Brian O’Neel is a regular contributor to Catholic World Report who writes from Wisconsin.
Caesar and Christ by Will Durant. Durant was one of the last century’s greatest historians. His treatment of ancient Rome and the dawn of Christianity is not only highly entertaining and informative, it shines a bright light on our current situation. The often amazingly close parallels between what caused the implosion of ancient Rome and things we see happening in our own times are frightening.
Catherine Tekakwitha by Daniel Sargent. Published in 1937, this book ought to be back in print now that Kateri is a saint. While never engaging in moral equivalency, Sargent went to great lengths to really understand Native American culture and that of the French with whom they interacted. He gives a poignant account of why evangelization proved so difficult and often provoked the sorts of violent reactions that led to the martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues and Companions. All of this provides the context for St. Kateri’s story.
The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui. The author served as Mao’s personal physician from the early 1950s through the chairman’s death in 1976. His account of those years leaves the reader with a keen understanding of how tragedies such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution occurred. It reveals Mao in all his banality, weakness, and megalomaniacal glory. Interestingly, Li does not make himself a hero. Rather, he shows his own partial complicity in Mao’s sins, born of fear for his life, as well as appreciation for the comforts he was afforded and the suffering he knew he could avoid by staying close to Mao. A fascinating read.
The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs, by Gerolamo Fazzini. The title says it all about this sad, compelling, and highly readable book.
Blessings in Disguise, by Alec Guinness. The great actor’s biography sent me to my Netflix account to order as many films by him as I could find. He comes off as a decent, likable guy, one whom I’d have liked to have had a beer with. His recounting his conversion to Catholicism is worth the price of admission alone. In parts, it’s a little slow and occasionally tedious, but by and large, the book pays off.
Ashenden (or the British Agent), by W. Somerset Maugham. My only familiarity with Maugham before this was The Razor’s Edge, and that only because I saw the film version with Bill Murray in the lead role as a high school freshman, and I remember liking it. This novel made me want to read more of Maugham work. Loosely based on his own service as a British spy during World War I, the pace is brisk, and it only gets dull when the author attempts to depict that this is sometimes how the life of an agent is. Reportedly, this book was required reading for British spy trainees for many years.
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters. If you like dry, dark, British humor and think mixing that with Jane Austen would be a hoot, then this is your book. I finished it very quickly and often found myself laughing, either at the droll wit of the writer(s) or the incredibly inventive ways the sea monsters of the title find to devour their prey (us humans). My 13-year-old son found it scary (which I didn’t see at all). His slightly older brother, however, agreed with my assessment.
Dedication and Leadership, by Douglas Hyde. In 1948, Hyde left his position as editor of London’s communist newspaper to enter the Catholic Church. In this book, while he makes clear that Marxism’s goals and aims are antithetical to human dignity and the rights of the individual, that’s not the focus. Instead, he makes a fairly convincing case for the excellence of communist training methods and how the Church would benefit from them. This is a great book for any pastor, catechist, evangelist, bishop, or anyone in a leadership position who wants to motivate and instill more dedication in those they lead.
Journal of a Soul, by Bl. John XXIII. This book actually took me roughly four years to finish reading. It’s a big book! That’s all right, though, because I was in no hurry for it to end. It was so loaded with such a treasure trove of gems that I didn’t want to simply get through it. The book is comprised of the notes and reflections Pope John made during retreats from his time as a seminarian until his death. It also has the intensely beautiful prayers he composed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady, St. Joseph, and more. The most refreshing thing I found about this truly satisfying work was how closely his own spiritual struggles mirrored my own. That gave me great comfort, because he was a man of obvious holiness. And while he struggled with this or that thing, he kept working to overcome his shortcomings so he could become a saint. Furthermore, he did it all for a truly edifying love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Reading it, therefore gave me hope that if he could overcome his faults, there’s a chance for me, as well. If you’re a traditionalist who doesn’t like Pope John because he called Vatican II or some other reason, don’t let that stop you. Remember: He was a holy man, and he will help you become holy, too. You won’t regret reading this book. No one will.
