about the Middle Ages: the Crusades and the Inquisition. The
former she touches on too briefly; her examination of the latter emphasizes
and provides a general overview of the historical context, but one wishes
she would have spent more time on both subjects, especially since they are
so misunderstood and such a significant part of the faulty perspectives
people have about the Middle Ages. The last two chapters are my favorite,
focused on the necessity of studying and appreciating history because "History
does not furnish any solutions, but it permitsand it alone permitsus
to pose the problems correctly. . . There is no true knowledge without recourse
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"?
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com
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