It is Right and Just

In addition to the Irish and the USA editions, and It is Right and Just! has now been published in an Australian edition.

Ambassador Extraordinaire: Daniel O’Daly

Ambassador Extraordinaire: Daniel O’Daly, 1595-1662
(Dublin: Arlen House, 2017)
Margaret MacCurtain, O.P.

This fascinating study explores the career of Ireland’s first modern diplomat, Daniel O’Daly. Born in Kilsarkan, County Kerry, in 1595, he became a significant figure in seventeenth century ecclesiastical and political life at a time when Ireland’s relationship with Europe was both considerable and subtle. He was an historian, founder of an Irish college and a convent in Portugal, confessor and adviser to kings and queens, a prime mover in both the Stuart Restoration of Charles II and the Portuguese Restoration; and shortly before he died in 1662 he was nominated as bishop-elect of Coimbra, Portugal.

The research for this book was conducted by Sr Margaret MacCurtain, O.P., between 1956 and 1963 in archives in Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, France, and England, consulting original sources in Irish, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Latin and Tudor and Stuart English. The manuscript, missing for almost fifty years, was recently rediscovered and is prepared for publication by the author, one of Ireland’s most distinguished historians.


Book Review: Faith, Reason and the Existence of God

Vatican I decreed it to be a matter of faith that “God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason.” Denys Turner, in this very rich treatment of the issue of proving the existence of God takes this assertion of Vatican I as the starting-point of his deliberations. He clarifies the parameters of what Vatican I states: it neither maintains that any successful proof for the existence of God on the basis of natural reason has to date been proffered nor that any such proof will be elaborated in the future. The point rather is that such a proof from natural reason is in principle possible – and that possibility is to be accepted as a matter of faith.

This proposition does not meet with overwhelming approval in contemporary theological circles – Catholic circles included. Barthians naturally object but adherents of the nouvelle théologie also reject a more traditional reading of the proofs, in particular those of St. Thomas Aquinas. On their interpretation the existence of God is ascertainable by reason but “only within and as presupposing the context of faith” (p. 14). Turner meets these interpretations head on and develops a highly compelling argument in support of Vatican I’s position.

On the way Turner engages with a myriad of important theologians and philosophers ranging from Dionysius the Areopagite to Jacques Derrida and passing through Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. Throughout his critiques are those of one clearly steeped in the thought of St. Thomas. Turner describes the relationship between Vatican I and Thomas as follows: “Thomas is doing as theologian what the first Vatican Council was doing as magisterium” (p. 47).

Scotus’s univocal metaphysics is often criticized by those who are critical of ‘ontotheology’, an error that consists in collapsing the reality both of the Divine Being and of finite beings into a common logic. Radical Orthodoxy theologians are among those who have led the charge. Turner’s treatment of Scotus is more benign, offering less negative critical appraisal of the Subtle Doctor’s theory of the univocity. His interpretation is supported by solid textual evidence.

Notwithstanding this academic graciousness, Turner argues robustly in favour of Thomas’s analogical understanding of being and shows forth the logical validity of arguing from premises to a conclusion “related to them across the ‘gap’ between creatures and God” (p. 208). Turner’s understanding of Thomas on analogy proves however to be excessively apophatic, grounded as it is in what Thomas Joseph White, O.P., describes as “The decision to make the created dependency of esse virtually the unique determinate for the consideration of divine names” (Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology [Florida: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2009], 264).

The reader of Turner’s supremely fine study would be well-served by studying White’s analysis of Thomas on analogy, an analysis that appeals to “the progressive via inventionis of causal analysis in creatures” (ibid.). In support of this approach is Thomas’s appeal to Dionysius the Areopagite’s threefold via in On the Divine Names: the via causalitatis, the via negationis or remotionis, and the via eminentiae.

In spite of this criticism Turner’s study is a crucially important contribution to discourse concerning the relationship between faith and reason and dismantles the stance of those who deny the capacity of natural reason unaided by grace to demonstrate the existence of God.