Decision Points, by George W. Bush. I thought I’d be more impressed by the book than I was. It’s not that it’s a bad book or not well written. I guess I was expecting more Peggy Noonan, and this is more pedestrian than that, just like the former President’s way of speaking is, I guess (and, no, I’m not making judgments on the intelligence of a man who graduated from Yale and has an MBA from Harvard and won two national elections; far from it). Indeed, his ghost writer got his plain spoken “voice” just perfect. In any case, his memoir does make for interesting reading, and I found myself either better understanding certain things or reconsidering others. It has some humor, and I also liked that he never hesitates to admit fault when he believes such an admittance is warranted. When he doesn’t, he explains why. I liked him before. That assessment was confirmed by this book. If you hate him or at least disagreed with most of his decisions, I don’t know what impact it will have on you, but I think you will find this worth reading.
The Day Christ Was Born, by Jim Bishop. Bishop was the editor of Catholic Digest back in the 1950s, and I picked this book up at the church rummage sale because I thought it would be as good as his The Day Christ Died, which is just magnificent. This book fell short of that mark. It’s decent, it’s readable, but it’s not like his previous work. Still, it did its job, I suppose, in that it provoked some good Advent meditation.
The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich von Hayek. Like the aforementioned Caesar and Christ, this book shines a highly illuminating (and thus often depressing) light on our own times. We have the recipe of what not to do right here, and we did it anyway.
Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose. This is pure Ambrose. Yes, it’s occasionally tedious, and I found myself thinking, “OK, got it. Let’s keep moving,” but that’s Ambrose. He likes detail, sometimes mind-numbingly so. The payoff is that he often gives you such vivid stories and anecdotes and puts you right there in the action. Not as good as D-Day, but then, what is?
Rewrites: A Memoir, by Neil Simon. I picked up this because it was part of a Reader’s Digest anthology that was lying on a table for the taking, along with the aforementioned book by Ambrose, an interesting work on how the minivan saved Chrysler, and a compelling, occasionally gut wrenching, always poignant memoir of an Eastern European woman who lived through World War II (the word “Amber” is in the title, but I can’t remember what it is; very interesting book though). Simon largely leaves his politics out and focuses on how various plays that are still in the public lexicon got made and became great hits (The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, and others). Simon is a funny man, and that fully comes across in his autobiography. He also is so good at accurately depicting the difficulties writers encounter in putting pen to paper and turning out something that isn’t total garbage. The aspect I appreciated most about his story, however, were not these things. Rather, it was the story of his awesome and touching love affair with his wife, Joan, (Spoiler Alert!) whose dying from cancer closes the book. The way he wrote the final pages, I felt like I was in the quiet limousine with him, his mother-in-law, and two daughters on their way home from the cemetery. He’s a master and a great American talent.
William Patenaude, a self-described “former, ex-Catholic,” holds an M.A. in theology and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He has been a regulator with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for 24 years and has been writing on Catholic issues (most especially the Catholic perspective of ecology) in his blog and for the Rhode Island Catholic since 2004. He has recently completed his first book Catholic Ecology: Its Place in Orthodoxy, a Culture of Life, and New Evangelization. He is currently working on two others: Sacramental Social Doctrine and The Basics of B16: Five Things Every Catholic Should Know about Pope Benedict XVI. In November, Patenaude was invested into the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
My graduate advisor, Dr. James Keating, introduced me to Christopher Dawson. Having since read many of his works, I began looking for more about the causes and consequences of the West’s rejection of its Christian roots. This led me to David L. Schindler’s Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company). This book (which I am still pouring through) is a targeted compellation of Schindler’s many essays and papers. As woven together, they help one navigate the chaos that many today consider culture.
I have also found Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press). It’s a dense text—but delightfully so. MacIntyre presents millennia of Western thought with precision and refreshingly broad strokes. His flight through history is reminiscent of Dawson.
I have also appreciated Louis Dupré’s Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (Yale University Press) and Grant Kaplan’s Answering the Enlightenment: The Catholic Recovery of Historical Revelation (Crossroad Publishing Company). I found both in their own ways to be in dialogue with Pope Benedict XVI, which has helped me better appreciate the challenges confronting the pontiff and the Church.
I’ve occasionally returned this year to The Mind that is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays (The Catholic University of America Press) by James V. Schall, S.J. A most moving and helpful essay within it is “Aristotle on Friendship.” This overview of a Greek study of human relationships illuminates what it means to say that, while fallen, we are made in the image and likeness of the Triune God Who is Love.
