18 November 2015

History of the Popes (Update)

As I have discussed previously, I'm currently working on re-formatting the 40-volume History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, by Ludwig von Pastor.  As I finish different sets of volumes and make them available for purchase, I'm going to continue posting updates.

The two volumes dealing with the pivotal pontificate of Clement VII are now available. (Click here for information.)

Thank you to the many people who have supported this project by buying copies of the earlier volumes.  I hope you find Pastor's chronicle as interesting as I have.  I believe that becoming more deeply aware of the history of the Church is an essential part of the work of reform, and I hope that by making this excellent scholarly work available in print again I am advancing that cause.

17 November 2015

Notes on Writing

Between 2 September and 5 November of this year, I filled a small stenographer's pad with notes on my present circumstances and activities.  One of the recurring subjects during this period was the structure of fictions and the process of composing them.  I have collected these short notes and present them as a set of fragments below.  Rereading them, I found them interesting and enjoyable, so perhaps some readers will as well.


Give your character desire up front.  The motivation of the character motivates the reader.  But the first revealed desire oughtn't be the important one.


Le Carré gives Smiley an obstacle—Martindale—and some problems—Ann & Lacan.  Then he introduces the mystery.  But by then Smiley has already been well-characterized.  We're comfortable with him, so the mystery can be more interesting and spacious.  [Note: It's not simply that the character's first revealed desire should be distinct from the driving motive or question behind the plot, but that the character's first navigated difficulty ought to be superseded by the main difficulty with which the novel is concerned.  First, a vignette which illustrates the character; then afterwards a foray into the real problem.]


Start not so much with a motive as with an irritation.

The nice thing about irritations is that they characterize more than the average goal, and with less effort. [Note: less effort on the reader's part.] We needn't ask so much about the context of an irritant, because the context [of the irritant] is less important for understanding why it annoys [than the context of the character being annoyed, which we care more about anyway].


[Harry Potter] begins with the comic characterization of the Dursleys and then adds the tantalizing introduction of Dumbledore and Harry.  Then we get the hyperbolic childhood of Harry with its own oddities, which blossoms neatly into the mystery of the Hogwarts Letters, and then into the excitement of discovering that world.  [Rowling] has so many interest-engines going simultaneously that a reader will almost certainly keep going. [And these multiple "interest-engines" enable Rowling to constantly reward the curiosity of the reader with answers, but answers which change the immediate focus of the story, rather than being a simple breadcrumb trail that becomes monotonous and boring.]

Once the "discovery" theme has done its work, it lingers as a tool for exposition, and new mysteries and challenges present themselves.


Technique in Tinker Tailor — Guillam is perforing a difficult task, which is interspersed with bits of remembered monologue by Smiley instructing him about how to do it.


"Wheels within wheels."


Karla (& Voldemort)
"Decades of his life were unaccounted for, and probably never would be, since the people he worked with had a way of dying off or keeping their mouths shut."

[Note: The villain conceals his background and activities . . . But "Control" is similar.]


In his account of the interview with Karla, a good fraction of the conversation is between Smiley and himself, and not a simple dialogue, but the rehearsal of old pains and doubts.  How is this conveyed to the reader?


"Few men can resist expressing their appetites when they are making a fantasy about themselves."


Know the world of the story very well before you attempt to tell a story in it. — Stories emerge out of a world, and especially a known world.  The Chemist knows what to expect when two elements are combined, knowing the laws that govern their probable interactions.  The better the laws of the world are known, the better a storyteller will be able to construct the winding or unravelling of a thread within that world.


"Know the facts, then try on stories like clothes."


Get to know your cast of characters before you describe their behavior.


What happens to people is often improbable and irrational, but their responses to it tend not to be.


Layers of the Planning Process:
—The context (impersonal)
—The characters (personalities, problems, background)
[Note: Something right in Heidegger's suggestion that person and world are co-dependent.  In narrative, it is by relating things to characterization or intention and background that worlds are most easily characterized.]
—The plot (immediate occasion of events, pattern in which they unfold, the order in which information is disclosed to the reader)
—Characterization of events and style of exposition


Suppose you have infinite resources and can simply build something.  What makes it interesting?  Evidently, after a while building you would begin to repeat yourself, and this would make both the act and the object tedious. [Unless of course you find the mere [quantitative] increase repeated forms appealing, . . . but this is an enjoyment not of the object of the act, but of the indeterminate potency of the object . . . a different thing.]


So what *keeps* it interesting once one reaches this point?  The introduction of a new dimension of complexity or a new form, which either subsumes the prior form (triangles -> tetrahedron) or alternates with it (a tessellation involving multiple polygons).  In other words, one must either make something else or make something [new], using what you have made as the matter.  In fact, the mere idea of an infinite series of repeated forms is extremely tedious.


There are no general cases, only particular cases.