Book Review: Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide)

71R5OQ--JZL._AA1084_Edward Feser has established himself in recent times as a force to be reckoned with in philosophical circles. His most recent book is Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. He is also the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism as well as of books on Locke and on philosophy of mind. In 2009 he published Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide) with Oneworld Publications, Oxford.

Following a chapter that introduces Aquinas’s life and works, Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide) devotes chapters to his metaphysics, natural theology, psychology, and ethics. For anyone who is familiar with Aquinas’s thought, this structure is ideally suited to inducting the student into his thought. One should not be put off by the long chapter on metaphysics – 54 pages in all. In it are covered themes that are indispensable for understanding his natural theology, psychology, and ethics: act and potency, matter and form, essence and existence, the transcendentals, final causality, and efficient causality.

The chapter on natural theology deals with all five of Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God (Summa Theologiae I, q. 2, a. 3), as well as containing a short treatment of the divine attributes (God’s simplicity, perfection, goodness, immutablity, and so on). The reader will encounter in this chapter one of the most robust defences of the validity of every one of the arguments for the existence of God (Five Ways) available in the English language. Key to understanding Aquinas’s proofs are various metaphysical concepts that have been explained in the previous chapter. This reviewer certainly has benefitted from Feser’s expertise in this area, most notably with regard to the fourth proof which scholars sympathetic to Aquinas have often found difficult or wanting. In the light of Aquinas’s teaching concerning the transcendental properties of being, Feser clears up any misunderstandings or misgivings. This chapter is a tour de force and bears witness to Feser’s deserved reputation as a master of natural theology. Both students and established scholars ought to acquire a copy of the book for the sake of this chapter alone.

Feser’s treatment of Aquinas’s psychology is also quite masterful and illuminating. Again the metaphysical concepts encountered in the first chapter are called into action because trying to understand Aquinas in this area, as in so many others, risks being undermined by the metaphysical assumptions that are commonly taken for granted these days. Feser alerts the reader at the outset that “Aquinas does not mean by soul what contemporary philosophers tend to mean by it, that is, an immaterial substance of the sort affirmed by Descartes” (131). Psychology, for Aquinas as for Aristotle, is that area of philosophy devoted to the study not simply of the mind but also of that which makes an organism to be a living thing. The mind is studied insofar as it is an aspect of this organism.

Among other things Feser ably expounds Aquinas’s understanding of the human being as a composite of body and soul: I am neither my soul alone nor my body alone but rather the unity of both. Body and soul together constitute the reality of the human person. We are not ghosts (souls) living in machines (bodies). This point is crucial not only for a correct understanding of the human person but also for understanding Aquinas’s ethical theory. Feser’s exposition easily disposes of rationalist and materialist arguments. Feser also deals with Aquinas’s accounts of the intellect and will, immateriality and immortality.

The final chapter of the book turns to Aquinas’s ethics. After discussing the notion of the good he offers a brief account of Aquinas’s natural law theory and finishes with a brief section on religion and morality. While certainly a very competent introduction, this chapter does not unfortunately scale the heights of the chapter on natural theology. Lacking is a treatment of virtue.

The final words, while a little provocative to the non-Thomist, are certainly music to the ears of Thomists:

 For Aquinas, we are not here for ourselves, but for the glory of God, and precisely because this is an end set for us by nature, it is in him alone that we can find our true happiness. And it must be emphasized that, as with other themes we’ve explored in this book, he takes this conclusion to be a matter, not of faith, but of reason itself. Therein lies the sting of Aquinas’s challenge to modernity. (192).

For anyone who wishes to equip himself/herself to engage critically with and to challenge the contemporary intellectual and cultural scene, this book is a must.

Finally, a note of caution: Feser’s book, while it ought to be required reading for any introductory course on Aquinas’s philosophy, is nonetheless very challenging for the neophyte. When used as part of course on Aquinas, however, it will prove to be very valuable.

Online Video Review: Reason for the Season – the Easter Triduum

A well-known chocolate company is currently running an advertising campaign for bunny-shaped treats with the tagline, ‘Why wait until Easter?’ I imagine the concept of ‘Lent’ isn’t a popular one among chocolate manufacturers, but it says a lot that they could ask this rhetorical question as if there were no obvious answer. Just as Christmas festivities are extended (for commercial reasons) into the waiting period before Christmas, so too the allure of Easter indulgence pops its head up in the last weeks of Lent.

