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History Vindicates the Church

FOR THE GLORY OF GOD: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, by Rodney Stark. Princeton University Press. 488 pp. $35.

Reviewed by the REV. MICHAEL P. ORSI, a research fellow in law and religion at the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

PERHAPS DURING the celebration of the millennium the pope would have been less apologetic for wrongs allegedly perpetrated by the Church had Rodney Stark’s new book been available.

Stark is probably the foremost sociologist of religion in America. Though not Catholic, he provides a brilliant defense of the Church’s beliefs, policies and practices during the last two millennia—based on hard data instead of the prejudicial beliefs that colored Enlightenment scholarship.

Aside from the few times when he assumes the role of a theologian, as when he pronounces on the validity of Anglican Orders or describes indulgences as “theological creativity,” Stark has given monotheism and Christianity—and Catholicism in particular—long overdue kudos for their unsurpassed contribution to human welfare.

According to Stark, human well-being found its greatest support in monotheism because it provides a coherent worldview based on the benevolence of the one God toward humans. It also teaches that God had a design for the universe.

Christianity, with its incarnational beliefs, strongly encourages a moral law recognizing the dignity of persons, as well as the promotion of knowledge to aid in the development of science and culture for their benefit.

Stark strongly pooh-poohs the commonly held belief that the Church stood in the way of human advancement in the “Dark Ages,” which he proves were not dark at all but a period of exceptional intellectual and technological growth.

He shows that the Church was not an enemy of science or antagonistic toward the discoveries of Copernicus or Galileo. Stark points to Church-sponsored universities as places of great learning where discovery was encouraged. He also shows that this was the belief of many scientists popularly portrayed as hostile or agnostic who were, in fact, believers.

Stark contends the Protestantism of the Reformation grew out of poor evangelization. There is always a market for quality religion, Stark believes, and when the major Church fails to provide good spiritual experience, new groups form. Strong lessons may be garnered for the contemporary loss of many Catholics to Evangelicals and Mormons in South and Central America.

Concerning the Church’s position and involvement in witch-hunts and slavery, Stark makes two points: First, Rome was extremely cautious with witch trials and, for the most part, discouraged them. The Inquisition, as a matter of fact, was implemented as a protection for the accused. He shows how in areas where the Church was strong, such as Italy and Spain, death sentences for witchcraft were few.

Second, slavery is antithetic to Catholic belief. Stark provides early and abundant data regarding official Church teaching that condemns slavery as evil. He also shows how in Catholic countries greater care was taken of the slaves because of their masters’ inherent belief in the slaves’ humanity, which was formed in the image of the Creator. That slavery existed at all in these countries he attributes to human sinfulness, not to the official Church.

Some salient points Stark dares to make are certainly not politically correct: Africans captured and sold their own people and Muslim nations used more black slaves by far than did Western countries.

Stark debunks the Marxist revisionist theories that slavery ended because it was no longer an economically viable institution. He says slavery ended because of the Christian moral vision that declared it to be a repulsive institution contrary to God’s law and because Christian churches organized opposition to it.

Anyone interested in the study of religion and its impact on society should read this book. It is a vindication of the role of the Church in some of the major issues that have confronted humankind over the last two millennia. It may be time for scholars and social agitators to apologize to the Church for faulty scholarship, misinformation and, in some cases, intentional slanders.

You can order FOR THE GLORY OF GOD: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery from St. Francis Bookshop.


A TRAVEL GUIDE TO HEAVEN, by Anthony DeStefano. Doubleday. 193 pp. $18.95.

THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN, by Mitch Albom. Hyperion Press. 196 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by MARK M. WILKINS, a teacher and coach at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

WHILE MANY PEOPLE struggle with the meaning of life and the purpose for living, there are probably just as many who wrestle with the meaning of death and what follows this life, if anything. Two authors ask us to rethink the hopes and expectations we have about heaven.

Anthony DeStefano, executive director of Priests for Life, is the author of A Travel Guide to Heaven. He wrote the book after listening to sermons and eulogies at 15 funerals in six months. While the words seemed sincere and truthful, they were missing something.

His book starts with the question “If heaven is so great, why aren’t most of us more excited about getting there?” The author responds that we have probably underestimated the glory, the wonder and the delights that we will experience there.

By using primarily the Bible as his guide, as well as the writings of the great Church teachers, DeStefano notes that most people miss the fundamental Christian teaching about life after the resurrection: Heaven is going to be physical as well as spiritual.

DeStefano had a second insight about heaven when he and his wife were staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The hotel had lost the couple’s reservations so they ended up in a $5,000-a-night suite for the price of a regular room. Making a champagne toast to his wife, he said, “This is heaven on earth!” The book had its beginnings there.

The key premise of this book is that heaven will not be less real. It will not be cloudy, spiritual and unreal, but dynamic, vibrant and alive. Whatever God has created will be there in the fullness of its glory, the fullness of what God created it all to be.

Everything and everyone that has meant anything to us will be in heaven. Anything and anyone that has been a source of truth, beauty and goodness will be fully available and fully present to us in heaven. DeStefano offers an intriguing take on what has been traditionally very heady and very dry.

The book ends with a brief reflection on the path we need to follow to achieve this goal. He writes that the crucifixion is the price that has been paid for this glorious reward. All we have to do is make God the sovereign of our lives. The last chapter offers a brief overview of what that will entail.

Mitch Albom, a respected columnist, broadcaster and author of Tuesdays With Morrie, presents a novel that he hopes will challenge everything we’ve thought about the afterlife—and the meaning of our life here on earth.