Note: What I like best about the Smiley novels is Smiley.  The thriller spy framework parts are enjoyable enough, but they're not where the magic is.  Analogously, the coolest thing about the Miyazaki documentary was Miyazaki.


Miyazaki wonders if it is possible to make films that are important anymore.  I assume by "important" he means films that make an impact, make a difference to people.  Why would it be so difficult?  Supersaturation, perhaps.  Same problem as in publishing.  If you choose a medium which speaks to everyone, you will not be compensated and will be little heard.  But if you choose a small venue and limited medium you can make a greater impact.  [By speaking to fewer people, you can accomplish more, and be better-compensated.]

In other words, not just the medium, but the target audience ought to be tightened, to increase impact.  Tightened geographically.


How do word-images differ from pictures?  Pictures are limited by the imagination of the artist more than [the imagination of] the viewer?


Listen—you could make it.  You could do well.  But you have to make something you want a shot at making it.


Story told as dialogue between narrator and listener.  Listener interjections set as freestanding italicized paragraphs.


One of the keys to storytelling is not explaining.  You have to keep facts and explanations in reserve to keep the reader interested.  If you give everything up in the way that's easiest to follow, you won't be followed.  One advantage of time [as an ordering principle for narratives] is that the temporal order of events is constructed by chance and accident, with constant intervening complications and distractions.  You explain things as the occasion arises . . . But the occasions arising are various and have only incidental significance to anything you might want to relate.  So you value the occasion and enjoy it, not just for its importance to the story, but also for its own sake.


Enjoy your memories! Let them return in full color and let them be saturated with detail.


"I want to know about you." — Collecting other people's stories.


The habit of writing with one's hand, with a pen, differs significantly enough from the habit of typing (by typewriter or by computer) . . .


The imagination of the writer is based on his experiences.  If someone only has . . .

16 November 2015

Resource Guide for Catholic Autodidacts – Handbooks of Dogmatic Theology

Last time I gave an inventory of what I believe are the best Catechisms.  Solid, unending, repeated catechesis seems to be one of the keys to a coherent theological perspective, and the formation of a genuinely catholic way of living.  There are all sorts of principles and sentimental truisms floating around in the surrounding culture, and many of them are inimical to Christianity.  Solid catechesis helps us to know what we can and cannot accept, by acquainting us with the basics of faith and morality.

But once one gets a little deeper into the principles of modern culture and its various philosophies, a new set of confusions becomes possible—confusions that are not addressed directly by the average Catechism, because the concepts in which they are framed are too abstract or technical.  Every age suffers from philosophical and theological confusions of one variety or another.  Because they are difficult to anticipate in advance, oftentimes a new philosophical or theological error will arise, which has not been previously shown in the tradition to be incompatible with the Catholic Faith, even though it is.

The shepherds of the flock of the Lord are charged, as St. Pius X reminds us, to nourish and protect Christ's sheep by feeding them with sound doctrine and warning them against error.  This office of teaching and excluding, the "magisterium" (teacher-hood) of the Bishops, and the Pope among them, consists in perpetually reminding the faithful of Christ's teachings, and explaining the implications of those teachings so as to show when they are incompatible with popular intellectual trends.  Depending on the severity of the confusion and the gravity of the issue, the pastors will exercise their teaching office with greater or lesser urgency and authority.  They do this by various means: by the promulgations of symbols (i.e. creeds) which summarize the faith; through solemn definitions, which prescribe what must be held by all Christians; through anathemas, which solemnly exclude from the flock of Christ those who obstinately teach or profess errors contrary to the faith; and through encyclical letters, bulls, and all manner of decrees.

The result of 2000 years of this sort of of teaching, exhortation, and correction is what we refer to as the "Living Magisterium of the Church".  That's a lot of stuff.  And in the midst of all that stuff, there are regular clarifications and definitions which explain what propositions belong essentially to the Catholic faith, which follow from it necessarily, and which are, either directly or in their implications, opposed to it.

Once we realize this, an obvious desire follows from it: We want a text that collects and organizes all the major tenets of the Catholic faith, with the texts in which they are defined and explained by magisterial acts.  Granted, such a collection might not be the final word in terms of developing a genuine theological understanding of the faith, but it will at least establish a set of guideposts we can use to navigate the more difficult (and sometimes speculative) waters of systematic theology.


Today, I'm going to look at a few of the best tools that aim to perform this task.There used to be a great many more dogmatic manuals available (there still are... in Latin), but I will only be mentioning collections available in English, and only the three that I have found most useful in my years studying and teaching theology. 

Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Ludwig Ott

WHERE TO FIND IT: Amazon, and possibly elsewhere online.

