Getting the Lowdown
Where does a Catholic apologist go to find out about C.I. Scofield, Jim and Tammy Bakker, or Francis Schaeffer? While these names are well-known within American Evangelicalism, they aren't regular after-dinner conversation in Catholic households--well, at least Scofield and Schaeffer aren't. Trying to get good background information about such people can be frustrating.
Standard encyclopedias falter. Even the magisterial Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church can let you down when it comes to American Evangelicalism. Here's where something like the Dictionary of Christianity in America, edited by Daniel G. Reid, comes in handy.
The DCA is an Evangelical work in the sense its editors are Evangelicals, many of its contributors are Evangelicals, and it's published by an Evangelical publishing company, InterVarsity Press. But the book doesn't confine itself to Evangelical Christianity. In fact, the principal virtue of DCA is its thoroughness.
Practically every major aspect of American Christianity is examined somewhere in the book's 2,400 articles. From mainline Protestantism to Fundamentalism, from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy, DCA has essays treating all versions of American Christianity, as well as quasi-Christian groups such as the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses. Each article is supplemented by a short bibliography for further reading.
While mainline Protestantism is given its due, DCA is a gold mine of information about Evangelicalism. For too long reference works have approached American Protestantism as if it were coextensive with the mainline churches. Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, if treated at all, were given little more than cursory consideration.
This tendency has diminished in recent years with the decline of mainline Protestant churches, the corresponding resurgence of Evangelicalism, and the growth of the Evangelical media (radio, television, book publishing).
Although establishment denominations--such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Church of Christ--are still called mainline churches, vital Protestantism resides with the Evangelicals. If the former are to be called, de rigueur, mainline, the latter should be referred to, de facto, as mainstream.
DCA's articles and contributors reflect this changing reality. The book is a veritable Who's Who of American Protestantism, with contributors as varied as Martin E. Marty, Ronald M. Enroth, George Marsden, Norman L. Geisler, Robert G. Clouse, Donald McKim, and Mark Noll.
For the Catholic unfamiliar with the beliefs, institutions, and personalities of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, but who wants to be up on the players, the DCA is an invaluable scorecard.
For example, there's a short essay on Jerry Falwell summarizing his background and his role in founding the Moral Majority. There are also biographical articles on great Evangelical and Reformed thinkers such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles G. Finney, Cornelius Van Til, Harold J. Ockenga, Carl F.H. Henry, and Francis Schaeffer. Evangelical preachers as diverse as Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, John R. Rice, and Jimmy Swaggart are included.
Subjects which Catholics know little about, but which are the bread and butter of "Bible believers," are analyzed. The DCA offers an overview of the rapture, for example, outlining views among Evangelicals (pretrib, midtrib, postrib, and the partial rapture theory) and who holds which.
The book is also valuable for the Catholic apologist responding to Fundamentalist attacks on his faith. There are excellent background essays on themes such as the assurance of salvation, justification, predestination, and sola scriptura. Because these articles are written by knowledgeable Evangelicals, there's no danger of reading mere caricatures of Protestant positions.
On the whole, the DCA's treatment of Catholicism is well done. The temptation to Evangelical parochialness is subdued by the constraints of academic objectivity and ecumenism. Entries on controversial Catholic beliefs or practices--controversial, that is, for Evangelicals--are usually impartial and are often written by Catholics.
DCA covers a wide range of Catholic subjects. Topics such as papal infallibility, Mariology, and transubstantiation are mandatory in a reference work which strives to be comprehensive, not to mention objective. Articles on subjects such as Eastern-Rite Catholicism, the encyclical Pacem in Terris, the lay Catholic organization Opus Dei, or John Paul II's theology of the body, to cite only a few, are more unanticipated in an Evangelical resource.
Catholic contributors to the DCA include James T. Connelly, Lawrence Cunningham, Jay P. Dolan, Donald DeMarco, George P. Evans, James Hennesey, James Hitchcock, and Peter Kreeft. This list is hardly exhaustive, but it does reveal the range of Catholic authors.
Articles dealing with Catholicism aren't mere expositions of Catholic belief for the sake of providing a theological backdrop to Protestant doctrines. They're intended to advance the reader's understanding of a given doctrine for its own sake. For example, the DCA's article on Mariology surveys both Catholic and Protestant teachings on the subject without engaging in polemics. In this way, the book succeeds at being catholic with a small "c," while remaining Evangelical with a capital "E."
