BOOKS RECEIVED: @DouthatNYT on state the Church under Francis (terrific) – John Rist in Reading Augustine series (a scream)

John Rist is one of the best working scholars on Augustine and writers on ethics in the world.   His books are fantastic, but they are hard.

Who is this guy?  HERE  He was also one of my profs in Rome.

Rist sets out to clarify who Augustine was and wasn’t, who he is and isn’t.  Then he critiques contemporary theology, etc., a kind of status quaestionis through Augustine’s own eyes.  I’ve been interested in what Augustine would think of contemporary issues ever since my first thesis, which was on Augustine and the figure of the “theologian” (suggested to me by Joseph Card. Ratzinger, btw).  If anyone can tackle this issue in a big way, definitive way?, it’s John Rist.



In the first seven chapters of this book Augustine will say little about contemporary ‘theology’ and theologians, though he will show as he proceeds that he understands the need to tell a more substantial, less impressionistic theological story than most theologians now think necessary or even possible, for their judgements have been formed by a systemically developed ignorance of the history of theology. [Might I also add ignorance of history?  Recently a highly placed prelate gave a lecture in England and uttered all manner of absurdities based on premises that any 1st year student of the ancient world would have found laughable.  But I digress.] In these chapters he will indicate that his philosophical arguments, contextualized in much older and half-forgotten ‘philosophical’ and ‘theological’ beliefs, can call to account many of our own culture’s sacred cows. Then in Chapter 8 he will turn directly to contemporary theological trends and practices, to point to the minimum specifically intellectual work required if the discipline of ‘theology’ (as distinct from ‘philosophy’) is to be saved from the contempt in which (except in head-in-sand quarters) it is now almost universally held. His aim will be to replace secular idols (whether or not worshipped by quisling theologians) by something surprisingly like the thoughtful ‘theological’ Christianity he preached even to the uneducated in the early fifth-century North African city of Hippo.


In his own day Augustine argued with dissident Christians and with pagans. Nowadays few would call themselves ‘pagans’, though many would be happy to be called ‘secularists’. Our Augustine might see scant conceptual difference between the content of the two terms, for the secularists have their ‘gods’ (their idols) too, albeit they do not so designate them: their rights, their ‘charismatic’ politicians, their celebs and their ‘autonomy’. [NB] Throughout the following narrative Augustine will make little distinction between pagans and secularists when treating of recent centuries; indeed, he will view our age as in many respects a reversion to some of the least attractive and least defensible aspects of ancient paganism.

Things really pop in Chapter 8 – The Inevitable Irrelevance of Most Contemporary Theology.  One of my theologian friends told me that it’s “a scream”.  And that’s the right word.  I literally laughed aloud a couple of times.  A taste…

[T]he Catholic Church has thus gradually tended to evolve – other churches have already completed the mutation – into yet another NGO, albeit tarted up with a hypocritical or even nominal adherence to belief in a transcendent God….


[A] prominent Roman Catholic Cardinal bases his account of truth not on the ancient notion that it is higher than the human mind but rather that it ‘arises’ from a ‘dialogue’ between the pantheistic Spirit of the Whole and man’s increasingly secular awareness.

Rist includes, pace Newman’s Apologia, “Austin’s Brag”.  He also has a “Transcript of a Radio Interview with Bishop Austin Redivivus: 1 April 2016.”

And his “Further Reading” list is a treasure.

The Kindle edition has a clickable index!  Verrrrry helpful.

Speaking of the 21st century, this next title should be interesting reading in juxtaposition to Rist’s book.

Ross Douthat’s newest… I just received an advance uncorrected review copy.

To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism

In his opening remarks at Jesuit-run F.U in NYC, Douthat recently made three points which might be used to evaluate the papacy of Pope Francis, five years on: 1) his impact on the public’s perception of the Church; 2) his attempts at reforming the Vatican bureaucracy; 3) his position on “moral-theological controversies,” specifically, communion for the divorced and remarried.  These are spun out in the course of the book’s conclusion.  But how he get’s there is riveting.  This is a status quaesitionis book which resolves in a provocative: “Quo?” 

PRE-ORDER now at a discount for its March release.

His preface is deeply personal. He lays out his background and positions and clearly states that he doesn’t intend to be neutral.  The first sentence:

This is a book about the most important religious story of our time: the fate of the world’s largest religious institution under a pope who believes that Roman Catholicism can change in ways that his predecessors rejected, and who faces resistance from Catholics who believe the changes he seeks risk breaking faith with Jesus Christ.


His chapter on Benedict’s resignation (as I write, it is the 5th anniversary of his announcement), is a pretty good summary of the issues of his papacy.  His chapter on the election of Francis starts out with the Sankt Gallen project.  His final chapter, pre-maturely perhaps entitled “The Francis Legacy” has this sobering paragraph.  He talks about sweeping aside cardinals and others who stand in his way and goes on:

This is, sometimes, what Francis himself has seemed to be aiming at with his footnotes and fraught silences-off legacy of theological liberalism in effective power, but with enough room left for theological conservatives parenthesis including all those “rigid” priests he dislikes but whom the church obviously needs) to feel like their understanding of Roman Catholicism still has life. But as we have seen just in the two years since Amoris was published, this kind of truce is difficult to sustain. The old truce worked, sort of, because both sides thought of themselves as playing a long game: Conservatives had a (complacent) confidence that papal authority would gradually overcome dissent, and liberals accepted that they would not enjoy power for the foreseeable future, which meant that it almost didn’t matter what happened in Rome day-to-day, because when the necessary changes came, all of the mistakes of the John Paul era would be swept away together.

Under the new truce, though, the day to day stakes for conservatives are much higher-with more popes like Francis, Catholic truth will stand on a knife’s edge, and the promise for liberals much more immediate and tempting and hard to resist pursuing further.


There are so many bits I would like to quote from his concluding chapter, as he describes the present state of things in this papacy.

I think that he has nailed it.

Back to Rist for a moment.

To anyone who studies Augustine, Rist’s book is necessary.  Just buy it.



And this is a hard book, but rewarding.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Eric says:

    I got the Rist book yesterday! About to open it today. Can’t wait after reading this.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. ejcmartin says:

    The liberals, who hold the power, in my diocese have been emboldened by this pontificate. They are foisting upon parishes a “pastoral assistant” model whereby a lay person will lead communion services and liturgy of the word. Pray for us.

  3. Antonin says:

    Pope Francis has some serious issues to face in his handling of the abuse crisis in Chile. Troubling questions and more troubling responses. So far, the Catholic press, has been very genteel in handling this explosive story.

  4. Pingback: MONDAY EXTRA I – Big Pulpit

  5. Joy65 says:

    “They are foisting upon parishes a “pastoral assistant” model whereby a lay person will lead communion services and liturgy of the word. Pray for us.”

    I am so sorry for y’all that this is happening. Prayers going out.

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