Guides for Bad Catholics

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by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

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John Zmirak, who has written for this website, has just published with Crossroads Press and with the assistance of his photogenic culinary advisor, Denise Matychowiak, a richly illustrated, two-volume study of food, drink and other amenities associated with European Catholic cultures. What is particularly noteworthy about these volumes, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Songs and The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living, which come to more than 600 pages, is the wealth of theological and historical facts that they bring together. Despite the claim of the publisher and the author that they are providing light fare, what is actually in the text is much more than what the covers promise. Although attempts are made to illustrate "the lighter side of Catholic faith, including appropriate "recipes for feasts and fun," Zmirak obviously has deeper cosmological concerns, and these come through in his work, which often reads like a statement of faith. He devotes learned sections to Catholic doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary, French Quietism, and an impressive few pages to the career of the seventeenth-century Italian Jesuit Robert Bellarmine.

Under this last entry we learn about the polemical battle of this feisty cleric with the Anglican monarchist Robert Filmer, who famously defended royal absolutism in Patriarcha. Zmirak notes that some of Bellarmine’s arguments against unmixed royal power and in favor of the right of conscience found their way into Locke’s Two Treatises, the first of which was intended as refutation of Filmer. Bellarmine was also a frequent target of the equally pugnacious Thomas Hobbes. In the last part of Leviathan the English political theorist depicts his work as the last-gasp effort of an essentially medieval Catholic to hold back the modern sovereign state. Zmirak points out the obvious; when he observes that Bellarmine’s argument against the total state does not cease to make sense because we now have popular elections and because our leaders style themselves "democrats." Bringing up their appeals to "democracy" and "human rights" does not render modern states any less threatening than governments of the past. Twentieth-century popular governments, Zmirak remarks in passing, have wrought far more evil than the antiquarian English monarchy that Filmer hoped to free from the shackles of Parliament.

Zmirak also devotes six highly informative pages to the Jewish holiday of Purim, which, he accurately explains, stresses alcoholic celebration, in a very un-Jewish manner. Although Jews are customarily warned against excess and the evils of drunkenness, the feast of Purim, which commemorates the saving of the Persian Jews from an implacable enemy, the imperial vizier Haman, requires that Jews imbibe heavily in response to a Rabbinic commandment. Zmirak not only offers fascinating details about this phase of ancient Jewish history but also provides pictures of a Hasidic Jew presumably involved in the bibulous fulfillment of a commandment intended to show thanksgiving. John asked me to read with special care his treatment of this theme, and I must say that it reflected the same degree of attentiveness to facts that I found in most of the rest of the two volumes. My only criticism would pertain to his discussion of the Protestant Reformation and its founding figures. Would that John were able to show the same understanding for his separated Christian brethren, who invariably come across as theological lightweights or sadistic bullies, that he showers on Hasidim! But then family quarrels even within the same general religious family are usually less friendly than relations might be with strangers, with whom one has never quarreled.

Note: I would not be raising this censure if John’s books were what I was led to believe they were. There were in fact several editors who expressed surprise that I showed any interest in these volumes. They assumed these guides for "bad Catholics" were much too "light" to merit discussion as a serious investigation of religious-historical themes. But such a judgment is clearly off the mark. Zmirak takes on big questions and is usually up to the challenge. He even defends against his more vehement critics the controversial French Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre. In the face of international controversy, Le Febvre had argued for the preservation of the Latin Mass against what he thought was the attempt of the Second Vatican Council to sideline that order of prayer. Although Zmirak does not uphold every stand taken by the traditionalist cleric, whom the Vatican removed from his post for disobedience, he does identify (more or less) with Le Febvre’s liturgical position. His section on Kaiser Karl of Austria is my own favorite, although I suspect that most of those critics whom I share with John would think very differently about this last Austrian emperor, and the one who tried to extricate his country from the Great War. John insists that Karl was not acting out of personal interest when he tried to make peace. He grasped that the War was destroying European civilization and he grieved for the dead on both sides.

A question that has occurred to me is whether books like these would not be a useful vehicle for teaching college students about subjects that are too learned to be approached directly. If one could talk about food and drink and tell anecdotes about early saints, whose existence or martyrdom can be challenged but who were nonetheless colorful figures, might one be able to teach abstruse religious studies on a popular level? Having reflected on this matter, I came to the opinion that Zmirak’s approach would work only for those who are not culturally illiterate. One would have to know something about fine cuisine and have developed at least some affinity for the cultural topics treated in these volumes in order to appreciate most of the entries. Otherwise the material, however congenially presented, would not appeal to a generic reader.

But the books have sold well and are now marketed in such regional bookstores as Borders and Barnes and Noble. John’s explanation for his success is that buyers expect to find what those editors who have misunderstood his achievement imagine that he had put into the books, namely lots of fluff. By the time they start dipping into his erudite remarks about such subjects as the Councils of Trent and the Latin Mass, it might be too late to return the merchandise. Let’s hope these buyers read on!

July 5, 2007

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism.

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