'A far-reaching and pervasive influence'

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'A far-reaching and pervasive influence' 

Christopher Chapman

Director of the Diocesan Office for Elementary and Secondary School Catechesis  

Book Review  

Mike Aquilina has written what strikes me as a fatherly book on the faith. If it is true that parents are the primary educators of their children (it is true!) and the ones most responsible for the handing on of the faith, then Aquilina has written a book that can aid that important project. 

Too often it is people outside the family of faith who want to tell us the story of the church. Very often what they present is a selective reading of church history, one that focuses on the most negative aspects, which is then sometimes accented with a lack of charity for the whole Christian project. Aquilina has provided an engaging antidote to that kind of story. Without falling into a Pollyannaish or naive defense, he makes a convincing case for the great good that has come into the world through the church.

How does he do this? Well, you get chapters on art, charity, music, literature, women, children, human dignity, the future, science and generally "how the church saved civilization!" 

The church founded by Christ, and referred to in the catechism as "the universal sacrament of salvation," has had a far-reaching and pervasive influence, really more than any other institution in the history of the world.

Far too often we hear of the abuses and failures of the church and the members of the church, and while this can be important to take stock of when done in charity and justice, the litany of the positive contributions of the church is much longer and much more impressive.

This is the kind of book that an eighth-grader could pick up and read profitably as well as a 60-year-old professor.

Aquilina is remarkably well read, and his knowledge spans a great deal. We get glimpses of Julian the Apostate, St. Basil, Michelangelo, St. Agnes, Pittsburgh jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, Andy Warhol, Bartholeme de las Casas, Dante and many, many others. While the book, out of necessity, is short, it begins so many potential conversations and opens up so many promising avenues of thought and further reading that one will be surprised how much one can get out of such a concise offering.

If the purpose of the new evangelization is to re-propose the Gospel, not just to those outside the church but to those who already are in the church, then one can include this book as a fine complement to the many books and resources on, or in the spirit, of the new evangelization that are fast appearing. 

In drawing attention to so many good fruits born over so many centuries by the church and her members, one should be more convinced that the church really is an agent of good and something that serious people can take seriously. 

While this book is not meant to be definitive in any way, it is a great place to start taking stock of the legacy of the Catholic Church -- which is nothing to be ashamed of. Mothers and fathers (not to mention teachers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, priests, etc.), take note -- here is an aid to your task of passing on the faith! 

Book explores church's role in shaping our culture

Michael Dern


Yours Is the Church That Nurtured Modern Science 

 Albert, Aquinas and Copernicus are but a few who have made profound contributions to the study of contemporary science. All of these major thinkers have one main underpinning -- their relationship with the Catholic Church. Though these thinkers are known for their achievements in various fields of science, their work originates from the understanding that God is rational and humankind can use reasoning to understand his universe.

This understanding is a fundamental teaching of the church and is why Mike Aquilina argues that "Yours Is the Church That Nurtured Modern Science."     

One of the themes in Chapter 2 of Aquilina's book is the understanding that human reason is a direct gift from God. We are given intellect to understand his divine works. In this way and with this understanding, the church nurtured scientific study.

"The world is put together in such a way that we can use reason to understand it. One discovery leads to another, because the world is built everywhere on the same fundamental principles," Aquilina writes. 

Saints Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas framed Aristotelian thought to parallel Christian principles. This propelled advancements in science during the Middle Ages, subsequently establishing cornerstones for the study of contemporary science.

St. Albert, who was a doctor and bishop of the church in the Middle Ages, used reason to outline and present an understanding of science that brought him accolades as the "greatest scientist of his age."

Albert's contributions covered the science spectrum, including anatomy, botany, chemistry and physics. He was labeled by many scientists the "father of the experimental method."

Albert the Great's student was Thomas Aquinas. Born into an affluent household in 1225, his parents planned for him to join a monastic order, but Aquinas envisioned life in the Dominican order. 

Aquinas' classic work, "Summa Theologica," considered one of the greatest expositions of church teaching, is also a cornerstone of modern science and logic. Albert and Aquinas used logic to advance science, and they did so understanding "that God is completely and purely rational," thus his universe can be understood through rational thought. 

