The National Catholic Review

William J. O’Malley, S.J., has been teaching theology for the past 30 years and has written a score of books. In the introduction to his newest, Choosing to Be Catholic, he identifies the audience he hopes to attract: those considering or participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and the once-but-no-longer-Catholic who is experiencing vague second thoughts. Given the book’s title, these are surely its natural audience. How then does Choosing to Be Catholic distinguish itself from other books that target these folks? O’Malley says it is by his apologetic, rather than catechetic, approach. In typical fashion, he illustrates this with a story:

In one Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown says to Snoopy who’s typing on top of his doghouse, I hear you’re writing a book on theology. I hope you have a good title. And as Charlie walks away, Snoopy says, I have the perfect title. Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong? Unless you’ve honestly examined ideas that challenge your own ideas you can never be confident in them. If there are five ways of getting a job done, and you know only one way, you don’t take that way freelybecause it’s the only one you know. At the end of this process, I would hope we would no longer be talking about the faith, but about your faith.

Following this apologetic approach (that is, by presupposing in the reader nothing beyond some interest), the author starts by nailing a few basic truths. Chapter One: faith in God is experienced more than argued, lived rather than reasoned. Chapter Two: we first need a conversion to being human, before we can convert to being religious. Chapter Three: conscience formation involves both justice and compassion. The next three chapters build on this foundation. In them O’Malley juxtaposes the cases for atheism and theism, arguing not theoretically but practically. He then follows with an appreciation of the insights of the world religions, sketching briefly the universality of faith. These chapters are especially effective in challenging readers to articulate their personal values, instead of reciting traditional formulae.

What O’Malley has done thus far is give his audience both the tools and motivation for thinking about who they are, why they are seeking and what options they have. While doing so, he tantalizes us by hinting that the pursuit of faith in God is both less and more than we might have imagined. (I hope to tantalize you by not elaborating on my assertion.)

As the succeeding nine chapters unfold, we are shown Christianity stripped to its essence. Jesus as embodying God to show us how God wants us to live, Jesus dying so as to rise and share with us his aliveness (grace) and witness to our immortalitythese are the first two nonnegotiables of Christian faith. The other two provide our faith-response: union with Jesus means living for others more than for myself, as demonstrated by being part of a serving community and sharing a weekly meal of gratitude. Only after we have pondered the meaning of the core of the Christianity are we asked, Why Be Catholic? (Chapter Eight). Here is a candid appraisal of Catholicism that ends by rejecting the scorecard (8 in ritual; 2 in warmth) in favor of the weekend retreat (live a while within it).

Catholicism, like all Christianity, is grounded in Scripture. Knowing this, O’Malley marches us through a quick (40-page) Scripture course that is as clear as it is orthodox. With the skill of a master teacher of (young and old) adults, he bares the complexities of biblical literalism, symbolism and criticismwithout destroying the poetry and power of the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament. With similar verve, he treats what could be labeled Tradition, covering the church and each of the sacraments. The Days of the Lord (Chapter Fourteen) encompasses a plethora of topics that are of interest to those who may be (re)entering the Catholic Church: from vestments to the liturgy to baptismal fonts. The final chapter, Praying, truly crowns his work, because here O’Malley insists that we cannot know God analytically, only personally. Further, personal knowledge of God comes only if we are willing to waste time with Godthat is, to pray. Next he cites prayer’s worth, lists the obstacles a pray-er meets, offers a way to pray and lays out prayer’s benefits. Readers are made to feel that if by now they are not seriously interested in praying, they are comatose.

One of the most appealing features of Choosing to Be Catholic is the Questions to Ponder and Discuss that end each chapter. Written with imagination, they are akin to vignettes that offer a fresh or provocative view in a way that encourages honest exchanges. The author consistently opens himself generously, challenging readers to do the same. Try it; you’ll like it, he seems to say. I say the same about this book. Adult initiation groups, people looking for a gift for a restless heart and anyone who wants to spruce up her spiritual life: Try it; you’ll like it.

 

Denise Lardner Carmody is provost of Santa Clara University in California.