How should we respond? Well, we should certainly ‘wait until Easter’, and stay faithful to our Lenten regimes. But in response to worldly indulgence we should be careful not to become mere puritans. The best way to avoid this possibility is to really spend time meditating on the mysteries we celebrate at Easter, which motivate both our Lenten simplicity and our Easter celebration.

The video above, produced by the Irish Dominican students, is a good way to enter more deeply into the Paschal mysteries. It explains, step by step, the Church celebrations that mark the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday), ending with the drama of the Easter Vigil. This collective journey through the liturgy is also a spiritual journey with Christ.

Cadbury’s might want to rush us to Easter, but a better path is to take your time on the journey, to walk slowly through the Upper Room, to Calvary, to the tomb, and beyond.

Online Video Review: Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire

Laetare Sunday is now behind us and we are in final stretch towards Holy Week. I don’t know about you, but I always find the emotion of Holy Week quite hard to take. Perhaps it has a greater intensity in a religious community, when the whole community experiences disorientation together: familiar timetables are altered, familiar statues are covered, and the Lord is removed from his familiar place in the tabernacle. Holy Week, this journey through desolation towards the unspeakable joy of Easter, is best lived communally – each Christian home, each parish, each nation, and the whole people of God experience the same agony and the same ecstasy, because they recognise the same Lord.

How to enter into this communal experience of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ? Needless to say, active participation in the liturgy is top of the list, and preparing for the liturgies by reading the Scriptures in advance is especially helpful. I also find it helpful to read meditations and classic texts from the tradition: St Bonaventure’s writings on the passion of Christ are a favourite of mine.

In the Internet Age, these possibilities are extended: now I like to listen to Holy Week music from Serbia, Greece, Russia, the Middle East. These songs of the Christian people help me move beyond my own preoccupations to enter into ‘fellowship with ages past’, to participate in the common emotion of the people of God. But in searching for the more exotic expressions of the Holy Week experience, I have discovered a few gems which were polished up closer to home, especially the Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire (‘Lament of the Three Marys’) from the Irish ‘sean nós’ (‘old style’) tradition of singing.

This song is typical of the Irish tradition of reflection on the passion, which takes the little crowd at the foot of the Cross – and especially Christ’s Mother – as our eyes and ears on Calvary. While the 8th-century Irish poet, Blathmac, writes a long poem on the passion with Mary by his side (‘Come to me, loving Mary, that I may keen with you your very dear one’), the singer of this sean nós song goes a step further and sings as Mary, or rather, as the three Marys at the foot of the cross (John 19:25). Christ is so bruised that he is hardly recognisable:

Is this the little son nourished at Mary’s breast […]

And is this the little son I bore for three seasons?

We see Christ through the teared-up eyes of his mother, as the tenderness of Bethlehem meets the violence of Golgotha:

Is this the little son born in the stable […]

My son, my darling, your nose and little mouth are cut.

Throughout the song, the mournful refrain (or ‘keen’) is repeated, and its agonised syllables give musical form to the Good Friday anguish of every Christian generation. Together these assembled generations stand at Calvary, side by side with the three Marys, gazing at the Cross in Good Friday shock: óchón agus óchón ó…

This Holy Week, let us stand, sing, and grieve with them.


[The version of Caoineadh na dTrí Mhuire in the video above is taken from Hymns of Passion and Resurrection, the inaugural album of the ‘Céli Dé Collective’, under the guidance of a Dominican friar of the Irish Province. The album is due to be released on 12 April, and can be bought in record stores (Ireland), online at, and on iTunes.]

Online Video Review: Dear Future Mum

In ancient Sparta, being born did not necessarily mean that a child would be cherished. The Spartan elders could decide, if they thought the child was weak or deformed in any way, to have the child exposed to the elements, cut off from the support of the community and left to die.