One can use the sciences to understand God's creation because individuals are made in his image and, therefore, have the ability to understand his universe through the sciences available to them, Aquilina writes. 

Albert and Thomas -- and all others who have contributed to contemporary science -- used what is given to them during human creation to propel advancements in modern science. These advancements would not be possible if God were irrational or had not created humanity in his image. Without God's creation, humanity would not have the intellect to reason. 

"Yours Is the Church That Nurtured Modern Science" because Catholic doctrine dictates God is rational. Since humans are created in his image, they can use reason to understand his creation, Aquilina explains. 

Yours Is the Church That Inspired Great Literature 

Around the fourth century, Western literature was in a conflicting situation as imitation was gaining more acclaim than authenticity in many authors' works. 

"A writer earned praise not for what he had to say but for imitating the styles of certain approved authors as closely as possible," Mike Aquilina writes. 

Western literature was losing its originality and was being replaced with recycled ideas and themes articulated from different perspectives by writers of the day.

But through the poetic voices of Aquinas, Augustine, Dante, Cervantes and Chaucer, "Yours Is the Church That Inspired Great Literature." They reinstated authenticity within Western literature and became keystones in the humanities. And all their works reflect the faith that motivated them. 

Augustine's "Confessions" is a purely authentic conversation to God in which Augustine reaches "into his own soul" examining his conscious with "extraordinary minuteness." His work alone gave Western literature an original voice filled with new perspectives of life now and in the hereafter, as well as an understanding of one of the most popular saints in Catholicism. 

"("Confessions") blasted a hole right through all the categories of classical literature, because it said something that no one had ever said before. St. Augustine created his own category and sent literature reeling in a new direction," Aquilina writes. 

Direction is the theme of another prolific writer whose message is life in the afterlife. Western literature's analysis of life in the hereafter is best articulated by the poetic voice of Dante Alighieri. With the assistance of guides Virgil and Beatrice, Alighieri constructed a vision of the afterlife divided into three sections -- heaven, purgatory and hell -- collectively delivered as the "Divine Comedy."

Not only were Augustine and Alighieri delivering authentic perspectives to Western literature, they were articulating principles of Catholicism, including sin, penance and the afterlife.

Cervantes and Chaucer also added authentic perspectives to Western literature through Catholic underpinnings. Cervantes' "Don Quixote," Aquilina writes, "takes place in a Catholic world (‚Ķ) because it depends on a Catholic way of seeing humanity. We are fallen and imperfect, but we are also great, created in the image of God." 

Similarly, Aquilina states that Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" is presented from a Catholic perspective: "There is hope for the sinners, and even the saints are refreshingly human." 

Discussion regarding Western literature cannot elude the poetic brilliance of William Shakespeare. Though his contributions to Western literature are vast, how much of his work is grounded in Catholicism? Aquilina offers exploration: "Shakespeare had thoroughly Catholic sensibilities (…) England was Catholic in all its thinking; it would take generations before there could be any real separation between Anglican and Catholic thinking in the ordinary English mind."

By referencing these writers, Aquilina explores the authenticity added to Western literature by some of the most poetic voices. Though each voice has contributed authentic perspectives, each voice is also rooted in Catholic principles.

Alighieri and Augustine poetically articulate Catholic doctrine in their respected works. Cervantes, Chaucer and Shakespeare directly and indirectly explore Catholic beliefs of the time, demonstrating "Yours Is the Church That Inspired Great Literature." 

Yours Is the Church That Made Women People

Life as a Roman during antiquity and the early Middle Ages was much different than today's standards when considering the equality among genders.

"For pagan Romans, the female half of the species was always the property of the male. And she was the sort of property that was usually more liability than asset," Aquilina writes. 

This was by no means the proclamation of Christ or the intended workings of his church. "If Christ himself paid attention to what the women around him had to say, no Christian could dismiss women as not worth listening to," the author explains.

The faith had a truly revolutionary impact on the role of women in society. Catholic women pioneered women's rights during patriarchal antiquity and the Middle Ages. 