In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Eddie is an embittered, gimpy old man whose days are a dull routine of work at an aging amusement park. He has little besides his apartment, his memories and fixing the rides at the park. On his 83rd birthday, he dies in a tragic accident trying to save a little girl when one of the carts falls off the tracks. His final memory is of two small hands in his, then nothing.

Eddie awakens in the afterlife where he experiences not a Garden of Eden, but a place where your purpose in life is made clear by five people who were in it. These people may have been close relationships, casual acquaintances or passing encounters.

Through each step, Eddie still struggles with the outcome of his last act—the final failure or the one heroic act. The answer is unexpected but brings the story together in a touching way.

The approaches of these two books could not be more different, yet they both bring a creative point of view to the image of heaven. They both bring life to the afterlife. These are not scholarly treatises on the beatific vision. Neither is a one-dimensional, pious story of the eternal bliss of our heavenly home. There is no rapture, no tribulation, nobody left behind.

Heaven is presented as intriguing, enriching, challenging and mind-boggling on a physical and personal level. Life will not be dull and repetitive, but will have sizzle and whimsy galore.

I like both books. Both were little books that got me thinking about what I hope that heaven will be like. While DeStefano explicitly refers to Scripture, Albom offers a creative telling of Matthew 25’s Last Judgment (“Whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren...”).

One of DeStefano’s premises did bug me a little. He regularly compared heaven to a five-star luxury resort. It all seemed a little too upscale for me. I get all the beauty and the pleasure, but why not in a simple cabin or a hut with a little garden to tend? Beauty need not equate to luxury and pampering. Maybe heaven is where the tables are turned, and we learn to see the beauty in God’s creation and in the people we look past.

Albom’s book is more challenging. He reflects on the mystery of relationships and the promise that all that is incomplete now will be made whole then, and will we be surprised!

You can order A TRAVEL GUIDE TO HEAVEN and THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN from St. Francis Bookshop.


HOLY CARDS, by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua. Harry N. Abrams Publishers. 144 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by MARY JO DANGEL, assistant managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger, who is old enough to remember pagan babies and holy cards.

THE COVER AND TITLE will catch the attention of Catholic baby boomers and older, especially women who fondly recall collecting these portable images of Catholic folk art.

During my grade school years, the sisters distributed these inexpensive artworks to students as rewards for good grades, birthdays and religious celebrations. We treasured them and proudly showed them off to friends. As the book says, many people continue to carry these cards “out of loyalty to a patron saint.”

Many of my older holy cards, in addition to those I receive today, come from funerals of friends and relatives. While the front often displays the image of a saint, the back usually contains information about the deceased and a meaningful prayer. I recently discovered one of these cards in the pocket of a coat I seldom wear. When I read the information on the back, I realized that the birthday of the deceased was that week!

Holy Cards contains 110 colorful images of saints and near saints (some haven’t been canonized yet) printed on sturdy paper. The gold-framed illustrations on the cover are reproduced more clearly than the grainy images inside.

The book contains a brief history of these visual inspirations, including a note that “our present-day lace Valentine’s Day cards are direct descendants of these early saints’ cards.” A description of the saints accompanies the cards.

The artistic elements that are incorporated in the illustrations are significant in telling the story of the person who is depicted. Thus, the book contains a list that explains the meanings of colors, animals, plants, clothing and other objects.

Not all the saints were familiar to me. For example, St. Apollonia, who died in 249 and is the patron of dentists, is shown standing near a fire with her mouth closed and she’s holding pincers. During a purge of Christians, this martyr’s teeth were pulled and she was then burned on a pyre.

Some of the martyr cards contain images of what was once considered graphic violence and still looks gory to me. I think these torture-and-dismemberment scenes were meant to scare us into being good.

I couldn’t help chuckling at one series of martyr cards that were distributed by a chocolate company owned by Cistercian Trappist monks in France. I recall the joy of finding the prizes in boxes of Cracker Jacks, but I can’t imagine children being rewarded with these gruesome scenes after gobbling candy bars.

You can order HOLY CARDS from St. Francis Bookshop.



Book Briefs

Memoirs allow us to see people’s lives through their eyes. These  paper-backs come from three extraordinary priests/ministers whose diverse struggles counter some of today’s bad press that clergy are getting.

FROM TIME TO ETERNITY AND BACK: A Priest’s Successful Struggle With Cancer, by Father Joseph M. Champlin (St. Pauls/Alba House, 117 pp., $12.95), is an inspiring account of coping with a rare form of bone-marrow cancer. For this 70-year-old rector of the Syracuse cathedral and a frequent contributor to St. Anthony Messenger, the diagnosis brought him up short. The book gives a great deal of medical information (maybe too much), but also reflects on the ultimate questions that the “big C” poses for anyone.

DIARY OF A BARRIO PRIEST, by Michael P. Enright, with a Foreword by Andrew Greeley (Orbis Books, 164 pp., $16), is another terribly honest tale, this one from an Anglo priest assigned to Hispanic parishes on Chicago’s South Side for the past 15 years. Understated but unflinching, Father Enright describes gang warfare and grinding poverty. This book has rightly been compared to Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, but in a gritty urban setting.

ON THE ROAD OF RECONCILIATION: A Brief Memoir, by John Morrow (Dufour Editions/The Columba Press, 86 pp., $12.95), is the story of a Presbyterian minister who was a founding member of the Corrymeela Community in Ireland, which aims at peacemaking.


Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 7.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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