This practice of ‘exposure’ seems to have been relatively common in some parts of the ancient world. Christianity, with its emphasis on the equality of all before God, and Jesus’ own example of love for children, was revolutionary in this context. While it goes without saying that not all Christian communities have lived to the full this ideal of care for the vulnerable, it is important to recognise how radical this aspect of Christianity was.

Was, and is again. With the aid of pre-birth diagnosis, doctors can now inform parents that their child has a disability. On its own, this is not a bad thing – it can help parents prepare for a more difficult situation. But wherever abortion is available on demand (as in Britain, for example), such information is commonly paired with advice to end the life of the disabled child. In such regimes, up to 90% of children diagnosed with Down Syndrome are ‘exposed’ in this way.

Christianity’s message of care for everyone, respect for the dignity of everyone, is once again a radical teaching, and it is rejected, consciously or unconsciously, by many of our peers. This video, then, produced last week for World Down Syndrome Day, is a powerful illustration of the beautiful results of following this teaching with love and perseverance: it shows sensitive and ambitious young people and proud mothers. Above all, it shows smiles. These smiling faces, born of relationships rooted in love and respect, are the true face of the Culture of Life. Let us salute our brothers and sisters with Down Syndrome, and let us salute their families.

Online Video Review: #IrelandInspires

The video above, produced by Fáilte Ireland (the Irish tourist board) has been doing the rounds recently. It was produced in honour of St Patrick’s Day, and its central message is, ‘Ireland Inspires’. It celebrates the achievements of this little island in a way that blends the old (literature, landscape) and the new (science and technology, contemporary music). Initially, I was impressed, but watching it a second time highlighted something that made me uncomfortable: this self-presentation of Ireland involved a major emphasis on business prowess. In itself, this isn’t a bad thing, but taken with the absence of any witness to transcendent values, this video shows the dominance of the utilitarian over the spiritual which is sadly definitive of contemporary Ireland.

It’s hard to understand the processes that have led to Ireland turning so quickly and decisively away from its Catholic heritage. We shouldn’t exaggerate the situation, of course, and there are good practice rates in many parts of the country. But all the major cultural outlets exhibit the same disdain for all things ecclesiastical, and even all things spiritual – Ireland has ‘come a long way’ and is continuing to ‘move on’.

In this context, a major temptation presents itself to Irish Catholics: retreat to the ghetto. Such a strategy essentially involves substituting retrenchment for evangelisation, making do with a ‘faith world’ which offers familiarity and comfort (a strategy which is shared by so-called ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ alike). Like all temptations, this retreat strategy includes some desirable aspects: at the very least it provides some kind of escape from the rapid change of values that is engulfing modern Ireland. What it lacks, though, is an essential element of Irish Christianity from its inception: the missionary spirit.

We can find the wellsprings of this missionary spirit in the life and writings of St Patrick himself. St Patrick was extremely unusual for his time: a missionary bishop whose obedience to God’s call brought him (back) beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. His Confessio bears passionate testimony to his conversion, his vocation as a missionary to the Irish, and his intimate following of Christ through immense difficulties. His work in Ireland bore great fruit, to his own amazement:

How, then, does it happen in Ireland that a people who in their ignorance of God always worshipped only idols and unclean things up to now, have lately become a people of the Lord and are called children of God? How is it that the sons and daughters of Irish chieftains are seen to be monks and virgins dedicated to Christ? (Conf. 41).

This simple saint saw himself as ‘a letter of Christ bearing salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth’, even if the letter is not ‘elegantly written’. He knew that his gifts were limited, and that his mission was daunting, but, more importantly, he knew that nobody should be excluded from the love of Christ, even those in the ‘uttermost parts of the earth’, even those, as Pope Francis would say, ‘at the margins’.

The contemporary situation in Ireland makes many followers of Christ despair of ever ‘regaining’ Ireland. ‘The Irish people are gone astray’, we might say, ‘Let them go their way, and let us focus on being good Christians’. Evangelical St Patrick points to a different way:

In Hosea God says: “Those who are not my people I will call ‘my people’ and her who had not received mercy I will call ‘her who has received mercy’. And in the very place where it was said, ‘You are not my people’, they will be called ‘sons of the living God” (Conf. 40, quoting segments from Hosea 2).