STRENGTHS:  This was the first dogmatic manual I became aware of during the process of converting to Catholicism.  It has many strengths.  Primary among these is its format.  The is divided into major theological topics, each of which is subdivided, and then divided again into a list of dogmatic propositions, set in clear bold text.  After each proposition, the author offers a short explanation of the dogma, and evidence in favor of it from Scripture and Tradition.  He also often lists heresies contrary to the proposition in question and provides a short summary of how they reject it.  The book is available cheaply from TAN Books, and is (as these things go) small and very easy to navigate.  It aims to provide an outline or directory of citations, and is not a scholastic handbook of the old variety (with articles, questions, objections, dubia, etc.)

WEAKNESSES:  Ott's handbook is sometimes too cursory in its treatment of various issues.  Sometimes the evidences given in support of a particular proposition are inadequate to comfortably establish the proposition, and in these cases the handbook becomes somewhat frustrating.  Perhaps the worst part of Ott, though, is his simplistic way of assigning various propositions positions within the hierarchy of truths (i.e. the degree of dogmatic certitude accorded a particular doctrinal proposition: de fide, proxima fidei, etc.).  Sometimes one encounters people who have misunderstood the nature of the hierarchy of truths as a result of these labels (which are not unique to Ott)—people who think that only propositions "de fide" are absolutely certain and everything else allows a degree of flexibility.  This approach to dogmatic theology is very damaging, because it gives a great deal of leeway to heresies that ought to be excluded, simply because they don't violate any principles "de fide".

(Also, the way people talk about these degrees in the hierarchy of truths is annoying.  We have a habit of treating Latin prepositional phrases as adjectives: "ex cathedra pronouncements" literally means "from the chair pronouncements", which is wrong.  One should say "pronouncements ex cathedra" and so on.)

RECOMMENDATION:  Ott is useful as a highly condensed, inexpensive outline of dogmatic theology.  It contains a wealth of citations and is good for getting your feet wet.  If your feet are already wet, I would not recommend purchasing it, but I still periodically use it.

Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils
by Giuseppe Alberigo and Norman Tanner

WHERE TO FIND IT: On Amazon, for about $150.

STRENGTHS: This is the English version of a collection produced by Giuseppe Alberigo (the historian famously at the head of the so-called Bologna School which is one of the sources of the progressive account of Vatican II) of the decrees of all twenty-one general councils recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.  Because the collection includes only the decrees and not all the acts and proceedings of the various councils, it can fit in two hefty volumes which include both the original languages and parallel English translations.  Reading the decrees of the councils is extremely beneficial in gaining a sense of the common understanding of what belongs to the Catholic faith through the centuries.  One is easily disabused of the delusion that modern Catholicism is more doctrinally narrow and uptight than the Church was in earlier centuries, for example.  Because Councils are called generally to respond to a pressing doctrinal or disciplinary crisis in the Church, the decrees are (mostly) very precise and take care to clarify and define what they discuss, rather meandering effusively.

WEAKNESSES: The text includes only conciliar decrees, and not even all of them (there are occasional omissions).  As a result, the crises which were handled outside of ecumenical councils are left untouched.  Furthermore, the text is not organized in such a way as to be easy to navigate.  The contents of both volumes are placed in an appendix to volume two, making it difficult to find a particular decree, and even then the descriptions are frequently vague.  Furthermore, the text is weighed down by the bloated corpus of documents issued at Vatican II, which take up half of one volume and are of little dogmatic interest on the whole, on account of the vague and effusive language in which many of them were written.

RECOMMENDATION: The set is worth owning if you have the cash for it.  If you acquire it, I recommend reading the contents of Volume One first.  If you're simply looking for a dogmatic definition on some topic, your best chance is to find the decree on that topic at Trent.

Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum et Declarationum 
de Rebus Fidei et Morum (Denzinger-Hünermann 2008)

WHERE TO FIND IT: On Amazon, for about $50.  Also, in some Catholic bookstores.

STRENGTHS: This is the 43rd edition of the anthology of essential Magisterial texts first assembled by Heinrich Denzinger in 1854 at the request of Bl. Pius IX.  The collection of texts is prodigious, focusing mainly on papal decrees and the documents of various major synods and ecumenical councils.  It offers significant excerpts from hundreds of texts that most readers would never otherwise be aware of or have access to.  The current edition offers the original languages (mainly Latin) with a parallel English translation.  Furthermore, each paragraph of the text is assigned a numerical index, which makes it possible to use the book's numbering system as a shorthand citation for any particular document.  Astute readers will have noticed in the '94 Catechism and in recent magisterial documents frequent references to "DS" followed by some number.  "DS" refers to Denzinger and Schönmetzer (one of the later editors of the collection).  The current edition is cited as "DH", for Denzinger/Hünermann.  Finally, each item in the anthology is indexed topically, so that one can look up a particular subject and find a list of citations wherein it is discussed in the volume.

