Book Review: Doctors of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI

The Doctors of the Church is my latest review book for The Catholic Company, and I’ll tell you up front why it’s taken me so long to get through it: Because it requires peace and quiet.

I don’t mean like holed-up-in-a-monastery-for-three-weeks peace ‘n quiet.  More like, “two to three paragraphs without interruption, and ideally as much as a page or more, all at once, before someone asks you how to spell a word, or where is the milk, or . . .” you know what I mean*.  I say this not to discourage the other housewives out there, but rather to encourage you to not give up just because it’s taking you a little longer than a Hardy Boys mystery, or whatever it is you other people read.

What it is: Pope Benedict did a series of talks at his weekly general audiences on each of the Doctors of the Church, and the text of those talks was put into book form.  (St. Peter Chrytologus is missing — there was no talk as yet at the time the book went to print.  But you get all the others.)  Each person gets his or her own chapter, and certain heavy-hitters have double- or triple-sized chapters if it took two or three sessions to cover the topic.

The focus of the talks is on the development of doctrine.  Sorry, no fun stories about St. Thomas Aquinas’s family’s colorful attempts to dissuade him from his vocation, or St. Therese’s heroic willingness to eat the peas and fake it that she liked them.  You get to be a Doctor of the Church due to your contribution to our understanding of the faith.  So that’s where the book focuses: What did this person contribute to our understanding of Christ and of salvation?  How did this person respond to the needs of his or her time, and re-present the faith in a way that was needed then, and that continues to be valuable today?

–> A brief biography opens each chapter, and there is enough information to give you a clear picture of the life and times of the individual.  There is relatively more biography for lesser-known saints.  If you don’t know the general St. Thomas Aquinas story, you aren’t ready for this book yet; but if you never can keep straight all your St. Cyrils and Gregories, the Holy Father has you covered, no worries.

What are the prerequisites?

Before reading this book, you need to:

  • Know the broad outline of Church history, and of course that means having a decent grasp of world history as well.
  • Be familiar with the who’s who of major saints.
  • Have a clear understanding of Church teaching.
  • Be comfortable with technical language at about the level of The Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This one:

If that’s not you, be patient.  Come back to The Doctors later. Because the focus of the book is specifically on doctrine, and on the development of doctrine, this is a little harder of a book than some of the other collections by the Holy Father.


Who is this book for, and what good is it, anyway?  I recommend this book if you . . .

. . . Want an introduction to the topic of Development of Doctrine.  When read cover to cover, in sequence, this is an excellent first look at how the faith has blossomed over the centuries.


. . . Need a reference book on hand for all your Doctors of the Church needs. Great resource for catechists and others who need to quick know something intelligent about obscure-but-essential saints.  Each chapter stands on its own, and I found this to be very useful in preparing for class.


. . . You want a devotional that is built around reflections on theology and the lives of saints.  (Don’t laugh you Prayer of Jabez people, some of us like this stuff.)  You could either work through it a chapter at a time, or just have it on hand to browse at random when you need a little retreat into that happy place where you get to think about this stuff.

Verdict:  Well of course, it’s excellent.  If you are the target audience, there’s nothing else like it.  Worth the effort to work through it, not because then you’ll get to sit with the cool kids (though you will), but because even if the distractions of your vocation mean you can’t read through it quickly, it’s very meaty and satisfying.  A sure preventative against brain rot, and not so bad for your soul, either.  Great book.


Thanks again to the kind people at the Catholic Company, who would like me to tell you that not only do they do a work of mercy providing good books for bloggers in exchange for nothing other than an honest review,  they are also a great source for a baptism gifts or first communion gifts.

*No family members were injured in the writing of this post.

Book Recommendation : 5000 Years of Slavery

I have been frustrated in trying to find a good book about slavery.  Most in our library focus entirely on the history of slavery in the United States, with perhaps a brief mention in passing of the existence of slavery in other times and places.  I find this limited treatment of the topic leads to some problematic misunderstandings — in many ways perpetuating the same racism that enabled American slavery and the subsequent post-emancipation civil rights abuses.

