Religion Booknotes

June 2021
Antonio Palomino, “Santa Teresa de Jesús escribiendo,” date unknown (Wikimedia Commons)

Without question, the Sulpician priest Raymond E. Brown (1928–1998) was the most celebrated, and in some quarters, the most excoriated Catholic biblical scholar of the late twentieth century. The publication of his massive two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John (1966, 1970) and his co-editorship of the Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968) signaled to his admirers that he and his colleagues represented the breakthrough that had been promised by Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical, Divino afflante spiritu, and that Catholic scholars were capable of doing historical-critical analysis of the Bible just as well as their Protestant academic peers had been doing for a century and a half.

For detractors, that was just the problem: the rush to embrace historical criticism—above all to embrace it to the exclusion of other approaches—seemed to repudiate the distinctive Catholic approach to Scripture, which, since the patristic era, had emphasized the liturgical, mystical, and allegorical dimensions of the text. The quest for human authors’ intentions, it was feared, would lead to seeking only the dimension available to historical inquiry, and that would be an impoverishment. 

But for the vast majority of Catholic readers, eager to learn Scripture and avid for the new historical approach, the perennially youthful-appearing, energetic, and prolific Brown became iconic, a symbol of Catholic aggiornamento as he produced commentaries on the letters of John, studies on the birth and death of the Messiah, and, shortly before his sudden death at age seventy, a large Introduction to the New Testament. Mass admiration and, in some cases, adulation, overcame resistance.

The Passionist Donald Senior is himself a widely recognized and respected New Testament scholar, the editor of The Catholic Study Bible, and an important force within the Catholic Biblical Association of America. Here he has written a sturdy and well-researched intellectual biography. We learn only scraps about Brown’s personal life—his well-worn (out) wardrobe, his passion for opera, his jaunts with friends—and virtually nothing of his inner life. Brown was, from beginning to end, the good student, the meticulous researcher, the lucid explainer, whose life was swallowed by one publishing venture after another.

Senior does a singularly good job of tracing the development of each of Brown’s works, placing the progression of his career in the context of the ecclesiastical turmoil of the post–Vatican II Church, and showing how cannily Brown used his episcopal connections—and their willingness to support him with the nihil obstat and imprimatur—to shield him from the worst of his opponent’s efforts. Senior candidly acknowledges Brown’s faults: his irritability at what he perceived as obduracy, his preference for speaking rather than listening, and his generally dismal view of students. But he also shows that Brown truly wrote in service of the Church and, to the end of his life, was faithful to his vocation as a priest.

Senior’s excellent study, with a foreword by another Sulpician priest, Ronald Witherup, has led me, though, to this melancholy reflection: with very few exceptions, the leaders of “the Catholic biblical renewal” before and after Vatican II were members of religious orders, male and female alike. Such orders, flush with members and resources, generously supported scholarship among their members, and the scholars they produced were definably “Catholic,” not only in their allegiance but also in their sensibility. Today, the diminishment of religious orders has had an unanticipated effect. American universities have a fair proportion of “Catholic” scholars of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, but they are not, and cannot be, “Catholic” in the way that Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, and indeed, Donald Senior, are Catholic.

Raymond E. Brown and the Catholic Biblical Renewal
Donald Senior, CP
Paulist Press
$29.95  | 376 pp.


Julián Carrón is the second leader of the Italian (now international) Catholic lay movement, Communion and Liberation, assuming his position after the death of the movement’s founder, Luigi Giussani, in 2005. The movement has had tremendous success, enjoying the favor of pontiffs from John Paul II to Francis, and spreading to more than eighty countries; but with its success has also come its own set of predictable scandals, both sexual and political (in particular, the movement has been bruised by charges of inappropriate political entanglements). Carrón, educated as a theologian and biblical scholar in Spain, has the unenviable task of making the transition from a charismatic founder to a second generation, while also dealing with a variety of ecclesiastical conflicts.

Carrón stresses the need for an encounter with the living faith of others through which the presence of God can be experienced.

This book is the transcription and translation of a four-day conversation between Carrón and the Vatican journalist and spokesperson Andrea Tornielli at the Sacred Heart Institute in Milan, where Carrón currently teaches. It reads a bit like one of Oprah Winfrey’s interviews with a famous figure who needs a slight rehabilitation in the public eye. The conversation begins—as the subtitle suggests—with the broadest sort of questions concerning secularity and the possibility of finding God in a world that seems not so much to reject God’s presence as to find no need for it. This is the part of the conversation that caught my eye and that should be of interest to others. Only the later questions more pointedly target the objections posed to the movement by its critics.

The living out of the experience demands a rigorous observance of traditional Catholic means of piety: the sacraments, the sharing of possessions, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. On top of this, members of Communion and Liberation are encouraged to engage the social and political realm as disciples. And here, naturally, the complexities begin, when people can say, “You’ve stopped preaching and started meddling.” But there is also, and not least, the tension between a powerful trans-parochial movement (that has the enthusiastic support of popes), and the traditional hierarchy of the Church. In Milan, where the archbishop was himself papabile, the tensions clearly were intense. Much of the last part of the book offers Carrón the chance to clarify positions, offer contrition for any fault on the side of Communion and Liberation, and renew his appreciation for the way Pope Francis has affirmed the charism of the movement and has (in his view) exemplified the ideals for which Communion and Liberation stands.