A watershed experience in early spring was reading Jame Schaefer’s Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic & Medieval Concepts (Georgetown University Press). This work eviscerates any suggestion that the appreciation of nature is new to Catholic thought. Thank you Dr. Schaefer!
I must also highlight the entire Winter 2011 edition of Communio: International Catholic Review. Its theme, “Toward a Human Ecology: Person, Life, Nature,” is of particular interest to me. In it, I especially appreciated Mary Taylor’s essay “A Deeper Ecology: A Catholic Vision of the Person in Nature.”
Communio’s Winter 2010 edition (A Symposium on Caritas in Veritate) includes a stirring introduction to Ferdinand Ulrich in Stefan Oster’s wonderful “Thinking Love at the Heart of things. The Metaphysics of Being as Love in the Work of Ferdinand Ulrich.”
My year ended with an Advent reading of St. Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle (a terribly humbling experience that I must return to as I am stuck in the first mansion of this spiritual journey) and Pope Benedict XVI’s beautiful blending of faith and reason in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (which blessed me with new insights into the mystery of the incarnation).
Lastly, I should add one motion picture. 2012 was not the first time I watched this film, but for a number of reasons I have returned to it this year. Director Joe Johnston (one of Hollywood’s best) captures with primal beauty the biography of Homer Hickam in the 1999 film October Sky. It is based on Hickam’s story of growing up in a coal-mining town in West Virginia, winning a national science fair, and becoming an engineer at NASA. October Sky captures with breathtaking visuals two great urges within the human person: to retreat inwardly—as did Homer’s dad, who managed a faltering coal mine and who found it difficult to return his son’s affection—or to reach outward and thus ascend, as did Homer and his friends, who trusted and loved each other and built and launched increasingly sophisticated model rockets in post-Sputnik America. The final scenes says in a few moments what is at the heart of the Holy Father’s call to better know and share the good news of the God Who is self-revealing, self-giving, transcending love—and what that means for our relations on earth.
Joseph Pearce is the author of acclaimed biographies of G.K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, Hilaire Belloc, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and books on English literature and literary converts. His recent books include Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays and a new edition of Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile. Pearce is Writer-in-Residence and Associate Professor of Literature at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and is the Co-Editor of the St. Austin Review and the Editor-in-Chief of Sapientia Press. He is also the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions.
My favorite book from Ignatius Press’s illustrious catalogue of titles published in 2012, is My Brother, The Pope by Georg Ratzinger and Michael Hesemann. It offers an intimate portrait of Pope Benedict’s childhood and chilling accounts of his life during the tyrannical reign of Hitler. For those of us who do not reside in the inner sanctum of the Vatican, there can be few, if any, better ways of getting to know the Holy Father personally than through the reading of this book.
In the wake of a year that saw the sickening rise of secular fundamentalism, we need the wisdom to be found in the Church’s teaching on subsidiarity. One noble contribution to the cause of disseminating the wisdom of the Church’s social vision was the publication of The Hound of Distributism, a selection of essays edited by Richard Aleman (American Chesterton Society).
As my own work with the Ignatius Critical Editions (http://www.ignatiuscriticaleditions.com) and Catholic Courses (http://www.catholiccourses.com) will testify, I am passionate about the restoration of civilization through the teaching of the liberal arts. This being so, I have been encouraged and edified by the publication of Literature: A Student’s Guide by Louis Markos (Crossway), Christianity and Literature by David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory Maillet (InterVarsity Press), and Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education by Stratford Caldecott (Angelico Press), each of which takes a tradition-oriented approach to the restoration of liberal learning.
As the editor of the St. Austin Review (http://www.staustinreview.com), a Catholic cultural journal published since 2001, I am privileged to be able to promote the Catholic literary and artistic revival in the twenty-first century. This includes an increase in the quantity and quality of Catholic fiction, which Ignatius Press has been in the vanguard of promoting. Less recognized but no less significant is the renaissance in Catholic poetry. I have been steeping myself in the best of contemporary Catholic poetry and would recommend the following: The Gods of Winter by Dana Gioia (Peterloo Poets) and four volumes of verse published by the excitingly courageous Kaufmann Publishing: A Sudden Certainty: Priest Poems by Dwight Longenecker, In the Saguaro Forest: Sonnets and Lyrics by Mark Amorose, Wind Among the Leaves by William Dunn and Reading God’s Handwriting by Philip C. Kolin. Other new volumes of verse by excellent Catholic poets include A House Rejoicing by Pavel Chichikov (Grey Owl Press), Psalter: A Sequence of Catholic Sonnets by William Baer (Truman State University Press), and Reflections by Ruth Asch (Saint Austin Press).