So I was glad to discover this book:

This is an introductory treatment, very readable and with lots of pictures, but it is not for young children.  What I like:

  • Separate chapters on slavery in the ancient world, pre-colonial Europe, Africa from ancient times to present, in the Americas among indigenous tribes and states, in Asia, and in the modern world internationally.
  • Precise scope.  Serfdom, for example, is mentioned only when the conditions truly amounted to slavery — mere garden-variety medieval serfdom is passed over in favor of actual slavery in the era.  In the same way, contemporary slavery is restricted to true slavery — forced labor with no option of departure — rather than degenerating into a diatribe against poor wages and lousy working conditions.  (Those are serious problems, but they are not slavery.)
  • Honest who-did-what-when reporting.  No bizarre cultural biases or weird anti-European narratives.
  • Factual but not voyeuristic accounts.  The realities of rape, starvation, torture, and the like are all mentioned where the historical record shows they happened, but there is no morbid dwelling on gruesome details.

What it amounts to is a book you can take seriously.  Good starting point, though it certainly left me wanting to learn more.  Highly recommended.


Another Good Book: Operation Mincemeat

If you have seen the film The Man Who Never Was, you can now get the rest of story via  Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre (Harmony Books / Crown Publishing, 2010).   Detailed accounts of all sides — the English counter-intelligence group, the corpse, the submariner, the Spanish & Germans who variously either nearly derailed the mission or who swallowed it whole.   Also details of the subsequent invasion of the Sicily, or why mincemeat mattered.  Plus photos, including images of all the original documents.  And “where are they now” follow-ups on all the major players.

Very fun look inside a great spy story.   Did I mention Ian Fleming is in there?  (Yes, that Ian Fleming.  Though he doesn’t do a whole lot.)  Most memorable passage:

The all-night negotiations went well, but at one point the visitors were forced to hide in a dusty cellar to avoid an impromptu visit from the gendarmes.  Courtney suffered a coughing fit, which threatened to give them away.  General Clark passed the choking commando some chewing gum.

“Your American gum has so little taste,” whispered Courtney, once the spasm subsided.

“Yes”, said Clark.  “I’ve already used it.”

For grown-ups, both for content and reading level.

PS: Watch the movie first.  Or you’ll get lost drowning in the detail.  So to speak.


Finished reading Eric Sammon’s new book Who is Jesus Christ ages ago, and can give it an unqualified recommendation.  Had a few test-readers evaluate it for reading-level.  My ten-year-old, who can read anything at all so long as it is about guns, told me it was “Not hard to read, but not very entertaining.”  Don’t listen to him.  Parish Secretary, who is a normal catholic person who is pretty happy diving into Scott Hahn (as am I), says: Easy to read, but you have to go slowly because there is so much detail.  Official review coming soon.

More good books – medieval history

Two library finds:

Life on a Medieval Barony by William Stearns Davis (Harper & Brothers, 1923).  Suprisingly good information — I’ve seen far, far worse in more modern works.  Non-fiction, but uses a fictional barony in northern France circa 1220 to ground the descriptions of medieval life in a cast of characters.   Much of the narrative material is pulled from period sources, ie the telling of our baron’s hunt is actually borrowed from a medieval hunting account.  Makes for a very dashing baron — bit larger than life, as will happen with hunting stories.

–>  The narrative style packs in a lot more detail than you could get away with otherwise and still keep readers awake and even flipping pages to find out what  happens next.

Given the amount of information (400 pages)  and the references to mature topics, I’d say this fits better for teens and above.    Would make a good parent-teen book to read together, as it raises all kinds of theological and moral issues for discussion fodder, and using someone else’s era maybe helps take a step back and see things more clearly?

Fine as an introduction to medieval life for a teen or adult reader, but enough good details to be worth a look for any amateur medievalist.  A knowledge of catholicism in general would be helpful, since there is a quite a lot of describing medieval religious practices.


My second lucky find was an audio lecture series,  Heaven or Heresy: A History of the Inquisition by Thomas F. Madden.   If you are catholic, sooner or later someone’s gonna bring up the inquisition.  This set of does a good job of distinguishing the facts (sometimes sordid, sometimes not) from the legend. Gives you enough detail that you could reasonably hope to explain not just the differences between the different inquisitions (Spanish versus Roman verus medieval Papal verus medieval local, etc etc), but also how, say, the Spanish inquisition changed over time.