WEAKNESSES: The current edition of the Denzinger is wonderful in many ways, but it has some major faults.  One minor fault is that its contents are disproportionately skewed toward the past few pontificates.  While nothing (to my knowledge) from earlier years has been left out to make room for the excess if post-Conciliar texts, it seems like a poor use of space to include so many of them.  The biggest fault, though, is the organization of the topical index.  The index is bloated to the point of unusuability, and organized not under traditional dogmatic headings but under fuzzy topics like "God Gathers His People", which are not very helpful in directing one to a particular dogmatic question.  Furthermore, the index is so complex that it has its own table of contents, which includes three tiers of headings.  So, for example, if one wanted to find a list of citations related to the nature of heaven, one would have to decide whether to look in Index Section M.1.b. "The Eschatological Character of the Pilgrim Church" or M.3.c. "Beatitude–Grace and Reward", each of which contains several paragraphs with lists of citations.  The whole index is over 150 pages long—large pages, full of very fine, dense print.  And then, once one has found the right list of references, it's necessary to look each of them up in turn to see whether they fit!  It's a needlessly difficult exercise. 

RECOMMENDATION: This is one of a few books I think every intellectually engaged Catholic really ought to own.  It has its dangers—people too accustomed to consulting the Denzinger sometimes end up behaving as if it made systematic theological reflection unnecessary. ("It already has all the answers!")  This is, of course, false.  But it does offer guidance on a huge number of common theological issues and confusions, and its a great resource to turn to when one runs up against a doctrinal disagreement or question that is not easily answered.  Buy it, read it at night, flip through it randomly and discover things.  It's a wonderful resource.

A (Nearly) Complete Inventory of the Films of Studio Ghibli

The following is a review of all the feature films produced by Studio Ghibli since its founding in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, with the omission of three: two by Takahata and two by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.  The reviews are presented in chronological order, with the omitted films noted in brackets.  I have also included two films by Hayao Miyazaki which were done before the founding of Ghibli.  Each review is followed by a score out of five (in parentheses).  I hope you enjoy.


The Castle of Cagliostro – Master thief Arsène Lupin III searches for the source of some counterfeit money, only to end up embroiled in a dastardly scheme involving forced marriage, ancient treasure, and international conspiracy.  This was the first film Miyazaki directed, and while it has little in common with the rest of his corpus, it is reasonably enjoyable to watch.  (Extremely silly, lots of heist-themed slapstick, no real substance to it.) Best watched in the original Japanese, with subtitles. (2)

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind – Nausikaä is the princess of a small community living in an unpolluted valley, one of the last strongholds against the toxic jungle which has taken over the planet.  Despite its dangers, Nausicaä has a certain fondness for the toxic jungle and its creatures, and recognizes that the poisonous plants are actually slowly purifying the land of human pollution.  She gets caught in an international conflict emanating from one woman's desire to destroy the guardians of the toxic jungle.  It's an odd film, but with an original plot and an interesting set of subtexts.  I greatly enjoyed it. (4)

Laputa, Castle in the Sky – A kidnapped princess escapes from her captors and falls in with a young engineer and a group of air pirates, as they try to understand the lost power which had once made cities fly.  Very whimsical.  As with Nausicaä there is a lot of flight in the film, but this time not much of a "moral" to the story. It's gripping, though, and the imagery is pretty cool. The English version has Mark Hamill as one of the main voice roles. (3)

[Grave of the Fireflies]

My Neighbor Totoro – The most iconic film from Studio Ghibli.  A professor and his two young daughters move to a country house while their mother is being treated in a nearby hospital.  The excitement of the new environment, anxieties over their parents, and the magic of the land provide a series of adventures involving a gigantic forest spirit (or totoro) which the younger sister discovers in a patch of forest next to the house.  The film has made such an impact, I think, because the adventures of the girls with the totoro suggests the vitality of the world and the magic of ordinary, disconnected childhood experiences—experiences still rooted in the difficulties of daily life (and not some distant fairytale land), but nonetheless full of wonder. (3)

Kiki's Delivery Service – Kiki is a young witch who flies away from home (as is traditional for young witches) to spend a year on her own developing her skills.  She leaves with her pet cat, Jiji, who is dour and provides comic relief throughout the film.  Without any real magic skills aside from her ability to fly, Kiki ends up starting a delivery service.  She meets a number of interesting people around town while working, including a boy who dreams of flight (note the theme again), but is not magical.  Halfway through the film, Kiki loses her magic powers and falls into a depression.  I will not give away the ending.  Highly enjoyable movie, which I think portrays people as being good and generous, and gives some good moral advice about confidence and the pursuit of perfection in a trade. (4)

Only Yesterday – Isao Takahata wrote and directed this film about a woman in her late twenties named Taeko, who travels to a country farm during a week off from her Tokyo desk job.  The trip is an occasion for a cascade of memories from early adolescence—memories of embarrassment and disappointment, related to her family, her school life, and puberty.  Takahata integrates the memories with the present day narrative wonderfully, showing Taeko interacting with people on the farm and sharing vivid accounts of her childhood with them.  Taeko is an extraordinary character, and possesses that beautiful self-awareness and cheerful humility that one can really only call honesty.  An incredible film. Watch it with the original Japanese vocals, and make sure you watch it all the way through the end credits. (5)