St. Agnes and St. Catherine of Siena are two Catholic saints who were leading voices during this era in which their contributions to society and Catholicism demonstrates "Yours Is the Church That Made Women People."  

St. Agnes and St. Catherine of Siena are two saints who exemplify the church's efforts in narrowing gender inequality. Their stories are different, but both championed female rights and distinguished themselves as leaders in an era populated by male supremacy. 

Agnes, for instance, refused to wed an older male, proclaiming that "she belonged to Christ and no other man." Her steadfast proclamation ultimately resulted in her execution, but she viewed her death as the opportunity to be eternally united with her "true Bridegroom." 

Her unwavering love for and devotion to Christ and his teachings became the popular story in Rome following her execution. "She became their symbol of virtuous innocence winning the ultimate victory over cruel tyranny," Aquilina writes. Agnes had a vision and was guided by her beliefs regardless of the steadfast patriarchy of the time. 

Christ as the "true Bridegroom" also guides the life of Catherine of Siena. Recognized as one of the greatest doctors of the Catholic Church, Catherine's love for Christ was evident at a young age when she repeatedly stated her strong desire to join the Dominican order and her vow of celibacy at the age of 7.

Though she died at the age of 33, she helped restore Catholicism, being a leading female voice in moving the papacy from Avignon, in southern France, back to Rome. In addition, she lived her 33 years as a servant of Christ by caring for the poor and offering charitable services as necessary.  

The church does not stop with Agnes and Catherine, as there are several females within Catholicism who have helped champion women's rights. Through Catholics such as Agnes and Catherine, the voice of the Catholic Church defended women's rights long ago and will continue to do so during post-modernity and beyond.

Despite the decreasing level of morality within contemporary society, "She will always defend the rights of women and proclaim their dignity," since "Yours Is the Church That Made Women People." 

Yours Is the Church of Human Dignity 

It is a fundamental Catholic understanding that each human life originates from God, and, therefore, each human life is equally important.

One of the most apparent underpinnings for human inequality explored by Aquilina is the issue of "human inferiority."

Human inferiority is the perception of one party being dominant by another. Through consistent and steadfast attempts by many Catholic voices, the church supported efforts to bring about equality for all races. 

Human inferiority was fundamental in pagan society, where through slavery the issue of human inferiority is taken to another level in which one party is literally the property of the other. 

Bartholome de las Casas, the first Catholic priest of the New World, witnessed the brutality of slavery as a youngster in Hispaniola. Hispaniola was a Spanish colony where the colonists established a "brutal system of exploiting the native population," Aquilina explains. 

The exploitation was so brutal that a group of visiting Dominican friars refused slave owners penance, including Bartholome, who had been a slave owner for a period of time. It was not until one of the friars delivered a "fire-and-brimstone sermon" that he seriously considered the troubling nature of slavery and slavery's disregard for human dignity.  Following the slaughter of innocent Cuban villagers, serious efforts to end the killing became a grave reality for the Catholic priest, and he lived the remaining years of his life voicing the necessity for equality.

Aquilina brings this discussion to more recent history when, following World War II, Christian principles clashed with atheist ideologies of the Soviet Union throughout Eastern Europe and as communism began to spread throughout the world. 

"Communist dictatorships rose up in Southeast Asia, in Africa, and in Central America; wherever they rose, religion was persecuted as the enemy of the people." Aquilina continues, "Atheist fanatics sent people to re-education camps or firing squads for the crime of being religious." 

The world needed a leader for the people; someone who would defend and support Christianity and its principles. 

In a time of uncertainty and conflict rose the leader with these capabilities. Polish native Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected to the papacy, becoming a Christian icon for equality throughout the world. The pope encouraged the Christian faithful to defend their faith and combat atheist ideologies. 

The pope's message, "Do not be afraid," inspired the faithful to live out their Catholic faith, ultimately deflating atheist ideology and balancing authority as much as possible throughout the communist states. John Paul II's papacy answered the challenges of the day, demonstrating "Yours Is the Church of Human Dignity."