SuperHusband has listened to some of his other lectures in the series, and found them informative and balanced.    (Recall: SuperHusband = SuperProtestant.  Not a guy who would go in for catholic propaganda.)    I found this to be the same way.  If you are Torquemada, well, your reputation isn’t helped.

Pre-requisites: It is expected that you are familiar with the basics of the catholic faith, including vocabulary like “Dominican” “mendicant” “encyclical” “anti-pope” etc.  Madden generally offers a brief definition of these types of words, but you’ll be on much firmer ground if you aren’t hearing them for the first time.  You’ll also want a general idea of the outline of European history from the time of Christ forward.

I’d give this one a ‘buy’ recommend if your budget allows.  Though I wish the man would write a book on the topic.


Utterly Immersed

It’s all good.  But regular life has been trumping internet lately.  Here’s a quick rundown, in the event that I manage to finish this post before something else presents itself:

Contagious Illness Unit Study at an end? I’m hopeful.  No one has developed an illness in over a week.   We even managed to go camping over the weekend – yay!  Pretty much been a record year as far as minor-but-disruptive afflictions go.  That’s been my number one reason for internet silence; not so much a case of too-ill-to-post, as that caring for whichever family member has the latest strain of plague sucks up just that extra bit of time and energy.  So we’ve held together the larger part of normal life, but some of the extras had to give way.  Gives me lots of fodder for the homeschooling book . . .

. . . On which I am making progress. Albeit more slowly than I imagined.  But it is a much richer work for all the real-life enrichment I’ve been handed.  And very fortunately I have amassed a small group of people I can’t bear to disappoint, so it will get written.  At this point I’ve got the bulk of an outline (quite detailed), one lousy opening chapter that needs to be scrapped, and one middle-area chapter that is getting full but still has a few more salient points to cover.  (Topic: Housekeeping.  And those who know me will assure you, when I say I am writing a book about realistic expectations while homeschooling, you can be entirely confident my housekeeping chapter will not set any unobtainable standards.)

Speaking of which, I am trying to clean out the house.  Just way too much stuff.  (All good – but more of it than we have house.)  I finally figured out that all the cool things my neat, clean, clutter-free friends give as hand-me-downs?  If I want a house like theirs, that stuff is the first to hit to the road.  Luckily, such friends understand the need.  The place does look better, but still needs a lot of work.

But I’m hopeful, because wow my yard is awesome. In addition to contagious illnesses, we’ve also been doing a gardening unit study this spring.  SuperHusband built us a privacy fence, effectively giving a real back yard to our corner lot that was previously 90% front yard.  I had been working on cleaning up that front yard anyway (mostly out of love for my neighbors, who have suffered long enough looking at our debris), and then after the fence went up we put in some blueberries and figs for landscaping in front of that, and meanwhile had been making headway on vegetable gardening and general civility in what is now the back yard.  It is all very cottage-y, in an I-like-tall-grass-and-trees-the-birds-plant kind of way, but we’re pretty happy with it.  And the front yard I’m trying to keep moderately civilized.  Don’t mind the woodpile.  (A real functioning woodpile — we will burn it next winter.)  So all that to say: if I can tame the yard, perhaps I can tame the house as well.

Latin Watch: Verb conjugation is killing us.  Same story in French.  Oh, we’ll get through.  But the pace has definitely slowed to a crawl.  Mr. Boy and I were checking his homework on Verbix today, and I clicked on the Kreyol  option just to have a look-see, and we observed that conjugating is much easier in that language. Mr. Boy immediately wanted to change his course of study.  I told him not ’till he has plane tickets to Haiti .  (Hint: We have no such plans.)  And plus he’d need to know French anyway, so no getting out of it.    But I will observe that the girls are absolutely loving learning ASL, which is, it should be noted, a non-conjugating language.  I begin to see a pattern.

Concerning my own education . . . I finished the Sex Book. (This one).  Good book, recommended for those who fit the target audience.  I will get a review up here shortly.  Summary: I’m glad I signed up for it, and it’s one I’ll be keeping on the shelf for my own reference.   An interesting counterpoint has been reading Love and Control by Cardinal Suenens (The Newman Press, 1961), a find from the parish library.   I’m about halfway through.  Timeless observations, if, again, a little more theoretical than a married lady might hope.  On the other hand, one doesn’t want one’s clerics getting too terribly practical concerning the details of the workings of someone else’s sacrament.

