Russell Hittinger, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World

Hittinger here takes on two important tasks.  First, he helps the reader “rediscover” the Catholic Church’s long tradition of natural law ethics that unfortunately has been largely under-appreciated in modern times.  Second, he applies that tradition to a number of contemporary moral and legal problems, including abortion, physician assisted suicide, religious liberty, and the proper role of judges.  An especially important theme is the relationship between freedom and authority.  Hittinger explains how natural law theory presents a harmonious, consistent theory of government authority and individual freedom, thereby exposing the severe limitations of the modern liberal view that considers authority and freedom to be fundamentally in tension with each other.  In accomplishing the above tasks, Hittinger, a professor of law and Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, manages to combine academic erudition with an immediate connection to pressing, real-world concerns.  He thereby shows the connection between ethics and theology on the one hand and law and culture on the other in a way that helps the reader understand and appreciate the importance of his subject.

George Weigel, Letters to a Young Catholic

Weigel, best known for his biography of Pope John Paul II and his many books on theological and ecclesial matters, here offers a very personal account and defense of the Catholic worldview.  Letters to a Young Catholic can be thought of as a guidebook, both geographical and religious.  The diversity of the sites Weigel centers the letters around are as diverse as the Church itself; Weigel begins with anecdotes from his upbringing in Baltimore, and later relates his experiences in traveling to various sites in Rome, Jerusalem, Krakow, and Greenville, S.C.  From each place, Weigel offers a meditation on an aspect of the Catholic vision of the world, a vision that encompasses not just theology and doctrine, but also art, history, music, and even simply sharing good conversation and a pint at a favorite pub with a friend (especially if the conversation happens to be between G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc at London’s Olde Cheshire Cheese).  Weigel’s writing here is accessible and often humorous, but also serious, and this book would indeed make a good gift for a young Catholic high school or college graduate.

Peter Steinfels, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Catholic Church in America

Although liberal and conservative Catholic commentators continually spar over what course the Church in this country should take, they certainly agree that the Church today is in crisis.  For Steinfels, who is perhaps the most articulate proponent of the liberal view, the ongoing sexual abuse scandal has not so much incited the crisis, as accelerated it.  The scope of this book is wide, as Steinfels assesses the state of Catholic education and health care, liturgy and parish life, and the relationships both among bishops and between the hierarchy and the laity.  Ultimately, Steinfels maintains that the crisis is one of leadership, that the Church has yet to demonstrate that it can cope with the drastic reductions in the number of priests and religious sisters and brothers, precisely those from whose ranks Church leaders have traditionally been chosen.

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