Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Good Introduction

This entry is a review of Catholic and Christian: An Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs, by Alan Schreck

Written with a frankly apologetic aim that is laudable for its consistency, honesty, and gentleness, this primer on Catholic belief and practice is readable, friendly, and well-organized. Schreck has an eye on Protestant critiques of Catholicism and answers those critiques in an ecumenical and conciliatory manner—sometimes correcting misapprehensions, sometimes explaining in language that might be appealing to Protestants, yet never apologizing for Catholic distinctives. He is careful, for example, to appeal to scripture to argue against sola scriptura and for the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in directing the Church.

At times, this ecumenical spirit (as well as, no doubt, his attention to accessibility) leads him to make claims that are less than intellectually satisfying. When he insists in the section on prayer to the saints, for example, that “All Christian prayer . . . is directed to the Father through Jesus Christ, who is the ‘one mediator between God and man’ (1 Tm 2:5)” (158-159), one desperately longs for the “ultimately” that one knows should be in there. It is patently true that prayers and petitions are addressed to the saints and to Mary, and to say that “all prayer” is “directed to the Father” cannot satisfy the Protestant who knows that he objects to the practice nor the Catholic who makes petitions to her beloved patron saint. Similarly, the affirmation that Mary was saved from sin through no merit of her own, just like all humans must be, with the only exceptional part being that her salvation was wrought before her birth, will not cause Protestants to recoil any less from the declaration that Jesus was not the only human to have lived a sinless life.

(The only time I was myself a bit . . . snarly . . . was when he denied the existence of Junia and trivialized "deaconesses" with the distance quotes.)

But Schreck’s project is not to bring all Protestants to full communion with the Catholic Church—it is but to explain Roman Catholic belief and practice accurately and appealingly, and this he does very well.

As an ethicist, I cannot fail to be disappointed in the absence of a chapter dealing with Catholic ethics. While the attentive reader can collect scattered references to the sources, aims, and logic of Catholic moral theology into a reasonable understanding of how it works, there are few references to specific teachings, principles, or emphases. It should not be difficult to construct such a chapter, and John Paul II’s ethical writings would be a crucial resource for this project, given his ability to balance authority and accessibility in his writing.

This was a required text for the class I am teaching this semester (that is, I was required to require it), but I am quite happy with it nonetheless. It is accessible and sound, and I would recommend it outside the classroom to anyone (Catholic or Protestant) who is not well-versed in the Catholic faith but wants to be.

1 comment:

toweringajax said...

As a former Catholic among Protestants, I routinely recommend and/or give this book (I keep a small cache handy) to Catholics who are plagued by Protestants who tell them they aren't Christians.