Also culled from the parish shelves:  The Rule of Saint Benedict. Wow, you should read it.  Surely it’s on the internet somewhere.  The translation I had was very readable, quick to digest, and makes a great combo-pack of spiritual and historical insights.  And as it happened, I also brought home St. Odo of Cluny (Sheed and Ward, 1958), which is a translation of the Life of St. Odo, written by his contemporary John of Salerno.  Total page-turner.  I kid not.  One fascinating vignette after another, constantly making you wonder what zany anecdote is coming next.   Lots of pillaging norsemen and monks who are fed up with eating fish.  Just finished the segment on the armed standoff between a house of slacker-monks and the party of civil and church authorities trying to force the foundation to accept Odo as their reforming leader.   Definitely need to read the rule of St. Benedict first in order to understand the action.

That’s enough news for now. I’ll check back with that book review. Happy June.

Book Review: Saint of the Day

Our pastor included  Saint of the Day (6th edition, Leonard Foley ed.) on his recommended reading list this past Advent.   I’ve never gone wrong in taking his advice, so when the book showed up on the Catholic Company’s review list, I saw my big chance.    The result was consistent with Father’s track record: Not something I would have chosen myself, but I’m glad to have given it a try.

Saint of the Day is a compilation of lives of saints spanning from the time of Jesus through our day.  Most entries are about one page front and back, and include a brief biography, a reflective commentary, and a quote which is either from that saint, or which is connected in some way with that saint’s life and teachings.   There are also entries for most (but not all) of the event-related feasts.  (Think: the Visitation or the Immaculate Conception.)

To answer the most common question I received while reading this book:  No, there is not an entry for every single day of the year.  So, for use as a daily devotional, it will meet many readers’ needs far more precisely than we would like to admit.

Because the entries are brief, the editors naturally had to be selective about what information to include.  The general pattern is this: If it is expected that the average reader already knows about the saint, the focus is on analysis and spiritual lessons to be learned.  If the saint is either relatively obscure or relatively new, the entry provides more concrete biographical details.  Certain major saints and events don’t make the book, either because they are too specialized (St. Genevieve – Patron Saint of Paris) or so well known they needn’t be discussed at all (Feast of the Incarnation).

I  found the book most helpful for learning about new saints — especially those newly canonized, but also some of the more obscure historic saints.   I found that if I already knew quite a lot about a saint, invariably the editors had chosen to leave out some crucial detail I thought terribly important.    I was also frustrated with some entries that omitted even bare biographical details such as where the saint lived, in favor of more reflective commentary.  For example, the entry for “Teresa of Jesus” never tells us that this Teresa of Avila — I was only sure they were one and the same because I happened to have The Way of Perfection sitting on the bathroom counter,  which work was mentioned in the “Teresa of Jesus” entry.

I was very happy to confirm the commentary is all 100% straight Catholicism — neither to the left nor the right.  Because the book was assembled from the work of many contributing authors, and because my mood is highly changeable, sometimes I found the quotes and reflections a little wanting, other times they seemed to be dead-on.  For many entries, the related quote comes from a papal encyclical or other modern church document. I found myself  frustrated at times by their ponderous style, but also glad the editors chose to introduce the reader to these momentous and undeniably relevant works.

I’m still looking for the perfect one-volume, general-interest saints book.   Saint of the Day takes an honest stab at that effort, and if it isn’t perfect, I wasn’t able to find another book on the shelves of my local catholic bookstore that did as well.   For the fairly informed catholic adult looking  for a combination devotional and historical brush-up, this is a sound choice.  It probably will not be the one book that meets all your needs, but it is reliably catholic, and certainly does what any good saints book will do:  it points you in the right direction.

Asimov / Belloc follow-up

Finished reading The Shaping of France.  Pretty happy with it.  All my reservations stated below continued, and of course it was just dreadful to read such an agnostic account of Joan of Arc — what a spoilsport!  But as a nice clear, readable telling of the kings and battles of medieval France-in-progress, it did the trick.  Great introduction to military history for people who don’t really do military history, but want to understand some of the big picture.  For all its faults, I think reading this one is a good starting point, or re-freshing point, before diving deeper into any particular topic covering medieval France or England.  (For example: 1215.)

