Finding the Voice of the Church
George Dennis O’Brien
University of Notre Dame Press, $25, 256 pp.
To be both a defender of the faith and an advocate of church reform is not easy. King Henry VIII failed spectacularly in that mission, but in his new book George Dennis O’Brien succeeds wonderfully. O’Brien not only draws on deep reservoirs of learning but displays impressive rhetorical skills (perhaps developed when he was president of Bucknell and, later, the University of Rochester). O’Brien, also the author of The Idea of a Catholic University, makes no bones about calling himself a “Commonweal Catholic.” In fact, he has served for many years on the magazine’s board, and is currently its chair. (Full disclosure: I am also on the Commonweal board.)
Commonweal readers will admire and be stimulated by O’Brien’s reflections on Christianity and the church. He argues that the “what and the how” of the church’s voice are necessarily entwined with each other. The good news of Christianity can no longer be voiced effectively in rote denunciations of the modern world or with the fixed didactic style employed by many neoscholastics. As the epigraph to this book, a quotation from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, puts it: “If he really meant what he was shouting, he wouldn’t be speaking in that tone of voice.” Nor does the modern model of scientific demonstration offer an appropriate way to explain the truths of religion.
Employing a masterly command of philosophy, theology, literature, drama, and art, O’...