Edward Peters has doctoral degrees in canon and civil law. He currently holds the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He has authored or edited several books, including Annulments and the Catholic Church: Straight Answers to Tough Questions and Excommunication and the Catholic Church: Straight Answers to Tough Questions (both from Ascension Press), and is the translator of the English edition of The 1917 Pio Benedictine Code of Canon Law. His canon law website can be found at www.canonlaw.info.
This was a lighter-than-usual year, reading-wise. Several months in Europe will do that to you. Still, I managed a few especially fine reads, including
Raymond Burke, Lack of Discretion of Judgment: Recent Rotal Practice (1986)
Michael Wrenn, Catechisms and Controversies (1991)
Bernard Nathanson, The Hand of God (1996)
Ralph Martin, Will Many be Saved? (2012)
Matthew A. Rarey is a journalist and education consultant who writes from Chicago.
For me, 2012 started with a dog and ended with God, both literally and literarily.
While on a journalistic assignment to Rome in the fall, my most important assignment turned out to be myself. I experienced a gentle yet profound conversion. Such a spiritually clarifying reorientation to the good will doubtless happen again, though it may differ in degree from those which can be expected to follow in order to plough through this life with straight furrows. Because conversion—turning fully back to God, to whom our backs so easily turn—is a process demanded by our poor human nature. It takes only our desire, trust, and humility to let the Lord illuminate our lives, even if struggling through a spiritual murk is God’s way of testing our mettle.
I attribute that Roman conversion to the intercession of a saint to whom I have prayed over the years—a saint who teaches us to see the infinite in the finite and perceive the profound glory that comes from sanctifying everyday life. He is St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei. One late November evening I prayed at his tomb, located beneath the altar of Our Lady of Peace Prelatic Church of Opus Dei. Afterward I enjoyed conversation and espresso with a member of Opus Dei studying at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross: a Brazilian named Augusto Silberstein, descended from Holocaust survivors. Earlier he gave me a tour of the church and the museum dedicated to St. Josemaria.
After departing I roamed for hours through dark streets, getting lost a couple times and walking till a blistered foot reduced my gait to a trudge. But my spiritual step was light; I was gliding with joy and peace. I had an encounter with a saint who also inspired a friendship in Augusto, whom a priest had introduced to me earlier that fall. I’d asked St. Josemaria to pray that God grant me what I need, and I am convinced that the prayers of that Spanish saint hacked through a snarl of loneliness and spiritual self-absorption. Friends in Heaven and on earth ignite a theoretical appreciation of divine love into a burning reality.
So for books I would recommend anything by St. Josemaria Escriva. In my coat pocket I carry a copy of Christ Passing By, a collection of his homilies. Randomly opening this little book and reading a passage never fails to lift one toward God. For example, I just opened it to the chapter “Christ’s Presence in Christians” and read this:
“We must love the world and work and all human things. For the world is good. Adam’s sin destroyed the divine balance of creation; but God the Father sent his only Son to re-establish peace, so that we, his children by adoption, might free creation from disorder and reconcile all things to God.” How’s that for ordering one’s day?
To say that 2012 had a dogged start is no mark against man’s best friend, however.
I began reading Alan Lazar’s Roam: A Novel with Music late Christmas Eve 2011 and finished it early Christmas morning—the best gift I got that year. I am including it among my favorite books of last year because its literary paws followed me into 2012.
This novel is about a young mutt named Nelson who strays from his owner’s home—a woman he calls his “Great Love”—to see what lies beyond the yard. But he gets lost and spends the next eight years trying to find her. That a book I finished Christmas morning actually ends on a Christmas morning lent it a meaning that is hard to chalk up to chance.