I’m not sure whether it makes Hillaire Belloc squirm or chuckle, but I think his  Characters of the Reformation is a natural follow-on to The Shaping of France. Similar type of work, though the author’s historical lense now switches from ardently-atheist-mode to ardently-catholic-mode.   Belloc’s character-by-character approach is a little more disjointed and difficult to follow, but in exchange you get a slightly more intense look at each individual.  Likewise, Asimov is the more goes-down-like-popcorn story-teller, but I think Belloc is selling meatier ideas.  (And it was very refreshing to read an account of the reformation from an unabashedly-catholic perspective.  Just because you never do.  No doubt a bit of bias in there, but bias worth discovering for change.)  As far as historical-documentation goes, they are twins.

My only regret on these two: I really wish I had read The Shaping of France before Characters of the Reformation, because the one really sets you up to understand the other.


Next on my to-do list: Getting my notes done on my medieval-france honkin’ big pile of library books before they have to go back at the end of the week.   In between taking girls to the Nutcracker, cooking for Thanksgiving, attending Thanksgiving, hosting Thanksgiving, and maybe doing other fun stuff.  And then cleaning of my desk, haha.


Reading French History to Understand the English

I’m about a third of the way through Isaac Asimov’s The Shaping of France (Houghton Mifflin, 1972).  Not exactly a proper history book, since there are absolutely no citations or bibliography or anything else to back up his various claims, but more like a highly readable report written by an astonishingly good undergrad.   For all the man can’t seem to document, he can tell a mighty good story.

I picked up the book from the library wanting shore up my knowledge medieval french history, and certainly it’s been helpful for that.  But the surprise was this:  Suddenly the history of medieval England makes so much more sense.   Asimov’s telling of the Capetian kings’ efforts to build a stable (French) kingdom works like the denoument of a good mystery, where Father Brown or Miss Marple explain the motives of that one character you never really noticed before, but whose actions were driving all the strange comings and goings of the rest.  You need, of course, to already have the outline of English history in the back of your head, or else the final explanation won’t do you any good.

–> I’m don’t know that Asimov’s book is the best out there.  You could never use it for academic purposes without making your advisor chuckle (or cringe, or both).  And I’m only up to Philip VI, so this a PBR.  But if you need an easily-digestible history of the kings from Charlemagne forward, in a way you can actually pretty much remember and make sense of, Asimov is mighty handy in a pinch.   And just the trick for making sense of England.


Booklet Report – Church & State . . .

The Relation of Church and the State in the Middle Ages

The Very Reverend Bede Jarret, OP, MA, STL

Requiem Press, 2005

ISBN 0-9758542-7-5

Whew.  So as you know, when it comes to philosophy, I really have just fallen off the turnip trunk.  Which  is a bit of a problem, because when I picked out this little booklet as part of my Req Press omnibus order in January, it looked like a perfectly nice essay on *history*.  Close: history of ideas.  Lent-a-claus sure was feeling lenty on me.

Luckily not a very long essay — the whole booklet is about 30 pages of comfortable middle-sized print – and entirely readable.  I couldn’t comment critically on it, but I could understand it.

Here’s what it is: A summary of how theologians have viewed the relationship of church and state from the founding of Christianity through the end of the middle ages, and how that relationship has worked in practice.  The goal is to puzzle out how the English Martyrs got into the position they did.  Seems obvious now, but apparently, as the publisher’s preface observes, even St. Thomas More didn’t initially believe that the papacy was a divine institution.

Now if your history-of-philosophy education was as sorry as mine, your knowledge on this topic might consist of two assumptions:

1) We enlightened people believe in the Separation of Church and State

2) People in the past believed in The Divine Right of Kings.

The Relation of Church and State walks you through a much more nuanced and detailed assessment of how Christian thought and practice has developed over the centuries.  It opens with this observation about why the question is a uniquely Christian one:

That the difficulty [of adjusting the relations of church and state] is wholly Christian can be seen if it be remembered (using the words in their present day sense) that to the pagan his State was his Church, and to the Jew his Church was his State.  In either view, they were not two powers, but one. . . . For the Christian, however, the problem was much more delicate, since he was brought up to look on both the Church and State as divinely authorized powers and to believe that the authority of both was from God.

