CREED: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters, by
Luke Timothy Johnson. Doubleday. 324 pp. $23.95.
Reviewed by JOHN F. FINK, author and editor emeritus of
The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
EVERY WEEKEND during Mass, we Catholics stand
and recite the Nicene Creed. We have been doing that since
our childhood, but how often do we think about the things
that we say “we believe”?
In his latest book, Luke Timothy Johnson asks
if we really believe the outrageous things that are in the
Creed. Being part of “the intelligentsia,” he says, has meant
despising creeds in general and Christianity’s creed in particular.
Not unexpectedly, Johnson disagrees. The Creed,
he says, “communicates a compelling vision of the world’s
destiny and humanity’s role that challenges the accustomed
idolatries and the weary platitudes of current worldly wisdom.”
Johnson, a former Benedictine monk, is a professor
of New Testament at Emory University.
In this book, he naturally begins by tracing the
origins and development of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed
that we recite each week. He begins with the letters of St.
Paul, and he tells how such early Fathers of the Church as
Ignatius of Antioch, Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian
and Origen contributed to the beliefs that Christians profess.
The Creed itself was formulated during the Council
of Nicaea in 325 and then refined by the Council of Constantinople
in 381. It was occasioned by the controversy over Arianism,
the heresy that denied the divinity of Jesus.
Johnson says that the Creed performs five distinct
but interrelated functions: It narrates the Christian myth,
interprets Scripture, constructs a world, guides Christian
practices and prepares the Christian people for worship. Myth,
by the way, does not mean untrue. It is language that seeks
to express a truth beyond what we can test and prove.
He examines each statement in the Creed in detail,
explaining what it means and why Christians believe it. In
particular, he is thorough (even exhaustive) in giving all
of the scriptural references for each statement. (Readers
could exhaust themselves by looking up each reference. Most
of us will accept Johnson’s research as accurate.)
Johnson is known for his opposition to the so-called
Jesus Seminar and the attempt to discover “the historical
Jesus, apart from faith.” As he did in a previous book, The
Real Jesus, he points out in several places that a Jesus
stripped of divinity is just another human being. Why, he
asks, would such a Jesus matter more than Socrates or Confucius
or the Buddha?
Johnson steers a middle course between fundamentalists, who
take every word of Scripture literally, and progressives,
who insist on a “reasonable” Christianity. One battleground
between the two forces is the doctrine of the virgin birth.
He contends that it is neither possible nor important to know
the biology of Jesus’ conception and birth. Rather, what is
important is that the incarnation of God’s Son came about
through both divine and human agency.
He covers the Catholic Church’s addition of the
filioque phrase, a doctrinal matter that still divides
the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. He believes the addition
One of the strongest chapters in this book is
Johnson’s examination of the four marks of the Church—one,
holy, catholic and apostolic. These, he contends, describe
an ideal that the Church has never realized and will never
fully realize. He notes, too, that the term “Roman Catholic”
is oxymoronic, combining the element of universality with
a highly particular adjective.
After examining the whole Creed, he says, “Everything
up to this point has been introduction.” His final chapters
try to explain why it matters what Christians believe. It
is because Christians offer what they believe to be the truth
about the world in every respect. The doctrines expressed
in the Creed are not only true to Christians, but true for
all. That, he says, is the positive witness the Creed makes
to the world.
He also notes the simplicity of the Creed. It
consistently affirms what we believe without trying
to explain how those things are true. We believe, for
example, that God created all things, but the Creed doesn’t
tell us how.
This is an excellent book on the teachings of
Christianity as found in the Creed.
You can order THE CREED: What Christians Believe and
Why It Matters from
St. Francis Bookshop.
CONCLAVE: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History
of Papal Elections, by Michael Walsh. Rowman and
Littlefield. 180 pp. $22.95.
THE POPE: Uncovering the Mysteries of Papal Elections,
by Greg Tobin. Barnes and Noble. 200 pp. $9.95.
