I will not describe Cardinal Gerhard Müller, formerly prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as a “conservative” cardinal as it would be both offensive to him and play into the hands of those determined to politicise the faith.
He is simply a fine, authoritative Catholic pastor and teacher, deeply conscious of his God-appointed role in leading lay people to understand their Catholic faith more clearly – especially in these times of grave confusion in the Church.
While The Power of Truth: The Challenges to Catholic Doctrine and Morals Today (Ignatius Press, 190pp, £14.99/$17.95) is largely a collection of Müller’s essays from the US magazine First Things, the book also contains his “Manifesto of Faith”, an essay on the indissolubility of marriage from L’Osservatore Romano and a long reflection on Humanae Vitae – always a touchstone of orthodoxy within the hierarchy.
It is clear from reading this heartening collection that Cardinal Müller’s own guiding principle is the Gospel text (said to be the favourite of St John Paul II): “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Thus the Creed is “not about the state of our emotions, nor about what Jesus subjectively means to us” – nor, in an implicit rebuke to Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago’s oft-quoted remark, is there any such thing as “paradigm shifts” in Church teaching.
What makes an energetic, intellectually vigorous woman with a wide circle of friends walk away from her associate professorship of English Literature at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, USA, to become a cloistered Benedictine nun on the Isle of Wight at the age of 28?
The answer is amazingly simple: love of God. If this sounds suspiciously pious, Sister Mary David Totah was anything but – wisdom, love of life and humour suffuse these pages. After her death aged 60 from cancer in 2017, her writings, particularly to novices (she was novice mistress at St Cecilia’s Abbey for 21 years) were lovingly anthologised in The Joy of God: Collected Writings of Sister Mary David (Bloomsbury Continuum, 208pp, £12.99/$14.95). The pieces were edited by Sister Elizabeth Burgess, one of those novices and later the monastery’s infirmary sister, who nursed Sister Mary David before her death.
Allowing for the fact that many of these writings were brief reflections and responses to questions put to her, they have been skilfully assembled to present a corpus of spiritual sagacity.
The book’s title is significant: behind every piece of advice and direction lies “joy” – something “far deeper than happiness or unhappiness, consolation or desolation, pleasure or pain”. Sister Mary David is insistent that it is intrinsic to a Benedictine vocation, which should “always radiate something of this joy; it is part of the process of love”.
How fortunate the novices were to have this loving but firm director is evident on every page: “We cannot love people too much but we can love God too little”; “Being ‘nice’ is not an ethical category”; “Natural love is not going to take us very far” are only a few of her guiding thoughts, addressed sometimes to a “Dear little saint-in-the-making”.
There are two books contained inside Because I Am (by Cristina Gangemi, Redemptorist Publications, 122pp, £12.95/$14.95) – a parents’ resource book and a parish resource book. Of the two, the first is the more important in being a guide for parents who receive a pre-birth diagnosis of a medical condition or possible disability.
The second book repeats much of the same material as the first, and there must be parishes that lack the resources to implement the author’s suggestions here. In my own experience as a parent in this situation, what one wants of a parish is a compassionate priest and sensitive fellow parishioners, rather than more formal schema. So much in human relationships simply depends on the right gesture – such as a mother movingly recounting how, after her baby died soon after birth, she was profoundly uplifted by seeing the midwife gently kissing the dead baby goodbye on the forehead.
The essential message behind Because I Am is that we are all, including the severely disabled, “held in the love of God”. This, not our intellectual or physical abilities, is what gives us our human dignity. Given the anti-life mentality of much of Western society, it is a message worth repeating whenever an ethical question arises.
Cristina Gangemi includes reflections from parents of children with disabilities (always the most insightful and useful aspect of this type of resource), such as one parent, faced with serious medical concerns, who wisely remarks: “How can anyone really know how or who anyone will be [in the future]?” The author, who relates that she is the only survivor of triplets, and whose grandson was diagnosed with a medical condition at a 12-week scan, rightly points out that “We can never know why a person exists,” – only God knows.
The book’s trenchant title is taken from the unanswerable response of a man with a learning disability who was asked the impertinent question: “Why do you think you are in this world?”