Porco Rosso – Marco is an Italian fighter pilot who ditched the Italian air force after WWI, and now (in the 1920s) flies around the Adriatic as a bounty hunter trying to catch pirates and smugglers.  He is also (strangely) a pig.  No one else in the film is a pig, by the way.  Why Marco is a pig is the great mystery of the film.  And it's an interesting film, because the question is never settled directly, nor is it resolved completely at the end.  This isn't really a children's movie, despite the silliness of many of its characters and the whimsical plot.  I think it has something more to do with the cynicism and despair that can accompany a great loss.  Anyway, very enjoyable, highly original plot, good animation, interesting main character, and excellent themes. (4)

Whisper of the Heart – This film was written by Miyazaki, but directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, a collaborator at Ghibli.  It is a brilliant portrait of early adolescence.  Like Only Yesterday, this story is told in a completely realist fashion.  Even when we expect the fantastic to break into the storyline, it never does.  Instead what we get is a drama about ambition, hard work, romance, the love of reading, and school.  A wonderful story. Best viewed in the original Japanese with subtitles. (4)

Pom Poko – Miyazaki was not involved in this film at all, to my knowledge.  It was written and directed by his mentor Isao Takahata.  It tells the story of the construction of the Tama Hills housing developments in Southwest Tokyo in the 1960s, from the perspective of a colony of tanuki or raccoon dogs native to the area while it was still forest and farmland.  The development is gradual and takes years, and the film is constructed as an annual chronicle, charting out the raccoon dogs' gradual awakening to the problems surrouding the destruction of their habitats, and various strategies they employ in order to stop the development from proceeding.  The episodic structure of the film and its gradual development make the later portions especially poignant.  It is silly, and the dialogue is sometimes stupid, but on the whole it's a brilliantly constructed portrayal of urban expansion which potently illuminates the ecological side of things.  Definitely worth seeing. The Japanese original is preferable to the English dubbed version.  (5)

Princess Mononoke – Like Porco Rosso, this is not really a children's film.  In fact, this is much less of a children's film than even Porco Rosso.  The action takes place in medieval Japan, when spirits still roamed the forests and so on.  The protagonist is struck by a curse after slaying a possessed boar-god, and goes off to find answers before the curse kills him.  His quest leads him to "Iron Town", a settlement made up of prostitutes and criminals who are doing battle with nature to make money by forging pig iron for export.  He also meets Mononoke, a young girl who has been raised in the forest with the wolf-gods.  All the characters end up playing different parts in the scheme of a greedy buddhist monk who wants to kill the chief forest spirit and capture its head.  The film is extremely intense and dark. (3)

My Neighbors the Yamadas – Another Takahata film.  This one employs impressionistic, sketch-like animation to illustrate the lives of a small family, the Yamadas: a grandmother, husband and wife, and their son and daughter.  The film has no plot, but consists entirely of a string of sketches (I would estimate somewhere between 60 and 100) showing random incidents illustrative of family life.  The film begins and ends with speeches about marriage, given at weddings.  Both are excellent, and together they capture the flavor the whole film.  The opening speech, given by the husband's mother, focuses on the importance of children as the uniting goal which holds a marriage together, because "children are the best reason for riding out life's storms".  She also warns against the complacency of the easy times, because "if in the calm you selfishly please only yourselves, you may lose each other."  The concluding speech focuses on forgiveness.  In between, we see a lot of the little dramas of family life, many examples of the frustrations and petty faults of different members, but the whole thing is beautiful and pleasing.  The film doesn't really invite a viewing straight-through, because it has no plot. Perhaps it would be best divided into several viewings.  Wonderful nonetheless. Best watched with the original Japanese and English subtitles.  (4)

Spirited Away – Princess Mononoke brought Miyazaki onto the international stage, but Spirited Away really made him famous (at least in the US).  This great film follows the adventure of a young girl who is trapped in the spirit world and deprived of her identity as she struggles to win back her parents, who have been transformed into hogs.  She maneuvers the politics of a large spa for the spirits, and has a series of interesting and bizarre encounters with various characters.  It's a must-see film, if only because it's the one he's known best for. (5)

The Cat Returns – This is a bizarre spinoff of Whispers of the Heart, in which a high school student, who is undergoing some sort of minor identity crisis, is selected to marry a cat prince, and carried off into the world of the cats.  She is on the verge of transforming permanently into a feline concubine when the cat doll from Whisper of the Heart helps her escape.  By far the weirdest Ghibli movie, with the most inane "moral" driving it. (2)