Of course, not every Catholic reader will agree with every article, not even those written by Catholics. Some of the contributors are trendy, and their contributions tend to be of mixed quality. The principle deficiency is a lack of clarity. Portions of certain essays are ambiguous, although not necessarily heretical.
Consider the entry on the magisterium. It says: "Teaching authority is exercised at two levels: (1) as doctrine infallibly proclaimed by definitive acts in an ecumenical council or ex cathedrapronouncements by the pope, and as teachings consistently affirmed as necessary for salvation; (2) as authoritative (non-infallible) teaching."
This description of the magisterium isn't false so much as equivocal and incomplete. Absent is the standard terminology of the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium. The infallibility of the ordinary magisterium is hinted at ("teachings consistently affirmed as necessary for salvation" are said to be infallible), but the concept isn't elucidated.
Individual cases such as this notwithstanding, the DCA's value as a reference work on American Christianity is immense. Although it can't replace a Catholic handbook treating Catholic subjects, it can educate the average Catholic in areas he is apt to know little, such as Evangelicalism and the wide variety of small sects, while still offering beneficial essays on themes of interest to Catholics.
More broadly, DCA points up how Evangelical and Catholic awareness of one another and of the traditions each group represents is growing. This is a good sign for those who think Christian unity an important goal, yet one which ought not to be obtained by theological misrepresentation.
Knowledge of where Christians differ as well as where they agree is the first step in reducing division and coming to the unity of faith which Christ desires for all who call upon his name (John 17:21; Eph. 4:13).
-- Mark Brumley
Dictionary of Christianity in America
By Daniel G. Reid, ed.
Downers Grove, Illinois:InterVarsity Press,1990
Sacraments Done Right
Have you ever hunkered down in the pew on a Sunday morning, grinding your teeth as the priest merrily ad-libbed his way through the Eucharistic prayer? Perhaps you've been nonplussed to hear a nun insist it's no longer necessary or even desirable for children to make their First Confession before First Communion. Or maybe you've done a slow burn at a "customized" baptism in which the parents performed the rite while the priest blithely stood off to one side.
What makes these scenarios so annoying (besides the fact that they really happen) is that the average Catholic's ability to speak out on such abuses is restricted by his unfamiliarity with the canon laws governing sacraments. Contrary to what some folks might have you think, these laws are non-negotiable. Bishops, priests, deacons, and religious--lay people too--must obey them.
There's another, more ominous problem. Whenever such laws are bent, contorted, mangled, or ignored, the liceity or even the validity of the sacrament being celebrated can be in doubt.
To deal effectively with sacramental malfeasance you have to know what the abuse is and why it's an abuse. That's why being clear on the Church's rules for the proper administration and reception of the sacraments, or at least knowing where to look the rules up, is so important.
The Sacraments and their Celebration cuts through all the "collaboration," "empowerment," "spirit of Vatican II," and "I am church" psycho-babble which is commonly employed to obfuscate Church teaching. It explains what can and can't be done, as well as who can and can't do it.
Relying on the Revised Code of Canon Law, the documents of Vatican II, and other official pronouncements, Fr. Halligan walks you through the particulars of each sacrament. It's all here, from clear and comprehensive explanations of the nature and effects of the sacraments, to examples of their abuse (both mild and extreme).
You get fascinating insights on the lesser-known.aspects of sacramental theology. For example, you already may know that a right intention is required for a priest to confect a sacrament, but do you know the differences (and they're important) between actual, virtual, and habitual intentions? You will, after spending some time with this book.
The most gratifying thing about The Sacraments and Their Celebration is its clarity. You'll know exactly what's allowed and what's not, and, best of all, if you have cause to speak up about a sacramental abuse, you'll be able to back yourself up. But the benefits of this book reach far beyond the defensive. You may never encounter sacramental abuse in your parish. Even so, this book will serve you well.
Since the sacraments are the lifeblood of the Church, it's absolutely vital for all Catholics, especially lay Catholics, to understand them well. Why? Because we're called by Christ not just to frequent the sacraments, but to develop a strong love for them. One of the best ways of cultivating this love is by studying them--learning what they are and what they do.
The better we understand the sacraments, the more fervently we'll receive them. The more fervently we receive them, the more salutary an effect they'll have on us. If you're told the laity shouldn't worry about fine points of sacramental theology and canon law, you can confidently respond in the true spirit of Vatican II:
"Between the members of this body there exists, further, such a unity and solidarity that a member who does not work at the growth of the Body to the extent of his possibilities must be considered useless both to the Church and to himself" (Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People).
