In the October 20, 1928 issue of America, the editors of the magazine inaugurated the Catholic Book Club with the following notice:
[T]he Catholic Book announces that it has selected “The Way It Was with Them” by Peadar O’Donnell, as the outstanding Catholic novel of the month. This book is praised by non-Catholic critics, both in the United States and abroad, as one of the distinguished novels of the season. The approval of these critics, however, is of little moment for Catholic readers, since their praise is showered, more often than not, on novels that are gravely objectionable. The decision of the Editorial Board of the Catholic Book Club is of greater authority. For it stamps the book chosen as one which is Catholic in its attitude and moral in its recital, no less than skillful in its technique and graceful in its style.
The announcement proceeds to offer a rationale for the Book Club’s work of publicizing Catholic works for the “Catholic reading public”:
[T]he fact is all too evident that even the best Catholic books have not received adequate notice and have not been read or bought except by the smallest fraction of a percent of the Catholic reading class…Through the ministry of the Catholic Book Club, it is confidently expected that the Catholic author may be encouraged to devote his talents to subjects that are of Catholic interest and that he may likewise strive to endow his work with the living beauty which is essential to good literature.
The tone of the 1928 announcement is quite similar to the assertive tone James Keane recently identified in the architecture of Catholic institutions anchored in the Hudson River Valley (“Statements in Stone,” 2/18/13). The stone buildings that Keane described exude a confidence in the mystical permanence and riches of Catholic Culture as its adherents tried to gain a foothold in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. Likewise, the Catholic Book Club sought to establish a following for works of Catholic literature—works that promoted the awareness of the riches of the faith and its cultural heritage among Catholics. The Book Club’s board established itself as a greater authority than secular critics as to what works of literature were worthy of the attention of readers.
In the last 85 years there has been great change—to understate an understatement. However, in the reestablishment of the Catholic Book Club, I want to assert a similar confidence in the Catholic faith and the riches of Catholic culture and intellectual tradition. Yet, I wish to anchor this confidence in a resolute openness to the tremendous diversity within the Catholic tradition as well as a resolute respect for the breathtaking complexity of the human person, culture and religion. I see such regard for the complexity of human life to be as well-grounded and orthodox as Thomas Aquinas’s principle of plenitude: the sum total of the diversity of goodness and beauty in the entirety of creation reflects, to some extent, the goodness of its Creator.
Narrative, history, biography, theology, poetry, essay and argument—when these pursuits are honest and artful—serve to underscore the goodness of God and humanity. Nevertheless, such honest accounts of the complexity of human life will necessarily consider the “gravely objectionable,” because it is in the gravely objectionable that we see the need of men and women for a Savior—the person at the center of the Christian faith. This is also evident in Thomas’s principle of plenitude as it includes every degree of goodness, from the slightly imperfect to the obscenely human. And so, I hope to share with you works of history and literature and religious thought that serve to deepen our faith and our awareness of the complexity of human life. By reading together, we can communally consider the works of thinkers that will serve to deepen our relationship with Christ and our neighbors. Such works will help us learn about the world around us and, perhaps, help us to be more honest about ourselves and the faith we confess.
The first work that the club—in its new format—will consider is The Patriarch by David Nasaw. It is the mammoth biography of Joseph P. Kennedy. In my conversation with the author, I asked Prof. Nasaw to identify some of the most important lessons that he learned while researching and writing the definitive biography of one of the wealthiest, most influential Americans of the twentieth century. He spoke first of complexity and contradiction. He spoke of Joe Kennedy’s rigid egoism and his unwavering love for his children. He spoke of his unrelenting commitment to the accumulation of personal wealth and the fact that he drilled a strong sense of public service into all his children. Nasaw described Joe Kennedy’s brokenness at the death of Joe Jr., his further pain and sadness at the death of his daughter, Kathleen, while simultaneously cultivating an image of fearlessness and strength. Indeed, the life of Joseph P. Kennedy teaches us about the reality of urban and national politics in the U.S., the world wars, insights into the workings of American financial system, the personality and genius of FDR, the activity of a presidential campaign and the diminishment of a irrepressible man ground down by a string of personal tragedies. It is the history of a Catholic who dealt with prejudice and exclusion because of his Catholicism as well as a Catholic who was ultimately rejected by the institutional Church in the United States. In short, it is the fascinating life of a man who embodies the complexities of human nature.
The Book Club exists to cultivate meaningful discussion about meaningful books. In order to facilitate discussion about the book, I offer some questions here for discussion. I welcome everyone to contribute answers to these questions, your own questions, or any reactions you have to Prof. Nasaw’s book.
1. Having considered the entire life of Joseph Kennedy, from his days as “Honey Fitz’s son-in-law,” to his unrivaled financial success, to the death of his four eldest children and his own death, was Joseph Kennedy a happy man?
2. Knowing both the affection he showed his children and the way he conducted his own personal life, was he a good father?
3. Do you agree with Richard Cardinal Cushing’s assessment of the American Hierarchy’s rejection of John F. Kennedy as a presidential candidate in 1960? (Nasaw, p723-725) How has the 1960 election affected Catholic candidates for political office in the United States today?
I sincerely look forward to your responses.