Howl's Moving Castle – This is Miyazaki's (very loose) adaptation of the young adult novel of the same name.  The story as told by Miyazaki has only a vaguely linear plot, and is best viewed as an evolving series of experiences in the life of the protagonist, a young woman made magically elderly by a witch's curse.  The animation is excellent, the characters are enjoyable, and the scenes and conversations which make up the film make it a peaceful cinematic environment to which to return over and over again.  I have seen Howl's Moving Castle more times than any of the others on this list. (5)

Tales from Earthsea – Goro Miyazaki, (Hayao's son) directed this adaptation of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books.  The film compresses the events of multiple books into one, with Goro's own spin, but the main plot of the story is taken from The Farthest Shore (the third book in the series).  A young prince runs away from home and aids the wizard Sparrowhawk in his attempt to uncover the evil force which is stripping the world of its magic.  They trace the decay of the world to an un-dead wizard named Cob, who is sucking the marrow out of reality in order to sustain himself because he is afraid of death.  I found the film very dark and disturbing, and the ultimate message for viewers was not a good one. It's mildly successful as a cinematic object, but not recommended. (2)

Ponyo – This is Hayao Miyazaki's spin on the tale of the little mermaid.  A sea-princess named Brünnhilde loves a little boy playing in the water by the cliffs.  After being tracked down by her father and forcibly taken home with him, she runs away, releasing a massive storm which she rides back to little Sosuke's cliff by the sea.  In the process she becomes (gradually) a human girl, and pledges herself to the little boy.  The second half of the film is highly unmemorable, perhaps because the magic gradually goes out of it (literally), but the first half is brilliant and delightful.  The voice acting in the English version (starring Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, and Matt Damon) is very good. (3)

[The Secret World of Arietty]

From Up on Poppy Hill – Another film directed by Goro Miyazaki.  This one is much more successful than Tales from Earthsea.  We are introduced at the beginning to a young girl, apparently orphaned, who helps her grandmother run a boarding house out of the family home.  Our protagonist raises a flag every morning to signal to her father (a sailor), as was their custom when he was alive.  The story primarily involves her life at school, and the drama surrounding a partially abandoned club house which is used by various student associations for their meetings.  As she becomes more closely acquainted with the leaders of the club house group, a romance develops, and then is cut short.  The story is well-written, and well-animated, and portrays intellectual organizations as something exciting and valuable that adolescents are ready to fight for. (4)

The Wind Rises – Hayao Miyazaki's last feature film (or so he says) is designed to be an implicit commentary on his own work as an animator.  It tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed the famous "Zero" fighter planes in WWII.  The core of the film is Jiro's pursuit of his dreams, and dreams play an enormous role.  Frequent transitions are made from dreamscapes, in which Jiro discusses airplane design with his Italian hero and the real world.  The title is taken from a Paul Valery poem, which says "The wind is rising; we must try to live." The poem frames the relationship between Jiro and his wife, whom he first meets on a train as she is reading the poem.  Separated for years, they reunite at a mountain resort where she is staying while recovering from tuberculosis.  Their relationship is paralleled by Jiro's own awareness that the "beautiful dreams" he is designing for Mitsubishi are destined to be tools of war, and he has a running (imaginary) conversation with his mentor about this paradox: that the creativity of modern men is always cursed, and every beautiful thing he invents seems destined to become a source of death.  Everything about this film is incredible.  The animation is beautiful, Jiro's character is written with subtlety and depth, and the whole is suffused with incredible cinematic effects, which give as much life and drama to drafting tables and slide rules as to tragic romance and war.  I cannot praise it highly enough.  And the interest of the film is only magnified once we begin to replace drafting table with artist's desk, and airplane with anime, and consider what this means for Miyazaki's understanding of his own work in the context of Japanese animation.  I hope that this proves not to have been the end of his career, but if it is, I can't think of a better way to conclude it. (5)

[The Tale of the Princess Kaguya]

[When Marnie Was There]

11 November 2015


St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians (1:6-10)
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Vulgate of the same:
Miror quod sic tam cito transferimini ab eo qui vos vocavit in gratiam Christi in aliud Evangelium: quod non est aliud, nisi sunt aliqui qui vos conturbant, et volunt convertere Evangelium Christi. Sed licet nos aut angelus de cælo evangelizet vobis præterquam quod evangelizavimus vobis, anathema sit. Sicut prædiximus, et nunc iterum dico: si quis vobis evangelizaverit præter id quod accepistis, anathema sit. Modo enim hominibus suadeo, an Deo? an quæro hominibus placere? si adhuc hominibus placerem, Christi servus non essem.