LOCKED DOORS: A History of the Papal Elections, by Frederic
J. Baumgartner. St. Martin’s Press. 272 pp. $24.95.
Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication
and a lifelong student of history. Between 1986 and 1992 he
served as director of communications at the international
headquarters in Rome of the Order of Friars Minor.
READERS WHO LIKE their history tidy or who
seek clues about the next papal election will probably not
enjoy Walsh’s book because he seeks only to describe past
After a 15-page chapter covering the selection
of popes before 366 A.D., Walsh devotes the next 143 pages
to describing the elections up through the October 1978 conclave.
A battle in 366 between the supporters of Ursinus and Damasus
left 137 people dead, according to the historian Ammianus
Marcellinus; in that battle, Damasus prevailed.
In the course of this book, readers learn that
the first pope to change his name was John II (elected in
533, originally named after the Roman god Mercury), that Gregory
II in 731 was the last pope to seek confirmation from the
exarch (the Byzantine emperor’s representative in Italy),
that Stephen II (elected 752) entered the official list of
popes only in the 16th century when election rather than consecration
was decided as the official moment of becoming pope.
Cardinals began as electors in 769; the election
of Marinus I as pope in 882 broke Church law at the time because
he was already a bishop and was, therefore, considered bound
to his original diocese. Benedict IX was pope three times,
resigning a third time in 1048; in 1059 a Roman synod designated
cardinal bishops as the sole electors of the pope; cardinal
priests and cardinal deacons eventually gained equal voting
rights by 1179, the year that a two-thirds majority was mandated
for an election.
Conclave rules were drawn up in 1274; it had taken
two years and three months before Pope Gregory X’s election
in 1271. Urban VI in 1378 was the last non-cardinal to be
elected pope. The longest conclave of the 20th century was
in 1922 (five days).
In 1958, John XXIII exceeded 70 as the traditional upper
limit for the number of cardinals; four years later he decided
that they should all be bishops. Later popes have allowed
exceptions to that rule.
An Afterword, a chronological list of popes and a bibliography
conclude Walsh’s excellent volume. He highly recommends the
Web site www.fiu.
edu/~mirandas/cardinals. htm. That site’s importance is
increased by the installation of another 30 cardinals on October
After a short overview of papal elections, Greg
Tobin’s book concentrates on John Paul II’s 1996 apostolic
constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, which sets the
rules to be followed in the next papal election.
Tobin gives a 40-page description of the process
and then that document’s exact text (26 more pages). He earlier
explained that this volume is for Catholics and non-Catholics
who are interested in how the pope is elected.
After providing a section entitled “Challenges Awaiting the
Next Pope,” the author offers notes, a glossary, a list of
sources and recommended reading, a chronology of popes (including
anti-popes), a time line of papal elections and major documents
governing them, a listing of pre-October 2003 cardinals (youngest
to oldest, with birthdays), acknowledgments and a seven-page
Baumgartner’s volume begins with the sentence,
“By the time the reader picks up this book, it is quite likely
that the exquisite drama of a papal election will have already
taken place, considering the age and ill health of John Paul
II, the current pope.” Not quite.
The author writes, “As the oldest system by far
for choosing the leader of an institution of any sort, the
history of the conclave demonstrates how legitimacy can be
achieved and maintained despite the personal foibles of those
who have been chosen pope and those doing the choosing.”
Facts unique to this volume include: There have been three
father-son successions in papal history; in 1059 laypeople
lost the right for direct input into papal elections; three
popes have lived past 90; Martin V was elected in 1417 by
23 cardinals and 30 more prelates added by the Council of
Constance as a way of ending the Great Western Schism; since
1454 all but six conclaves have been held at the Vatican;
the Sistine Chapel was first used for a conclave in 1484;
Gregory XVI (elected 1831) was the last non-bishop to be elected
Baumgartner errs on several dates: the year when
the Council of Trent ended, the year the Diocese of Baltimore
was created, the century when Stalin ruled the Soviet Union,
one reference to the year John XXIII was elected pope and
in saying that Paul VI’s 1965 visit to New York occurred while
Vatican II was not in session. He has a few other factual
Walsh’s book makes for interesting reading, but
Tobin’s volume and the Web site cited above are the better
primers for the next conclave.
