The Light of Christ
An Introduction to Catholicism
Thomas Joseph White, OP
Catholic University of America Press, $19.95, 328 pp.
Introductions assume the veil of ignorance. When, at a party, I bring an old friend over to you so that I can introduce you, it’s because I think you haven’t met before and would like you to. If, in a bookstore, I leaf through an introduction to Catholicism (or dressage, or lichens), it’s typically because I don’t know much about these things, and would like to. Introductions give you something or someone new to think about, talk about, and spend time with. When they work well, they’re also a vade mecum, a guide you can keep with you to consult as needed, and so deepen and strengthen your new acquaintance.
Usually introductions vouch for what they introduce. The one who makes the introduction ordinarily loves, or at least likes, what she’s introducing: she’s taken the trouble to get to know it, and she’d like you to do the same. Perhaps she thinks that what she’s introducing is good for you to know: it seems to her that it’s medicine everyone needs, and so she’s an evangelist for it. But sometimes the one who makes an introduction does not like what she’s introducing. Ordinary cocktail-party courtesy might require me to introduce my enemy to you, even if I think he might be bad for you to know. Perhaps I’ve spent my life studying something I dislike (totalitarianism, violence, chicory), and I write an introduction to it. Such an introduction may be a warning as well as an offer: here’s what you need to know about this so that you can avoid being damaged by it.
You might think there are introductions that neither vouch nor warn but only lift the veil to show what’s there. That would be a mistake. When I introduce you to someone, the introduction inevitably does more than show her to you; it shows her to you as my friend—or acquaintance, or enemy, or colleague, or spouse—and in that way shapes her for your acquaintance. So too, more obviously, in the case of writing an introductory text, whether to calculus or Catholicism. Choices are made that shape the phenomenon. Gibbon’s depiction of the Arian controversy is in almost every way different from Newman’s, even though each might reasonably be understood as an introduction to that wrinkle in Christianity’s history.
Thomas Joseph White’s The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism is the work of a lover. It vouches for and advocates what it introduces, and is eager for you to embrace it. White is sure that you need to love what he shows you, and the spirit of a lover breathes through his introduction, even if it’s the spirit of a Dominican lover whose loves are, originally and finally, intellectual. What he shows you is a pattern of thought—a way of understanding the cosmos as a whole and in all its particulars. He shows you what the church teaches, and shows it as the truth. He’d like you, the reader, to apprehend it and make it your own.
How does he do it? By following the example of St. Thomas Aquinas, which is, I suppose, a natural and proper thing for a Dominican to do. Thomas’s Summa theologiae is an introduction to Catholic Christian discourse about God and the world, intended, Thomas writes, for the formation of beginners (incipientes, those making a start: he had in mind Dominican novices) in that way of thinking so that they might then be able to communicate it to others, especially in preaching. The Summa begins with a treatment of God, and creation as the going-forth of things from God. Then it depicts the movement of human creatures back to God by way of their acts—this is the bulk of the Summa, and it’s approximately what we would call moral theology. The work then shows Jesus as our way back to God, and the sacramental economy of the church as the particular means instituted by Jesus for that purpose. And it concludes, or would have concluded had Thomas completed it, with an analysis of the last things, in which the heavens and the earth are rolled up like a scroll and all things assume their final and fixed relation to God.
The Summa’s schema is one of exitus-reditus: it shows how all things come from God by way of creation out of nothing, and then return to God by way of salvation or damnation. It also shows, in outline, what happens between the beginning and the end, and what kinds of things there are in the world and how they relate one to another. The Summa works remorselessly at the level of the concept. Its central devices are the definition and the distinction, and what it establishes by way of these is the grammar of the faith. It introduces the reader to the lexicon and syntax of church teaching, together with that of some speculative questions on which the church has not yet come to any doctrinal conclusions.