Greek of the Same:
Θαυμάζω ὅτι οὕτως ταχέως μετατίθεσθε ἀπὸ τοῦ καλέσαντος ὑμᾶς ἐν χάριτι Χριστοῦ εἰς ἕτερον εὐαγγέλιον, ὃ οὐκ ἔστιν ἄλλο· εἰ μή τινές εἰσιν οἱ ταράσσοντες ὑμᾶς καὶ θέλοντες μεταστρέψαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ Χριστοῦ. ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐὰν ἡμεῖς ἢ ἄγγελος ἐξ οὐρανοῦ εὐαγγελίσηται ὑμῖν παρ’ ὃ εὐηγγελισάμεθα ὑμῖν, ἀνάθεμα ἔστω. ὡς προειρήκαμεν, καὶ ἄρτι πάλιν λέγω, εἴ τις ὑμᾶς εὐαγγελίζεται παρ’ ὃ παρελάβετε, ἀνάθεμα ἔστω.

10 November 2015

Resource Guide for Catholic Autodidacts –
The Best Catechisms

One of the biggest impediments to self-education is the inability to find the right resources at the right time.  It's not that resources are difficult to find: to some extent, resources are extremely easy to find.  Nor is it that excellent resources are unavailable: many of the best are freely available online.  But the resources that are easy to find are often not useful, and the resources that are most useful are often not easy to find.

Obviously what in particular will be most conducive to the learning or development of any particular person depends on the context and background of that particular person, which tend to be more or less unique.  But I would like to present some resources which have been helpful to me, over the past five years, as a rough guide for people trying to educate themselves.


Catechesis should be the first stage of study for any Catholic, and it should be an activity which is continuously renewed and repeated.  One of the most devastating mistakes any Christian can make is to pass through the "basics" of the faith, and assume that they have been mastered after the first time through.  They have not been mastered after the first time.  They cannot be mastered after one round of study, or after ten.  The self-assurance (or arrogance) which looks at a children's catechism and waves it off as simplistic or trivial is, in reality, abject stupidity.

Because of the need to regularly return to basic catechesis, it is important for Catholics to have a few good catechisms on hand which they can read, reread, peruse, and memorize.  The first Catechism everyone thinks of nowadays is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was written under the direction of Joseph Ratzinger and promulgated in the 1990s under Pope John Paul II.  Because this is the book people simply refer to as "The Catechism" today, it merits discussion before any of the others.


WHERE TO FIND IT: Online in numerous places, and in most major bookstores.

STRENGTHS: It's a very long text.  It follows the four pillars model of the Roman Catechism (Creed, Commandments, Sacraments, Prayer).  It isn't afraid of using big words and complex phraseology.  It has short summaries of key points at the end of each chapter, which are designed to be memorized.

WEAKNESSES: The phraseology is verbose, and sometimes manages to achieve the worst of both worlds, by being both extremely vague and overly technical.  The focus on symbolism and imagery seems to outweigh the focus on dogmatic facts.  Citations point back to the decrees of Vatican II to such a disproportionate extent that one wonders whether the tradition before 1962 had anything to say about many subjects discussed in the Catechism.

RECOMMENDATION: You should probably own a copy, and at least be conversant with this text, not primarily because of its merits (though it has merits!), but because this is the catechism most Catholics today are familiar with.  If one wants a clear, simply stated, doctrinally precise, or memorizable explanation of doctrine, however, this text is often not the best place to go.

("Catechism of the Council of Trent")

WHERE TO FIND IT: Online in numerous places, sometimes in Catholic bookstores, otherwise on Amazon.

STRENGTHS: This text is long (though perhaps not as long as the CCC), extremely thorough, clear, and dogmatically precise.  The treatments of the Sacraments and the Commandments are especially excellent, each being broken up into numerous small sub-topics, which make these aspects of Christian life come alive and offer good practical advice.  This is the Ur-text.  This is The Catechism upon which all other catechisms were based, for most of the past five centuries, including all of the other Catechisms discussed here.  And it's still the best.

WEAKNESSES: The widely available version of the text is in an old and rather wooden translation, which makes reading it a little bit of a slog.  There is a dearth of citations from the tradition.  Most citations point directly to scripture or to the ecumenical councils (especially Trent).  Its expository format does not encourage memorization.  No "highlights" or "key points".

RECOMMENDATION: If you want a really thorough, in depth discussion of the basics of the Catholic Faith, this is one of the first places to go.  Fr. Thomas Joseph White used to recommend it to Dominican seminarians as an excellent sourcebook for spiritual conferences and retreats.  It's one of the foundational reference works in any Catholic book collection.


WHERE TO FIND IT: Many Catholic bookstores, online, on Amazon.

STRENGTHS: This is the classic American children's catechism.  It consists of a series of a few hundred questions and answers, designed to be committed to memory, organized into themed lessons. The answers are simple, easy to understand, and doctrinally precise.  Aside from the Q&As (which are, to an impressive extent, real questions that a normal, inquisitive person would actually ask) the glory of the St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism is its illustrations: little cartoons which visually re-enforce the contents of each lesson.  It also includes simple exercises for the student.

WEAKNESSES: The St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism looks like a relic of the 1950s.  The art can feel kitschy at times.  Also, loath though I am to admit it, the approach to doctrine in the catechism is not as nuanced in some cases as it should be.  It can leave things feeling a little too "cut and dry" than is theologically appropriate. (Though, it must be emphasized, this fault is greatly preferable to the opposite fault of ethereal, obfuscatory vagueness, which is more common today.)