You can order THE CONCLAVE: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally
Bloody History of Papal Elections, SELECTING THE POPE: Uncovering
the Mysteries of Papal Elections and BEHIND LOCKED
DOORS: A History of the Papal Elections from St.
HUMAN RIGHT TO PEACE, by Douglas Roche. Novalis.
271 pp. $19.95, U.S.; $24.95, Canada.
Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor of this
CANADIANS OFFER their neighbors to the south,
the Americans they sometimes call “Yanks,” some needed perspective.
I met Douglas Roche, who was the founding editor of the Catholic
diocesan newspaper in Edmonton, Saskatchewan, before he went
into politics. In this book he gives a reasoned and impassioned
plea for peace, beginning by critiquing American foreign policy
since 9/11. The first chapter, “Violence Is a Way of Life,”
alone is worth the book’s purchase price for Roche’s summary
of what has happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the book
is much, much more.
After four terms in Parliament (1972-1984), Roche became
Canada’s ambassador for disarmament. In 1988 the United Nation’s
43rd General Assembly elected him chairman of the UN Disarmament
Committee. In 1998 he received the United Nations Association’s
Medal of Honor and a papal medal for his service on disarmament
and security issues.
In the book’s Introduction (and repeated on its
flyleaf) Roche declares his credo: “I want a world that is
human-centered and genuinely democratic—a world that builds
and protects peace, equality, justice and development. I want
a world where human security, as envisioned in the principles
of the UN Charter, replaces armaments, violent conflict and
wars. I want a world where everyone lives in a clean environment
with a fair distribution of the earth’s resources and where
human rights are protected by a body of international law.”
In the 20th century, at least 110 million people
were killed in 250 wars—six times the number of war-related
deaths in the previous century (which had included the bloody
Crimean War and American Civil War). In fact, Roche says,
more than six million people have died since the end of the
Cold War when it looked as if peace was attainable.
This new century has not started well, either.
In 2001, 37 armed conflicts were fought in 30 countries. “The
terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, resulted in a surge
of the war culture.”
That violence has not made anyone safer. There
is a human right to peace, as the book’s title insists—a sacred
right. Roche says, “We need to face up to a hard reality:
Neither raw military strength, nuclear weapons, nor missile
defenses will defend us against persons who lash out at humanity
itself because of their consuming hatred.” Our only real defense
is to learn about the causes of that hatred and redress the
“great injustices that are today increasing the divisions
between the rich and poor, the powerful and the vulnerable,
and the triumphant and the despairing.”
Like Pope John Paul II, Roche sees today’s overarching
need as creating a culture of peace by education and justice.
In Chapter 7, “Religions: A Reconciliation of Peoples,” he
admits that what stands out in history since the 13th century
are wars of religion, but he also suggests some ways religion
can resolve conflict.
On a page and a half he reprints Laurie Phillips’s
“50 Ways to Build World Peace,” starting with “Take your share
of responsibility for the world” and ending with “Speak out
against prejudice.” While some of what’s in this book takes
place at the international level, Roche suggests peace starts
with simple activities like “Understand,” “Participate” and
The Appendix is the 1997 UNESCO Declaration
on the Human Right to Peace. There are also copious chapter
notes listing Roche’s research, some helpful Web sites and
A number of times, Roche refers to the view of
the earth as seen by the astronauts from space as one of the
icons of the 20th century because it showed us the earth as
one. The promise of those photos is offset by pictures of
the Hiroshima mushroom cloud. Our very survival calls upon
us to reject cynicism and change our attitudes about war and
This is an important book to read after attending
the Mass for Peace on January 1, 2004. Moreover, this is a
book to take to heart and put into action.
You can order THE HUMAN RIGHT TO PEACE from St.