True sons and daughters of St Patrick, then, will never give up on their contemporaries, but will see, even in those furthest from the Church, children loved by the Father, called to receive mercy and adoption into His people.

#IrelandInspires? Perhaps. But more importantly, #PatrickInspiresApostles.



Movie Review: The Lego Movie

the_lego_movie_2014-wideOne should probably begin a discussion about The LEGO Movie by quickly getting the obvious out of the way: It’s awesome. The whole thing is awesome… Except maybe the head-wreckingly catchy theme tune; which I very reluctantly thought was awesome too. But only because it has permanently taken up residence in my head, overwriting the brain data that once held Lambchop’s “This Is The Song That Never Ends. It goes on and on and on and on…”!

As is wholly expected, The Lego Movie waxes on every fantasy-scifi-comicbook-pirate-cowboy-[insert any arbitrary film genre here] movie cliché that has ever been in existence. However, one doesn’t expect the prophesied hero to be modelled more on Bilbo and less on Neo – that is special by the very fact that he isn’t particularly special at all. One does expect a myriad of random and exciting cameos from almost every other popular franchise that seems to have ever existed from Lando Calrissian to Michelangelo to Michelangelo (Yes, both the Mutant Ninja Turtle and the famous Renaissance artist!) to Dumbledore, and, of course, Batman. But one certainly doesn’t expect a remarkable multiplicity of meaning contained in even the naming of the characters: Emmet (the main character) means ‘truth’, in Hebrew; and Lucy (the would-be love interest) means ‘of the light’, in Latin. There are also references to Aristophanes, Ibsen, Orwell, and an architect from 2000 years ago, who was so famous Leonardo da Vinci would use his designs to create the Vitruvian Man – Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. The Vitruvius in the film is a “Master Builder” (the Ibsen reference), is a rebel in a dystopian Big Brother-esque world (Orwell), and the film travels through a chaotic realm where the are no rules, called Cloud Cuckoo Land (Aristophanes)… Awesome!

The aforementioned prophecy tells of a chosen one (surprise, surprise) called, ironically, “The Special” who will be “the brightest, most talented, most interesting person in the universe.” Thankfully though, the unfolding plot takes this tired cliché in fantastically original and unexpected directions.

Initially, Emmet does not seem special. As is the custom, propagated by the society in which he lives, he doesn’t just avoid over thinking; he barely thinks at all. He strives to be just like everyone else, and fit in. He signs up to the same consumerist mentality, watches the same “popular” show and listens to the same “popular” song. He lives this so perfectly when warned not to get any ideas, he can relish in his confident reply, “I never have any ideas.” Contrasted with the laissez-faire, seat-of-your-pants approach of those who populate the underground movement, of which Wyldstyle/Lucy is typical, fighting the maniacal manipulator and looming overlord, Lord Business, with whom Emmet finds himself embroiled in his role as “The Special”, he seems thoroughly, and delightedly underwhelming.

But this creates the central tension fans of the iconic building blocks face at every moment of play – the tension between following the instructions and creating from one’s own imagination. And this is, very literally, the challenge confronting Catholics everyday. Like Emmet, they understand how total freedom can fail without some rules. And it is the struggle to live out this reality that makes them “special”, especially those involved in the New Evangelisation. Indeed, the general popularity of Pope Francis stems from his redefining of the balance between conformity and creativity. Being a practicing Catholic does mean giving religious submission of intellect and will to the all Church’s teaching, but it is where the actualisation of the Gospel message is concerned that one’s creativity is essential. We cannot be afraid to live life abundantly and to drink in the beauty of life! We cannot be afraid to explore the wonders of Christ. We should be truly joyful people. We can’t spend our time complaining about how unfair the Church is, or about how we are not getting their fair share, or about how we feel repressed by the Church. There are far more important things that need to be done with and in our lives. True Catholics realise that it is all about their relationship with Christ, not about rules. The rules are there to give us a framework to build on, to go beyond: a starting point. In real life, as in the film, we can be creative by following the instructions! Awesome, right?