Tricky, what with the king being Nero and all.

But it got even trickier after the Edict of Milan:

. . . when Christians were allowed freedom of worship, and when the Emperor himself became a catechumen.  The difficulty now was no longer the simple difficulty of heroic obedience to a persecuting government, but of adjusting obedience to two authorities which were both interested in the application of the moral law of Christ to life.

The essay details of how this tension was addressed through the centuries, and what legacy was available to the martyrs of the English Reformation.   I can’t tell you how completely or precisely the author covers the topic, because it is brand new to me.  But I will say that it is worth your attention, if you want a survey of ideas for an introduction.  (Or, if you are more knowledgeable, you want a nice argument.)

Curiously, the conclusion is that relationship of the papacy to the national monarchies remained incompletely resolved at the close of the middle ages.  Jarret concludes that the the right to invest the Bishops was won by the papacy.  The right to tax and judge the clergy was won by the national monarchies.  But one thorny issue remained open:

. . . the right to determine the character of the beliefs of the nation.  This was the wholly new problem which John Fisher, Thomas More and the rest had to settle for themselves.

Worth a look.  I won’t say it’s an essay for everybody; but if it is a topic that interests you, it’s a respectable start.  And manageable – ordinary mortals can read it, which cannot be said for all works of philosophy.

Oh and the most wonderful bit about Requiem Press’s edition:  *translations of all the Latin*. Ha.  Because you know back in 1928 when this paper was first presented, it was assumed you could just toss off bits of Latin and everyone would understand.  Turns out not only was my philosophy education deficient, but my Latin isn’t all that great either.  Go Req Press.  My heros.  Woohoo.

Figuring Out What’s What in Medieval French

I’ve been reading The Story of French by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow on and off for a while now.  Picked it up from the library about a year or so ago and never got past the introduction; got it out again recently, and have been browsing through it in spurts.  Pleasantly surprised tonight to discover I have one more renewal left before it goes back, so I may yet make some headway.

I should say right now that if you pick up this book, go straight to a chapter that interests you.  I had to slog through the introduction (I’m not saying *you* shouldn’t read it, just saying, don’t judge a book by its intro), but was rewarded in chapter one with a great lesson on the basics of what-was-what in medieval french languages.

So far I’m up to p. 100 in the cover-to-cover reading of the book, but I’ve also skipped ahead and read some bits farther along, and it was all good.  Assuming you have at least a smidgen of background on the topic, you can pretty safely just pick up and read wherever you like, and come away entertained and educated.  You do not, by the way, need to know French — English translations provided for all the non-obvious French words tossed out as linguistic examples, and some of the obvious ones, too.  (Say you couldn’t figure out that the word zéro meant, er, zero?  Don’t worry, there’s a translation there for you on p. 30.)


What struck me in reading the chapter on medieval ‘french’ is just how busy a time it was, linguistically.  By the year 800 a language distinct from latin had emerged, to the point that the church had to require homilies be given in the vernacular.  But this new language was both very local — not so much a unified language as a collection of more or less mutally understandable regional dialects — and vigorously international.  In addition to the exportation of Norman French to England with William the Conquerer, there was the development of the lingua franca, an italian-french dialect used in the mediterranean.

(Why did French become the, er, lingua franca of this region?  It was the dominant foreign culture.  Not unlike how the Amish call the rest of America ‘the English’, or a non-hispanic American might be called an ‘Anglo’, the Arabs apparently call all the crusaders, regardless of country of origin, ‘French’.)

–> And still more going on in addition to all that, over the five or so centuries that are especially middle of the middle ages.  Borrow the book and read Chapter 1 to get the introductory course.

There’s something worth understanding here.  When we think about language and geography and politics and culture, we Americans come from a perspective of a single highly standardized common language that has been fairly stable since as long as we can remember.  It is important in looking at medieval history and culture to understand that it was not this way then.  By getting a grasp of what was going on linguistically, we can avoid some common blunders in our historical analysis, and even hope to understand why certain elements of medieval society worked as they did.  Good stuff.  Well worth your time.