It’s an adventure story of canine courage and devotion. It offers poignant insights into human nature as well as the natural world we seldom sniff around with the perceptivity of a dog. Little Nelson crisscrosses the country—alone, with another dog he dotes upon and protects from coyotes, and with people who take him in. These well-drawn characters include a trucker, himself a roamer struggling with lost love, and an old widower on his last legs. Nelson also spends a season with a pack of wolves until getting the drift that he is not one of them. Lucky for him, since staying would have meant death at the fangs of near relatives who tire of the perpetually puppy-like behavior of a domesticated dog.
That long night’s read had me putting down Roam time and again to savor moments of pure joy and, yes, shed tears. No book since Watership Down has been so cathartic.
Yet despite being a sentimental sort myself and easily given to sensitive responses, Roam is no maudlin romp in anthropomorphism. It is a book about a dog that can draw one closer to God through its portrayal of virtue in quest of higher goods. This may come as a surprise to its author, a composer who has enjoyed much success in Hollywood. (Roam is accompanied by a soundtrack he composed.) From what I have been able to tell from interviews with him, he is not a Christian, perhaps not a believer at all—yet, anyway.
The book does have a drawback in its nonchalant portrayal of premarital sex between several of the human characters. It does, however, paint in terrible hues the pain of adulterous betrayal. Before Nelson begins his odyssey, his Great Love’s unfaithful husband (a torn man, not an unsympathetic stock character) and his mistress think nothing of cavorting while Nelson is around and the wife is out of the house. But the dog perceives something is very wrong between the once happy husband and wife who bought Nelson on their honeymoon—a purchase that, unbeknownst to them, saved Nelson from an early death he would escape many times later during his long life.
So I would not recommend it to children, though a prudent read-aloud by an adult would be wholesomely in order. No mature Catholic will leave the experience of reading Roam without joy, however. For we all roam at times in our lives, hopefully finding peace in returning home to God and, in my book, a good and faithful dog, too.
Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia, author of Culture and the Thomist Tradition: after Vatican II (Routledge: London, 2003), Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford University Press, 2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (T & T Clark: London, 2010), Patron of the Australian Catholic Students Association, part-time cat butler, and wife of Stuart Rowland.
My Top 10 books of 2012:
1. Jens Zimmermann, Incarnational Theology: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (Intervarsity Press, Illinois, 2012). I read this book on a seven hour flight from Melbourne to Singapore and the time literally flew by. It brings together the realms of Christology and the theology of culture. The author shows that if we get Christology wrong then we will have no hope of understanding secularism. There are a few small points where I would take a different view, for example, while I have respect for Bonhoeffer, I can’t say that he would be my favourite moral theologian, but on the whole this work is great for gaining an understanding of the relationship between Christology and culture.
2. Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society (Harvard University Press, 2012). This is a London Times Literary Supplement book of the year. It is highly recommended for those interested in the intellectual history of the implosion of Christian culture in the West.
3. Joseph Ratzinger, The Infancy Narratives: Jesus of Nazareth (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012). Like the first two Jesus of Nazareth books, this is a case study in Catholic scriptural exegesis.
4. Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (Yale University Press, 2012). Chapter titles include: Constructing a catacomb, Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage, The Council of Nicaea, Monasticism, The Sacking of Jerusalem, Architecture and Art, Music and Worship, the Birth of Hospitals, the Rise of Islam, Christians under Islam, Charlemagne and Christianity among the Slavs.
5. Logos et Musica edited by Horst Seidl et.al (Peter Lang, 2012). This is a collection of essays in honour of Benedict XVI with particular attention given to the topics of reason and music. Some of the essays appear in German and others in English.
6. Aidan Nichols, The Poet as Believer: A Theological Study of Paul Claudel (Ashgate, 2011). Fr Aidan Nichols OP on one of the greatest Catholic poets of the 20th century.
7. Roger Scruton, The Face of God: The Gifford Lectures (Continuum, 2012). Scruton rose to prominence in the 1980s as the editor of the English Conservative journal The Salisbury Review, then famous for its publication of the ideas of persecuted Central and Eastern European anti-Communist intellectuals. The Gifford Lectures are an extremely prestigious series of addresses delivered at the Scottish universities on an annual basis since 1888. Former Gifford lecturers include Alasdair MacIntyre, Karl Barth, John Haldane and Christopher Dawson.
