Books

Good advice for married people – and for the single life

It is always heart-warming to note the excellent quality of books issuing from Catholic publishers: a reminder to concentrate on the riches and wisdom of the Christian faith rather than Church politics or news from the Vatican. Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Couples (by Richard P Fitzgibbons, MD, Ignatius Press, 300pp, £14.99/$18) is written by a Catholic doctor with 40 years’ experience of helping couples to overcome the common psychological conflicts they struggle with in their marriage. It’s a book I would recommend for diocesan programmes and everyone preparing (or hoping) to marry, as well as those already married who want to improve their relationship.

Reminding readers that sacramental Christian marriage is different from the modern “soul mate” model, which is about self-fulfilment rather self-giving, Fitzgibbons presents 12 virtuous habits to counter, and mitigate, the usual problems in marriage. Do not be put off by the word “virtuous” – it means reorienting a relationship, where negative attitudes and behaviour have been allowed to grow, in the opposite direction to bring about healing. Thus the author writes about forgiveness to reduce anger; generosity to overcome selfishness; respect to counter the wish to control; trust to calm anxiety; gratitude to build confidence.

As Fitzgibbons points out, all couples bring their childhood experiences and wounds to adult relationships and these, unless understood and addressed, can bring their own toxic mix to the frailties that all people share. In particular, children of divorced parents, or of parents who have had addictions, may struggle with anxiety and lack of trust in their own marriages.

Fitzgibbons’s chapters on overcoming the pervasive human temptation to selfishness and on how to improve communication are particularly good. On the latter, he writes that “the importance of respectful and patient listening and responding cannot be overstated”. On selfishness, Fitzgibbons comments that in his clinical practice he has seen an increase in over-permissive parenting and “an explosion of selfishness and secondary controlling, disrespectful and angry behaviours in children”.

Unless both parents address this, their children’s capacity to make healthy relationships in the future will be jeopardised. Using particular case histories, the author gives practical and wise advice.

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Single for a Greater Purpose: A Hidden Joy in the Catholic Church (by Luanne D Zurlo, Sophia Institute Press, 185pp, £15/$18.95) is an important book about an area of Christian living rarely addressed by the Church: what it means to come to recognise that God is not calling you either to the priesthood or religious life, or to marriage – instead, that He desires you to lead a dedicated single life of service. The author describes her own journey of discernment in a process that led her, as a Catholic career woman with a special interest in raising educational standards in Latin America and Mexico, to realise she was not meant to marry but to remain single “for a greater purpose”.

Zurlo defines the true single vocation as “the call to a single life as the permanent and providentially ordained means to love and serve God wholeheartedly”, pointing to some modern examples of this uncommon vocation, such as Antoni Gaudí, the architect of the Holy Family cathedral in Barcelona; Jan Tyranowski, the humble tailor in Kraków who guided the young Karol Wojtyła to study St John of the Cross; and Frank Duff, the unassuming but far-sighted Irishman, who was one of the few lay people invited to be present at the Second Vatican Council and who founded the Legion of Mary.

Examining the many reasons why fewer young people today are marrying, Zurlo suggests that “for a secular age, unmoored from its Christian roots, might there be a need for more Christian witnesses to live embedded, even hidden, within society”.

Aware that most single people have not chosen this way of life, nonetheless the author believes that chaste singles can “represent a powerful leavening force amid the spiritual malaise of our age”.

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A collection of essays by various international scholars, Human Dignity in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition: Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Perspectives (edited by John Loughlin, Bloomsbury Academic, 304pp, £70/$84), covers a wide range of topics on a subject that is particularly significant today, when the concept of human dignity is both misunderstood and widely challenged. Essentially, the essays debate what is meant by the magnificent (if mysterious) traditional phrase, that human beings are “made in the image and likeness of God”.

Of special contemporary interest are “Bioethics and the Secular Belief in Inherent Human Dignity” by Calum MacKellar, visiting lecturer in bioethics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham; “Religious Freedom and Dignity” by Roger Trigg of the theology faculty at Oxford; and an essay on the personalist philosophy of John Paul II by Miguel Acosta of Madrid.

Though directed towards an academic readership, this collection can be read by anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of the history and development of this concept and to learn how influential post-Enlightenment thinkers such as Darwin, Marx and Freud undermined it.