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The Positive Witness of the Creed

THE 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 was unnecessary.

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.

THE CONCLAVE: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History of Papal Elections, by Michael Walsh. Rowman and Littlefield. 180 pp. $22.95.

SELECTING THE POPE: Uncovering the Mysteries of Papal Elections, by Greg Tobin. Barnes and Noble. 200 pp. $9.95.

BEHIND 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 papal elections.

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 21, 2003.

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 index.

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 pope.

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 errors.

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. Francis Bookshop.

THE 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 publication.

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 “Communicate.”

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 an index.

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 peace.

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. Francis Bookshop.


Book Briefs

In the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision 31 years ago, the Church formulated its opposition to abortion within a consistent ethic of life. These books consider ways anyone can be pro-life.

CREATING A CULTURE OF LIFE, by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.(Thomas More, 128 pp., $10), considers what a consistent ethic of life means for our everyday lives. In short chapters, this professor of theology at Cincinnati’s Xavier University addresses today’s social, political and ethical issues from this perspective. My autographed copy contains a handwritten reference to John 10:10, as to why Jesus came: that we may have life and have it more abundantly.

FRANCISCAN NONVIOLENCE: Stories, Reflections, Principles, Practices and Resources, by Ken Butigan, Mary Litell, O.S.F., and Louis Vitale, O.F.M.(Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, 1420 W. Bartlett Ave., Las Vegas, NV 89106, phone 702-648-2281, 124 pp., $12.95), reclaims the Franciscan role of peacemakers. Half of the book is stories from St. Francis’ and St. Clare’s lives; the other half suggests ways to cultivate nonviolence and gives some resources.

A CREATIVE ODYSSEY: The Story of Floyd and Richie, by Richard L. Rotelli (Infinity Publishing Co., 519 West Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, PA 19041-1413, 406 pp., $19.95), is a homespun story of a crippled man and the author’s father. In many practical ways, like making a wheelchair, Richie helped Floyd to achieve independence.

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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