Reviews of Mercy without Borders: The Catholic Worker & Immigration, Garry Wills's "biography" of Augustine's Confessions, Martin Marty's study of Bonhoeffer's letters from prison, and a book about the Communion & Liberation movement.
For more than three decades Mark and Louise Zwick have run a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Houston, Texas—Casa Juan Diego. Most of the people they serve are undocumented immigrants, though more recently there have also been a lot of refugees from Hurricane Katrina. Mercy without Borders tells the story of the Zwicks’ ministry—how it began and how it’s developed over the years. Because it’s a narrative rather than just an extended argument, the book grounds the issue of illegal immigration in the real human suffering of particular people. It offers up-close portraits of the immigrants themselves, and of the people who live and work with them.
We read of young women raped and impregnated by the “coyotes” who helped get them across the border, of immigrants who had to have limbs amputated after falling from trains, of undocumented workers cheated out of their wages by unscrupulous companies, and of badly injured workers dropped off at the Catholic Worker house instead of a hospital because a boss didn’t want anyone to know they had no documents. We learn, or are reminded, that many immigrants fail to report crimes to the police because they’re afraid they’ll be deported. And behind all the misery and hardship and fear, we see the day-in-day-out work of people whose whole lives are devoted to works of mercy, spiritual and corporal.
Various public agencies cooperate with the Zwicks to provide help to those of doubtful legal standing. Hospitals call the Zwicks to see if they can provide follow-up care to those just discharged from emergency rooms. Police and social workers send the indigent, the mentally ill, and victims of street crime to the Catholic Worker house for shelter. The Zwicks are known to take the “hard cases.” Their general principle is: If someone needs food or shelter, they will take care of him, whatever that requires.
I very much admire the Zwicks’ earlier book on the intellectual sources of the Catholic Worker movement, but this new book moved me to think about the problem of immigration at a deeply personal level. And isn’t that exactly what the Catholic Worker philosophy aims at? One of the fundamental words in the Catholic Worker vocabulary, after all, is “personalism.” Once you’ve read Mercy without Borders, you will never read a newspaper article about immigration reform the same way.
Garry Wills’s new book about St. Augustine’s Confessions is part of Princeton University Press’s wonderful series of small studies of religious classics. The purpose of the series is to pursue what the Germans call the Nachleben—the afterlife of a classic. But Wills spends the better part of his book on the Confessions itself, devoting only fifteen pages to the history of its reception. He could have told us much more about the ways this book has influenced Western civilization—its theology, philosophy, and literature. And he could have told us at least something about the way this great work affected such people as St. Teresa of Ávila and Thomas Merton. (Teresa tells us in her autobiography that reading the Confessions in a Castilian translation had a great influence on her conversion from an ascetic to a more contemplative life. Merton said the Confessions and The Imitation of Christ were the two most important books on his path to Christianity.) But Wills, who is both a critic and a scholar, has more than a book’s worth of interesting things to say about Augustine’s text, even if some of those things have been said before by others.
Borrowing freely from James O’Donnell’s three-volume line-by-line commentary on the book, Wills pays careful attention to Augustine’s oblique references to the Scriptures. He also attends to the formal elements of the Confessions—how, for example, the theft from the pear tree anticipates the scene of Augustine’s conversion under a fig tree; or how an early scene at a public bath chimes with Augustine’s baptism in Milan. Wills (correctly) insists on the essential unity of the entire work, despite the fact that books 10 through 13 seem to be so different from the first nine books. He shrewdly notes that few people read beyond book 9 (the end of the “autobiographical” part), just as few people read past Dante’s travels in hell in the Divine Comedy.
I have taught the Confessions about twenty times, yet there are things in it I hadn’t noticed until Wills pointed them out. This is a tribute to his erudition and critical acumen, but it’s also a tribute to the Confessions itself, which, like any other classic, offers the reader an inexhaustible surplus of meaning.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison
Martin E. Marty
Princeton University Press, $24.95, 288 pp.
Martin E. Marty’s study of the letters and papers Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in prison fulfills the intention of the Princeton University Press series even better than Wills’s book. Marty does not rehearse the contents of the letters and papers but instead concentrates on how they were received after they were published. He also gives attention to the extraordinary circumstances of their publication. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s close friend, managed to assemble the papers and correspondence during the period of Nazi Germany’s collapse. After the war ended, the collection attracted the interest of East German writers, who were intrigued by Bonhoeffer’s observations about the role of Christians in a postreligious world “come of age.”
Marty is especially good on the subject of Bonhoeffer’s growing influence on the Anglophone world after the publication of Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God. The “death of God” theologians of the 1960s found that Bonhoeffer had already asked some of the questions they were asking—questions about secularization, the limits of religious speech, and the erosion of “God consciousness” in modernity. Marty’s account of this period is masterful. A naive young Catholic Thomist at the time, I remember being bewildered about the whole “death of God” movement. Marty helped me remember that time, and my bewilderment, vividly.
One of the more shocking revelations in the book is the reluctance of German Protestants in the postwar period to accord Bonhoeffer any honors. Because of his role in the conspiracy to kill Hitler, he was regarded as a political martyr rather than a Christian one. (There are Catholics who have said the same thing about the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador.) Bonhoeffer upset the deeply-rooted Lutheran conviction that one must always be obedient to the state.
In my library, there is a whole shelf devoted to Bonhoeffer, whom I began reading decades ago. What has always attracted me to his writings is not only the heroic witness of his life and death, but also his instinct in a time of crisis to “do” theology according to the quasi-monastic model he constructed at Finkenwalde. In a course on modern spiritual writers, I usually assign not the letters but The Cost of Discipleship. Having read Marty’s brilliant study, I may now go back to the letters in order to—as one of Marty’s subtitles puts it—“send the book further along the Way.”
Generating Traces in the History of the World
Luigi Giussani, Stefano Alberto, and Javier Prades
McGill-Queens University, $19.95, 184 pp.
Luigi Giussani (1922–2005), a diocesan priest of Milan, was the founder of the Communion and Liberation Movement. Knowing little about the inner workings of that movement, or about the details of its founder’s life, I read this book mainly to inform myself. As it turns out, Generating Traces in the History of the World says very little about the movement itself, but it does set out, in broad and readable outline, the theological sources that inspired Giussani.
What began for me as a desire for information turned into a kind of spiritual reading. Giussani’s approach to the Christian life was drawn from his profound meditation on the Gospel of John. His picture of Jesus is, above all, that of an exceptional person. Thus, his Christianity is rooted not in law, ideology, or concepts; and for Giussani, God’s intervention in our world is “not a thought or a sentiment.” The Incarnation is an event, or a fact—a datum in the original sense of the word: something given. And we experience this fact not by means of ratiocination but by encountering it. We learn the meaning of Christ by meeting him.
In the latter part of this modest book, Giussani considers how the event of Christ’s Incarnation bears on various aspects of our lives. What does it mean for education? (Giussani was himself an educator.) How does it affect other social relations? How much can one deduce a theory of freedom from the datum of Christ? Giussani insists that, whatever else it means, the given fact of their encounter with Christ requires Christians to hold on to an eschatological sense of the future—which is different from a utopian escape from the present.
I am not familiar with Giussani’s other writings, but what I have read here seems to me rich and inspiring. At Giussani’s funeral in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that he was to be admired because he understood that Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. It is instead an encounter, a love story. This little book confirms and illuminates that judgment.