The first set of questions, then, provide Carrón with the chance to express his own convictions concerning the experience of God, which, he constantly repeats, are the convictions of Communion and Liberation and its founder, Giussani. The ideals he states are simple, straightforward, and convincingly advanced; they remind us of the Youth Movement origin of Giussani’s charism. The emphasis is not on theory, on polemics, or on apologetics. It is, rather, on what has been called “pre-evangelization”: the witness of true Christian life precedes and makes plausible any claims for Christian truth. Carrón therefore stresses the need for an encounter with the living faith of others through which the presence of God can be experienced, and from which a life dedicated to full discipleship can emerge. He refers repeatedly to Paul’s life-transforming encounter with the risen Jesus, and to Peter’s encounter with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, which changed a fisherman into an apostle. 

Where is God?
Christian Faith in the Time of Great Uncertainty

Julián Carrón
In conversation with Andrea Tornielli
McGill-Queen's University Press 
$27.95 | 176 pp.


This is now the third volume in Princeton University Press’s “The Lives of Great Religious Books” series that I have considered in this column. Yale Professor Carlos Eire easily reaches the mark set by the other two. He expertly follows the path by which a sickly Carmelite nun in the sixteenth century managed, before her death at the age of sixty-eight, to reform her religious order; found new communities; write not only “The Book” (as the Vida was called in her lifetime) but also the spiritual classics Way to Perfection and The Interior Castle, as well as hundreds of letters; and then, despite intense controversy, be canonized in 1622 and declared a doctor of the Church by Paul VI in 1970.

Teresa has been designated the “Teacher of Prayer” (Doctor Orationis), indicating that it is not the literary quality of the Vida that makes it important, but the way it highlights Teresa’s firsthand testimony concerning her extraordinary experiences of God through the prayer of silence. She learned this mode of prayer especially from Francisco de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet, which Teresa considered practicable by all contemplatives. Her own contemplative prayer, however, led her to a variety of locutions, visions, levitations, and, most famously, the “transverberation,” when her heart was pierced with God’s love.

Eire’s compact but deeply researched account brings the reader into the complex process of the Vida’s composition—much of it in response to hostile questioning by inquisitors, the initial period of eclipse after her death, the first publication by Luis de León in 1588, and the explosion of editions (by 1800, about 174 total), as well as the rapid and wide diffusion of her relics. Eire provides an empathic reading of the various mystical experiences reported by Teresa and traces her influence over “wayward” disciples like the Quietists.

Eire provides an empathic reading of the various mystical experiences reported by Teresa and traces her influence over “wayward” disciples like the Quietists.

Eire spends an entire chapter on the afterlife of the Vida in art, demonstrating that the most famous version of the transverberation by Bernini (The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647) was only the most well-known among many renderings of that scene. In another chapter, he surveys the way that “skeptics” (like Hume and Paine), “seekers” (like St. Therese of Lisieux, Evelyn Underhill, Edith Stein, and Dorothy Day), and “Diagnosticians” of various psychological types (like William James and Jacques Lacan) found Teresa an appealing model or repelling neurotic. The most fascinating “post-life” appropriation of Teresa was the fetishistic use of her right hand by the Spanish fascist Franco! Finally, he considers the way feminist and other academics have ignored her mysticism entirely and reduced her to a player in sixthenth-century gender roles.

Without in the least engaging in polemics, Eire’s even-handed exposition reveals what a sadly flattened world, and what a distorted Teresa, remains when the possibility of transcendence, of encounter with God, is eliminated.

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila
A Biography

Carlos Eire
Princeton University Press
$26.95 | 280 pp.


James M. Patterson teaches politics at Ave Maria University and has written a thoughtful study comparing and contrasting three prominent Christian leaders whose ministry had significant cultural and political implications: Fulton J. Sheen, whose presence on radio and television extended from the 1920’s to the 1960’s; Martin Luther King Jr., whose leadership in the Civil Rights Movement between 1955 and his assassination in 1968 gained media attention; and Jerry Falwell Sr., who deployed media resources to advance the Moral Majority in 1979, rallying Evangelical Christians to resist what they regarded as the secularization of American society. Using Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of religion’s role within American democracy—that it works best when it works indirectly, rather than in support of a specific political party—Patterson devotes a chapter to each figure, tracing their historical development and paying particular attention to the theological convictions underlying their efforts. The final chapter evaluates the three in light of de Tocqueville’s vision of religion as a counter to the tyranny of the majority in American democracy.

Patterson argues that Sheen’s broadcasts (and celebrity conversions) sought to demonstrate that Catholicism was not anti-American, but rather the true expression of the religious underpinnings of the republic. In his telling, Sheen’s fight against totalitarian Communism fit perfectly within the politics and public opinion (in the larger media) of the 1950s. King called on America to fulfill the covenant it had failed to keep with its African-American citizens, and conceived of the “beloved community” as a pluralistic way of realizing that promise; despite political resistance, his appeal spoke to the religious instincts of liberal whites and was favorably regarded by the media. Falwell shifted from the style of the “Jeremiad” (condemning moral corruption) to the “Nehemiad,” calling for the rebuilding of a more Christian nation.

This is a scholarly work, sometimes a bit caught up in academic by-play, and cautious in its judgments. But it is well worth reading, if only to remind readers of how significant a figure Sheen was over a long period of time, and how Falwell’s often despised efforts fit within a longer tradition of Christianity’s diverse voice within the public square of American society. 

Religion in the Public Square
Sheen, King, Falwell

James M. Patterson
University of Pennsylvania Press
$49.95 | 248 pp.

Published in the June 2021 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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