8. Dee Nolan, A Food Lover’s Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela: Food, Wine and Walking along the Camino through Southern France and the North of Spain (Lantern Books, 2010). This has been out for a couple of years but at first its market price put it out of the reach of many. Now it has reduced in price it may become a Catholic family classic. It is a coffee table style of book but each page contains Catholic cultural trivia from the villages of southern France and Northern Spain as well as recipes and travel tips for those making the pilgrimage to Compostela.
9 Frank Millard, The Palace and the Bunker: Royal Resistance to Hitler (The History Press, 2012). It is well known that many of the aristocratic families of Germany and Austria regarded Hitler as a common thug and worked against him. Archduke Otto von Hapsburg declined several invitations to dine with him and in retaliation Hitler code-named his take-over of Austria ‘Operation Otto”. This work contains many great stories of royal and aristocratic resistance to one of the greatest psychopaths of the 20th century.
10. Adam Zamoyski, Chopin: Prince of the Romantics (Harper Press, 2011). This work includes a wealth of information on the cultural centers of Poland and France and musical circles in the 19th century.
Roy Schoeman is a Jewish convert to Catholicism and best-selling author of Salvation Is From The Jews and editor of Honey From the Rock: Sixteen Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ.
The best book I read this year was The Price to Pay (Ignatius Press) by Joseph Faddell, which is the first-person account (“witness testimony”) of a virulently anti-Christian Muslim aristocrat, “Joseph Faddell”, who became a passionate Catholic willing to (and almost actually doing so) die for the true Faith. Three reasons for the pick: (1) Witness testimonies are always enjoyable and powerfully faith-strengthening (hence Honey from the Rock: 16 Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ), and the more distant the convert is from the Church prior to the conversion, the more dramatic the story. (2) The behavior of Joseph’s loving family members, who first have him brutally tortured in an unsuccessful attempt to get him to recant, and then follow him from country to country trying to kill him, reveal much about Islam, about current events in the Muslim world, and most tellingly, about the spiritual entity behind the religion. The personality of the Spirit behind a religion tends to be reflected in the personality and behavior of an adherent to that religion. Ideally, true Christians reflect some of the personality and behavior of Jesus; here Joseph’s siblings reflect a personality dominated by pride, anger and vengeance (hmm—who could that be?) (3) It is not only a very edifying and informative book, but an exciting and entertaining read, simply in the drama and suspense of the events as they unfold. Highly recommended.
Russell Shaw is the author and co-author of numerous books, including Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church, and is the former information director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference and Knights of Columbus. He is also a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the father of five and the grandfather of nine.
Two titles stand out for me in my 2012 reading: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (Everyman’s Library).
Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer is in all truth a less than perfect biography. It’s too uncritical of its subject and distractingly quirky in its prose. Even so, Dietrich Bonhoeffer emerges in these pages as a remarkably compelling figure, thanks at least in part to the many substantial excerpts from his writing that appear in the book.
The version of the Christian message preached by this Lutheran pastor and theologian whom the Nazis executed for plotting against Hitler is as powerful now as it ever was–a badly needed antidote to the weak-kneed, watered-down liberal Christianity so common today among Catholics as well as others. Bonhoeffer should be required reading for anyone tempted by the illusory doctrine of “cheap grace.”
This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, was wildly popular when it appeared, but its picture of spoiled rich kids indulging themselves, though no doubt sensational in the 1920s, is not terribly interesting now. It remains worth reading, however, as the early work of a writer of genius starting to find his voice.
Of particular interest, too, is the book’s very sympathetic treatment of Catholicism, along with its strong awareness of the reality of personified evil. Fitzgerald was hardly an exemplary Catholic, and when visiting his modest grave (in a small cemetery next to a Catholic church in suburban Washington, D.C.), I confess I’ve asked myself whether he really belonged in that hallowed ground. This Side of Paradise obliges me to think again. Next time I’m in that little cemetery, I intend to say, “Welcome home, Scott.”
Mark W. Sullivan is the co-author of St. Monica and the Power of Persistent Prayer with Mike Aquilina. The book is scheduled for publication by Our Sunday Visitor in March. He has also written about music, literature, and a variety of other subjects pertaining to Catholic culture for Catholic World Report and Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly since 1994. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two children.
Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars by Monica Migliorino Miller (St. Benedict Press 2012). Before I read this book, I thought I was pro-life and knew all I needed to know about abortion. After reading this book, my wife and I decided to start a pro-life group at our parish. This is the first personal history written by anyone involved in the early days of the pro-life movement. It chronicles her experience participating in rescues and the time she spent in jail because of her participation. Most importantly, the book is very well written. You’ll stay up all night reading it.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1960). Long live books that can be entertaining and Catholic! I wasn’t the only one longing for good fiction this year. Ignatius launched a web-site dedicated to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and a new publisher dedicated to publishing Catholic fiction came on line called Tuscany Press.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to English And American Literature by Elizabeth Kantor (Regenery Press 2006). This book made me a born again English major. I dug my Norton Anthologies from college out of the basement and started to read William Wordsworth and others.
Mothers of the Church: The Witness of Early Christian Women by Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey (Our Sunday Visitor 2012). John Lenin used to say with much exaggeration that before Elvis Presley there was nothing. Can we say before Mike Aquilina, the Church Fathers didn’t exist? In co-authoring a book with Mike this year I got an inside look at what it takes to make the Church Fathers accessible, which he’s been doing brilliantly for the last 15 years. This book is one of his latest and has a bit of a twist by focusing on the Mothers of the Church.
3 Pears by Dwight Yoakam (Warner Music Nashville 2012). For me, part of the attraction of Dwight Yoakam is he reminds me of the somewhat red-neck small town I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, which was at the time rural western New Jersey. The other attraction is he’s a brilliant singer, songwriter, and performer. 3 Pears is the perfect guitar pop album. There is barely anything country on it. He’s also funny, which in these troubling times is much appreciated.
The Guitar Song by Jamey Johnson (Mercury Records 2010). It took me two years to realize how good this album is. Johnson is the only exciting thing happening in country music. I would add all of popular music. Johnson writes about human weakness, sin, contrition, and redemption better than anyone.
2112 by Rush (Mercury 1976). The guy who sits across the aisle from me at daily mass has the album cover tattooed on his arm. He didn’t really want to talk about it, but I listened to this album about 20 times this year driving around in my car. Once I got tipped off that the members of Rush have a good sense of humor, it all came together for me. As a guitar player, I’ve been kicking myself for not listening to Alex Lifeson sooner.
Brandon Vogt is a popular Catholic blogger, writer, and speaker. He is the author of The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops who Tweet (Our Sunday Visitor).
[Editor’s note: We’ve listed Brandon’s choices, but without his detailed commentary on each. You can read that commentary on his website.
This was a relatively slow reading year for me. After knocking out 87 books last year and 108 two years ago, I only finished 54 titles this year. Granted, 2012 brought many wonderful diversions: our third child, Augustine, was born; I studied hundreds of hours for the Professional Engineering exam (which I passed!); I had several new writing and speaking commitments; and I worked on two large book projects. Considering all that activity I’m actually surprised I read as much as I did.
Yet 54 books still provide plenty of options for an annual favorites list. As with prior lists, these are my fifteen favorite books, not the most acclaimed, the most timeless, or the best-written. They’re simply the ones I liked the most, the ones I kept thinking about well after finishing. Only about half of these books were published in 2012. But as C.S. Lewis says, novelty isn’t always good; newer books haven’t passed the test of time. Regardless, some of these older books may be unfamiliar to you and therefore “new” in the best sense of the word. So with that, here are my favorite titles from 2012 (in descending order):
15. Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo, translated by R.S. Pine Coffin (Penguin Classics, 1961)
14. The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction about Catholicism, Christopher Kaczor (Ignatius Press, 2012)
13. My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, Dawn Eden (Ave Maria Press, 2012)
12. In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton, G.K. Chesterton, collected by Dale Ahlquist, Aidan Mackey, and Joseph Pearce (Ignatius Press, 2011)
11. Theology for Beginners, Frank J. Sheed (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1982)
10. Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case against God, Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker (Emmaus Road, 2008)
9. Tolkien: Man and Myth, a Literary Life, Joseph Pearce (Ignatius Press, 2001)
8. From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism, Chris Haw (Ave Maria Press, 2012)
7. Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Sherry Weddell (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012)
6. How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues, Austen Ivereig (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012)
5. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI (Image, 2012)
4. Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization, Ralph Martin (Eerdmans, 2012)
3. Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, 2011)
2. C.S. Lewis Books: Chronicles of Narnia, Miracles, That Hideous Strength, The Great Divorce, The Weight of Glory, Till We Have Faces
1. Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen, Venerable Fulton Sheen (Image, 1982)
• At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization (Image, 2012) by Christopher West
• Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) by Helen Alvare
• Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: New Paths to Understanding (Ave Maria Press, 2012) by Fr. Lou Cameli
• The Catholics Next Door: Adventures in Imperfect Living (Servant Books, 2012) by Greg and Jennifer Willits
• Catholicism Pure and Simple (Stauffer Books, 2012) by Fr. Dwight Longenecker
• The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (Image, 2012) edited by Robert Ellsberg
• Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of St. Josemaria Escriva (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) by Eric Sammons
• Love in the Ruins (Dell Publishing, 1972) by Walker Percy
• The New Evangelization: Responding to the Challenge of Indifference (Gracewing Publishing, 2012) by Archbishop Rino Fisichella
• Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World (Thomas Nelson, 2012) by Michael Hyatt
Christopher White lives in New York City. He is the co-author of the forthcoming Beyond the Catholic Culture Wars (Encounter Books).
Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution (Ignatius Press), by Mary Eberstadt. Eberstadt sees very clearly just what the last half-century of supposed sexual liberation has wrought us. In an age where women are supposedly freer than ever, they have instead become slaves to the very thing that was supposed to liberate them: artificial contraception. Coincidentally—or perhaps, providentially—this book was released weeks after the Obama administration announced there would be little compromise on the HHS mandate requiring Catholic hospitals, schools, and other organizations to provide insurance coverage for contraception and abortifacients. A must read for anyone looking for proof that the birth control pill has been bad for women, men, children, and society at large.
Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong (Knopf), by Raymond Bonner. A riveting real life story about a small town murder (in my home town!) and the accused murderer—who spent over twenty years on death row for a crime he almost certainly did not commit. The haunting thought that this man was almost executed gives further support to the Catechism’s reasoning that capital punishment should be “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves (Our Sunday Visitor) by Helen Alvaré. Full disclosure: Helen Alvaré is one of my heroes. Her courage—and her finesse—in defending pro-life causes over the past few decades should put her on the fast track to sainthood one day. In response to the HHS mandate, she teamed up with friend and neighbor Kim Daniels and wrote an open letter to the Obama administration protesting both the mandate and the claim that the likes of Sandra Fluke and Kathleen Sebelius speak for all women. While they initially circulated the letter to friends and family in late February 2012, over 33,000 women have now signed the letter. Breaking Through is a compilation edited by Alvaré of testimonials from nine women who are standing up for themselves as Catholic women to address pressing questions on faith, marriage, family life, dating, and vocation.
The Patient as Person (Yale University Press), by Paul Ramsey. In August of this year, I joined my colleagues at the Center for Bioethics and Culture for a weekend gathering to revisit and discuss Ramsey’s The Patient as Person, the book form of a series of lectures Ramsey gave at Yale in 1969. Considering the increased reliance on biotechnologies, Ramsey’s work remains timeless—and probably more necessary than ever—as we work to build a culture that protects life and human flourishing.
Bad Religion (Free Press), by Ross Douthat . For Ross Douthat, the youngest ever New York Times op-ed columnist, “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it.” Bad religion, according to the author, is “the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.” Chock full of telling anecdotes and history, Douthat surveys the rise and decline of mainline Protestantism in the United States, as well as the golden era of American Catholicism that reached its peak in the 1960’s. For Catholics and Protestants alike, much of the twentieth century was defined by an individual or a family’s commitment to their particular faith tradition, which had a core understanding of orthodox beliefs and practices, dubbed by C.S. Lewis as a mere Christianity. The problem today, however, is that most Americans are losing that center. Douthat’s Bad Religion is an attempt to diagnosis this problem, and in doing so, he offers some helpful remedies to what ails religion in America.
What is Marriage? Man and Wife: A Defense (Encounter Books), by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George. In the aftermath of four states failing to defend traditional marriage at the ballot box in November, these authors aim to reframe the debate by examining what is marriage—a prior and more fundamental question that must be understood before determining who can marry. This book will long be held as one of the most important books in defense of traditional marriage—and we owe our gratitude to these authors for their clear and winsome arguments.
PART ONE | PART TWO