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Fullness of Faith: The Public Significance of Theology.

This book appears in the Isaac Hecker series of studies in religion and American culture. It owes much to such recent writers as Martin Marty and David Tracy, who have analyzed the public debts that theology and faith owe as well as how the privatization of American religion has meant defaulting on those debts.

After situating their work in the context of what Marty, Tracy and, before them, such pioneers as Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray have done, the Himes brothers quite creatively relate important dimensions of Catholic theology -- original sin, the Trinity, grace, Creation, the Incarnation and the communion of saints -- to major issues principally American, but theoretically any cultural life. Specifically, they take up "the myth of self-interest," human rights, a consistent ethic of life, environmental ethics, patriotism and an ethic of solidarity.

The result is a scholarly, well-sustained reflection on how Catholic theology in general ought to illuminate the common life that citizens can develop together. I found the treatment of Catholic hopefulness, in contrast to Protestant pessimism, especially illuminating and also the treatment of patriotism (which offers a good occasion to reflect on the tensions between particularity and universalism).

In developing Cardinal Bernardin's views about a consistent ethic of life, the Himeses treat abortion well, in effect using it to illustrate their general thesis (in agreement with that of Robert Bellah et al in Habits of the Heart) that individualism has become vicious in American culture.

Throughout, the authors refer effectively to both recent scholarship and classical views (e.g., Jefferson, Burke, de Toequeville). Papal thought -- for example, that of John Paul II on environmental issues -- gets its due, and in general the authors establish a solid credibility.

The social ethics is stronger than theology, though the latter is solid (rather than original). The largely American-European horizon makes the work highly accessible to readers in the United States, but at the price of some parochialism.

The authors do not deny the clearly global character of much culture and many social problems nowadays, but neither do they come to grips with it or exploit it as sharply as a fuller realism might require. For example, liberation theologians from Latin America, Africa and Asia make virtually no impact on this book. More puzzling still is the neglect of women's voices. By quick count, only five of the book's 434 references are to works by women, although some of the issues treated (abortion, poverty, ecology) have drawn much attention from fine feminist scholars and although all of the issues apply to female citizens as fully as male.

The book has no index, which will frustrate readers precisely in the measure that they find it a rich resource and want easy access to a discussion of X or Y, a reference to A or B.

Finally, I note that while the authors' argument for the social character of faith is compelling and while it folds neatly into traditionally Catholic emphases on community, the common good and incarnationalism, the book may lack a properly balancing appreciation of the mysteriousness of God that tends to appear in our solitary revelation of mortality, unknowing, the distance of divinity from even the best words that our traditions have fashioned.

Distinctions and policies are right and necessary but, as death makes all too clear, they are never sufficient or final. Indeed, until we know how to dismiss them properly, we are not likely to be free enough to grasp or execute them well.
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Author:Carmody, John
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 30, 1993
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