Book Review: The Scent of Lemons

r-LEMON-TREE-large570In the last 20 years or so, the revolution in communications technology has radically changed the lives of billions of ordinary people. In many ways, this technology has made our lives easier: communication is speedier, and access to information, entertainment, and services is easier and more democratic. We talk a lot about progress and achievement in this area: smaller laptops, more multi-functional smartphones, better mobile coverage, longer-lasting batteries… What’s surprising, and a little worrying, is how little we reflect on the spiritual and ethical side of this revolution. We certainly talk about some symptoms – cyberbullying, pornography – but rarely reflect deeply on the underlying phenomena. It’s as if we are so breathless at the pace of progress in communications technology – or so absorbed in its use – that we don’t have the energy or perspective to assess these new phenomena at a non-superficial level.

Given this situation, Fr Jonah Lynch’s little book, The Scent of Lemons, is a very welcome publication. It’s written by a self-professed ‘nerd’ who is thoroughly pro-technology (he had his first email address in 1994, well ahead of the posse). As a priest and a member of ‘Communion and Liberation’, though, he has had to reflect on what communications technology is doing to human relationships. He sums up the purpose of his book with a nice example: ‘What is the difference between laughing in the company of friends, and writing ‘hahahaha’ on a chat screen?’

One of the things Lynch does best in this book is to show that the questions he is asking are relevant. Many of us assume that our tools are neutral, that we decide how to use them and that we are in command of them as long as we use them. When we extend this model to communications technology, spiritual and ethical questions simply dissolve away: ‘Of course my mobile phone use hasn’t changed me: I use it when I want to, and don’t use it when I don’t want to’. Lynch blasts this ‘neutral tools’ myth by appealing not to philosophy or theology, but to neuroscience. The discovery of ‘neuroplasticity’ shows that the tools we use and practices we engage in have a physical effect on our brain, which shapes our reactions in future. Lynch concludes: ‘Every technology carries with it a change in our approach and relationship with the world. This is precisely not neutral, since everything depends on which aspects of life are made easier and which are made more difficult, or impeded’ (36).

Lynch is at his best when he is showing this ‘life-shaping’ effect of technology: mobile phones change our attitude to appointments and ‘eliminate space’ (34); social media make it possible to put up ‘window displays’ about one’s life (59); Internet use shortens our attention span and limits our ability to read slowly and perceptively (25); images and sounds can be communicated by technology, but not touch, taste, or smell, so that ‘the scent of lemons’ is absent from our technological experience (1). In all of these little reflections, the author makes use of a wide variety of excellent commentary (and I for one will be looking up some of the books he refers to) but he always writes very personally, with an emphasis on real lived experience. For this reader, at least, such a personal reflection sparked some of my own, and got me asking some important questions, including the most important one: ‘Is this way of using the phone/laptop/television/Internet helping me to become the best version of myself?’

In short, this book is well worth getting hold of if you have any interest in the anthropological effects of technology (and maybe especially so if you don’t have such an interest). Lynch isn’t setting himself up against technology, but is firmly in favour of an informed, canny re-humanisation of technology use. We are immersed in technological practices but true freedom demands that these practices by guided by an appropriate ideal: ‘Only an ideal that is both beautiful and plausible has the requisite strength. It must be beautiful: it must have an attractive force, it must be more appealing than the alternatives. And it must be plausible, otherwise it will only be an illusion’ (85). This formation of guiding ideals for technological use is surely one of the most urgent tasks for all of us, whether Christians or not. The Scent of Lemons is a valuable contribution to this common task.

Fr Jonah Lynch FSCB, the author of The Scent of Lemons will be addressing the St Saviour’s Symposium (Dublin) on Sunday 16 March at 4pm. The title of his lecture is: ‘Body and Soul in the Internet Age’. All are welcome to attend – email for further information, or to confirm attendance.


(The Scent of Lemons, by Jonah Lynch FSCB, is published by Darton, Longman & Todd)