RECOMMENDATION: You ought to own a copy of this book.  It's worth reading because you will learn from it: not just from the text, which is very well-composed and often worthy of memorization, but from the images as well, which capture certain aspects of the faith and Catholic life very strikingly, and leave their mark on one's memory.  During my first few months as a Catholic, there were several practical questions I had about the Sacraments which I could not find answered in the JPII Catechism of the Catholic Church, but which were all answered directly and precisely by the Baltimore Catechism.  One of these books is more in touch with "lived Catholicism" than the other.

(Note: "Baltimore Catechism No. 1" is a much shorter version of the Catechism for younger children.)


WHERE TO FIND IT: Perhaps some Catholic bookstores sell it, though I cannot remember having seen it in one.  Available cheaply on Amazon.

STRENGTHS: This is the British version of the American Baltimore Catechism.  In essence it's the same text, but simple and more compact, and with more scripture cited.  The normal edition is pocket sized, and makes for wonderful occasional reading (on commutes, for example).  It is also small and cheap enough to keep several copies on hand to distribute to friends at need.  No illustrations, just a very solid, well-constructed series of about 360 questions and answers on the basics of the Catholic Faith.

WEAKNESSES: None, to my knowledge.  It lacks the bells and whistles of the St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism (the illustrations and activities), and is not (obviously) as thorough as the Roman Catechism.  It is just a Catechism, and an excellent one.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy half a dozen copies.  Read one (you'll learn things, guaranteed), and keep the others around to give to relatives or friends.


WHERE TO FIND IT: Online, through EWTN's website.

STRENGTHS: This is like the Penny Catechism, but with considerably greater theological depth and precision.

WEAKNESSES: While in theory a children's catechism, it cannot be used as one without a lot of difficulty (I say this from experience).  The text is good for independent learners and adults.  The questions are really well-chosen, but sometimes the coverage of material feels imbalanced.

RECOMMENDATION: Read through it once for your own benefit, and keep it up your sleeve as a resource to be aware of.

08 November 2015

Ricoeurean Re-Tellings of Three Popular Children's Movies

Kiki's Delivery Service – Kiki begins the film as a young witch, who lives in a world of inchoate dreams and hopes, and whose best friend is her pet cat, Jiji.  After becoming critically self-aware, she loses her magic abilities.  Then, spending some time in meditative retreat with an artist friend, she again feels the call of magic, but as a symbolic construct, rather than anything actually supernatural.  Resolutely autonomous, Kiki realizes that she is a witch merely because she chooses (by her act of narrative self-creation!) to interpret the world around her thus.  At the end, her cat Jiji, who has lost the ability to speak to her, no longer speaks, except in her imagination.

Frozen – Elsa is haunted by the brutal mythos of her nordic people, and feels torn between her public duties (which place her in the role of queen) and her inner desires (which place her in the role of evil villain).  After struggling with this narrative framework for most of her life, she breaks with it, and plunges into a fantasy world in which her own desires form the basis of a new master-narrative, which exaggerates the negative features of the cultural mythos in which she has been raised.  Her sister, the voice of reason, who sees myth as a creative instrument for the interpretation of reality, and not as something which ought to constrain us, eventually helps Elsa to break free from the repression of her naive self-understanding, and embrace a new, flexible mythos, in which her own duties and powers are merely fictions used to express and understand her interior states, and the experiences of those around her.

The Lion King – Simba is raised in a culture dominated by a monarchical political ontology, in which Simba himself is heavily constrained by his role as heir to the king.  His uncle, a usurper-king of the sort inherent in political ontologies of this variety, deprives Simba of the narrative role in which he has been raised, rendering the political ontology of his community unintelligible to him, and incompatible with his own struggle for self-understanding. (This shows us that any version of the monarchical political mythology is self-destructive when absolutized.) After fleeing to the jungle, Simba is aided in the critical self-examination of his culture and upbringing, and becomes aware of the prejudicial arbitrariness and contingency of its fundamental ontologies.  Liberated by this new critical awareness, Simba luxuriates in life's carefree possibilities, until he is called on by a member of his community, Nala, who wants him to engage the cultural community of his youth, and use his combination of critical self-awareness and narrative fluency within the dominant political paradigm to break the hegemony of the monarch and establish a new, more flexible governing ontology for the people.  This he does.

07 November 2015



Both volumes of Ludwig von Pastor's history of the pontificate of Leo X are now available!  Together the two volumes span over 1000 pages, and delve in great detail into such exciting topics as the rise of Luther's revolt, Leo X's response and condemnation of Luther, the Fifth Lateran Council, the Renaissance in Rome, Leo's struggles with the Holy Roman Emperor, and much much more.  Buy them today!