Wednesday, April 2, 2014

BkRev: Catholicism for Dummies

John Trigilio, Jr., and Kenneth Brighenti, Catholicism for Dummies, 2nd ed., Hoboken (New Jersey), John Wiley & Sons, 2012, 414 pages

I reviewed the Catechism of the Catholic Church on December 19, 2013, here; and I focused on particular aspects (reason, mysticism, the holy spirit) in later posts in that series.

While the Catechism is generally clear, it is also sometimes difficult to read because it is condensed; it is a handbook of teachings, not a tutorial. Trigilio and Brighenti's Catholicism for Dummies corrects the problem of difficult reading. Trigilio and Brighenti's writing is clear. They cover generally the same ground that Catechism covers and in the same order:
- Part I: What Do Catholics Believe?
- Part II: Celebrating the Mysteries of Faith [the Sacraments]
- Part III: Living a Saintly Life [Ethics]
- Part IV: Praying and Using Devotions
- Part V: The Part of Tens ["Ten Famous Catholics" and so forth]
- Part VI: Appendices (a 2000-year history of the Catholic Church in about 20 pages; and a collection of popular Catholic prayers]

(I read some parts closely; I skimmed some sections; and I skipped over some sections.)

If Catholicism for Dummies covers the same subjects as the Catechism, why review it here on TME? Catholicism for Dummies is an example of one of the many actions that philosophical activists can take to disseminate their ideas to a wide audience—in this case, an audience outside Catholic academic and administrative circles. Catholicism for Dummies includes checklists, simple icons ("Remember," "From the Bible," and "Warning!") that mark special or secondary text. The format includes wide margins and aims for ease of reading.

For the most serious advocates of reason who are also activists, Catholicism for Dummies serves as a test: Has the reader failed to understand or misunderstood Catholic doctrines and practices described in more formal documents such as the Catechism?

For the few, most serious advocates of reason, another advantage of reading this book is seeing the form of arguments that a well informed Catholic activist might use to explain Catholic ideas to an audience standing in front of him. For example, the following quotation is an excerpt from a three-page explanation of the relationship of reason and faith. The title of the section is "Backing Up Your Faith with Reason: Summa Theologica."

So are having faith and hoping to be saved the same as believing in the Tooth Fairy and hoping for a dollar bill under your pillow? Of course not. The First Vatican Council (1869-1879; also known as Vatican I) taught that you need the intervention of supernatural revelation to be saved, but certain truths, like the existence of God, are attainable on your own power by using human reason. 

In the 13th Century, St. Thomas Aquinas (see Chapter 21), a philosopher, explained how the human mind seeks different kinds of truth. He said that
- Scientific truth (also known as empirical truth) is known by observation and experimentation. So, for example, you know that fire is hot by burning your finger with a lit match.
- Philosophical truth is known by using human reason. You know that two plus two equals four, for example. So if two chairs are in a room and someone says, "I'll get two more," you know by using reason that the total will be four chairs. You don't need to count the chairs after they arrive.
- Theological truth, known only by faith, is the final and highest level of truth. It can't be observed, and it can't be reasoned; it must be believed by faith—taken on God's word, because He revealed it. (pp. 33-34)

Parts of the book defend Catholicism from false charges, for example, rebutting (the authors hope) the charge that Catholics are polytheists because they worship three gods (the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). (pp. 11, 32, 51, and 101-102) This function of defense is a standard function of activists. Christian intellectual activists who do so are called "apologists" (from the Greek word for "defense," apologia).

This book has a compound theme: The Catholic Church, the authors say, is here on earth to help save your soul for heaven—and the Church, through divine inspiration and 2000 years of diligent intellectualizing, has answers for almost all relevant questions. Anything that the Church cannot explain is a mystery and requires faith. In Catholicism for Dummies, as elsewhere, the Church's advocates convey the idea that the Church is "both-and." The Church supports reason and mysticism, supernaturalism and naturalism, achieving one's own success and sacrificing to others (as well as God).

Catholicism for Dummies, like the Catechism, does not speak of "mysticism," though it does speak of the elements of mysticism: revelation; inspired Holy Scripture; the Church hierarchy's divinely-given ability (under some circumstances) to teach infallibly; and faith in all those mystical sources. 

In conclusion, this book is worth reading for any individual who is seriously planning, in the decades ahead, to confront the most powerful pro-mysticism institution in the USA today.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at

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