The same document also says, "A fervent zeal on the part of lay people is called for today; present circumstances, in fact, demand from them an apostolate infinitely broader and more intense. . . . The need for this urgent and many-sided apostolate is shown by the manifestation of the Holy Spirit moving laymen today to a deeper and deeper awareness of their responsibility and urging them on everywhere to the service of Christ and the Church."
Given the current situation--widespread abuse of the sacraments and an ignorance of Church laws governing them-- The Sacraments and Their Celebration is a useful tool for lay Catholics who take seriously Vatican II's mandate to serve the Church.
-- Patrick Madrid
The Sacraments and Their Celebration
By Nicholas Halligan, O.P.
Staten Island:Alba House,1986
The Road Best Traveled
Samuel Johnson once said, "A man who is converted from Protestantism to popery parts with nothing; he is only superadding to what he already had. But a convert from popery to Protestantism gives up as much of what he has held sacred as anything that he retains."
Johnson (a Protestant, not a "papist") was right. When I came into the Catholic Church at Easter 1986, I was not parting with my Protestant experience so much as potting it in the right soil and bringing it to full bloom. I saw that the brightest and best in Protestantism was capital borrowed from Catholicism and that only the latter could return the investment with full interest.
It was tracing out the trajectories of my Evangelical impulses that landed me in the lap of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Because Christ was already my Head, I came to desire full membership in his Body; because he was already my all-sufficient Savior, I wanted to wash in the sacramental streams of grace flowing forth from his cross; because he was already my Lord, I wanted to be under the authority he had exercised through apostles and their successors for two thousand years.
I saw this Church was and always had been the only home God had ever intended for all his children; seeing that, Protestantism became for me a halfway-house from which I moved on.
The 27 stories in the volume reviewed here strike this same key. The book's title, Spiritual Journeys, is followed on the cover by the words "toward the fullness of faith." This stresses that the movement of these men and women into the Catholic fold was not so much a repudiation of their previous religious experiences as a fulfillment of them.
Such anthologies were once popular with the public and rolled off Catholic presses in profusion; it is good to see the genre coming back. This particular book, edited by Robert Baram, professor of journalism at the College of Communication at Boston University, and with a foreword by Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, is a worthy addition to this literary line.
Each story is well written (often beautifully so, especially the second essay, Leonie Caldecott's "With the Heart Alone"), dramatic in the best sense of that word, and told with a disarming candor and frankness.
The writers represent every walk of life--writers and publishers, college professors, housewives, students, professionals, philosophers, radio and television personalities--from a wide spectrum of backgrounds: secular humanism, Southern Fundamentalism, Jewish agnosticism, High Church Anglicanism, New Age ecleticism, Greek Orthodoxy. Their conversions occurred in every imaginable setting, from a chapel in Rome to an Army draft center in Fort Polk, Louisiana.
Despite the divergences, certain themes run like golden threads through these stories: the Christocentric nature of their conversion experiences; the unavoidable scandal of Christ and of his Church ("If I had told [my friends] of travels to India in search of enlightenment, or apprenticeship to a shaman in the desert of New Mexico, they might have listened with respectful interest. But when I tried to explain . . . that I had found, not a guru or a goddess, but Jesus Christ, it was another matter altogether," p. 22); the inevitable conflict with family, friends, and culture; the role played by reading (the Fathers, Aquinas, Newman, Belloc, Chesterton, Knox, Flannery O' Connor, Graham Greene, Walker Percy); the enormous drawing power of the sacraments, especially the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; "the importance of unbroken tradition in religious matters" (p. 25).
The truth of Catholicism transcends natural wisdom. Like Peter's confession, it is not revealed to us by our own flesh and blood, but by the Father in heaven (Matt. 16:17). As Wick Allison says in his essay, "After more than a decade's reflection, I've concluded that the digging out of each tiny tendril would be an exercise in irrelevance. Because conversion is not an act of psychology, or of the will, or even of comprehension. It is a gift" (p. 13).
But it's a gift requiring understanding. Ambrose Bierce, in A Devil's Dictionary , defined a cabbage as "a vegetable about as large and wise as a man's head." The converts in this volume, and indeed all the converts I've ever conversed with, are no Cabbage Head Christians. They thought long and hard about the case for Catholicism, and by the grace of God they found that case cogent. In doing so, they have found the road best traveled.
-- Gerry Matatics
By Robert Baram, ed.