Friday, June 27, 2014

What's a Person to Do?

It really isn't my intent to turn this into a book review blog, but I've been reading so many good ones recently that I just have to pass along the good news.

When considering reading even for self-development, the statement, “Hey, why not read a little moral theology?” is rarely heard.  It seems to me that this is partly because works of moral theology and philosophy are rarely “user friendly” - they're typically full of carefully parsed statements, nuanced definitions, and intricate abstractions. As a result moral theologians often end up talking to nobody but each other, because they have a language all their own. In this way they're similar to lawyers, medical experts, and computer technicians.

The difference being that we laymen can ultimately turn a situation over to lawyers, medical experts, and computer techs and say, “Just send me a bill”, thus detaching ourselves from the need to know the gritty details. We can't do that with moral questions, which confront us commonly and can have serious consequences.  This puts us in a bind, because we need guidance in moral matters, especially considering the complex questions that face us these days, but the guidelines often defy easy understanding.

Fortunately, at least on moral theologian has come to our aid. Dr. Mark Latkovic, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, has written a book called What's a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter.  It is his attempt to make the nuances of moral theology accessible to those of us interested in making prudent decisions with a well-formed conscience.

The book is a slender volume written in an accessible, conversational style, as if you were talking with Dr. Latkovic over coffee.  The format is that of forty questions with moral implications drawn right from modern life.  These are not theoretical abstractions, but concrete questions like “Is it morally okay for me to have a Facebook account?” and “Is it morally justifiable to attend the wedding ceremony of a man and woman who have cohabitated?”  The intent of the chapters isn't just to give specific guidance, but to use the situations as a springboard to explain the principles that should guide us in pondering such decisions.  These aren't simple questions (hopefully “Should I shoplift this item?” won't present much of a moral dilemma for any of us), but are chosen for their complexity and ambiguity.

Dr. Latkovic begins the book with an introduction which he titles “The Ethical Toolbox”. Though this is where you might expect to get lost while the seminary professor lapses into moral theospeak, the section is quite accessible. He defines some terms but never strays far from the basics like the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Golden Rule.  Most critically he defines what a Catholic conscience is, and what it means to have a well-formed one (hint: it's not what most people think.)  He also reminds us that consideration of moral questions doesn't just involve guidelines, but also virtues – personal strengths within each of us that reflect the character and nature of Christ.

As Dr. Latkovic addresses the forty questions he has chosen, he keeps returning to this duo: moral guidelines and personal virtues.  In nearly every example, he explains the relevant issues in terms of what moral issues should come into play, and what virtues we will need to charitably answer this question.  In this, Dr.  Latkovic moves beyond the “advice columnist” approach to these knotty issues and forces us to grapple with our own weaknesses and sinful predilections.  Let's face it: when faced with some thorny moral dilemma, the usual reason we seek an “advice columnist” answer, be it from an actual advice columnist, or from a coworker at the water cooler, or through our social media outlets, is that we want an easy out. We want someone to assure us that the low-cost option we're considering is right, or that there's some rule we can invoke that will relieve us of responsibility.  We want to avoid difficult or costly outcomes, particularly ones that require us to grow in personal maturity and holiness.

This is not to say that Dr. Latkovic doesn't give some practical, immediately usable advice. For instance, in the chapter addressing the question “Can I read a book or attend a play or watch a movie with risqué parts?”, he tersely reminds us:
Just because we are in the realm of entertainment – broadly defined to include both high and low culture – doesn't mean we are now also in a moral-free zone of behavior where we can do whatever we want. And yes, sorry, that includes our favorite rock bands and rock music of all types. (p. 35)
This is one example of how Dr. Latkovic uses the questions he has chosen to educate his readers on moral principles.  He really does want to provide everyone with ethical tools so that when that forty-first question comes up, they'll know where to turn and what voices to listen to while considering their response.

Dr. Latkovic doesn't let anyone off the hook, returning again and again to the Scriptures, basic moral teaching, and the question of personal virtue. If you're looking for a book to tell you that the easy-out you're considering is A-OK, then buy another book (or better yet, write that advice columnist, making sure to word your letter carefully so that you get the answer you want.)  But if you want sound moral advice grounded in God's Word and centuries of wisdom, then Dr.  Latkovic's book is an excellent and accessible place to begin.

What's a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions That Matter © 2013 by Mark Latkovic published by Our Sunday Visitor. It can be purchased at bookstores or online at sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Joseph's Way: Prayer of Faith - the best book on Christian fatherhood available

By most objective standards, I have been a successful father. My wife of nearly 33 years and I accepted all six children the Lord sent to us and raised them so that they have taken responsibility for their own lives. They are all faithful to the Lord in their own unique ways, most have married fine spouses, and most of those are responsibly raising families of their own. In a culture where “my kid doesn't live in my basement” is considered a milestone of parental achievement, my record as a father looks pretty good by external measures. More than one person in my life has noticed this, and suggested that I write a book about how to be a good father.

Well, I've got good news: you don't have to wait for me to get around to that project. The book I would have written on fatherhood has been written, and more powerfully than I could have done. It's called Joseph's Way: Prayer of Faith by Devin Schadt, and is published by Ignatius Press.

I have read many guidebooks for Christian fathers in my day, many of them excellent. But this work is the finest I have ever laid hands on, a superb blend of the devotional and the practical that will change any man who reads it and takes it to heart. Throughout the book I found Devin speaking truths that I had learned over the my 28 years of raising children through much trial and heartache, and speaking these truths in a way that made them understandable and applicable by every man. This is the book I wish I'd had when I was starting out as a father, and even now I'm grateful for its lessons.

I don't know much about Devin Schadt, except that he founded a ministry called Fathers of St. Joseph and speaks on the vocation and calling of fatherhood. It is clear from the book that my brother Devin is a very Godly man who knows the Scriptures like the back of his hand, has steeped himself in the teachings of the Church, and has a profound devotional life.  This is a man who sits at the feet of Jesus, Mary, and St. Joseph, as well as many other godly teachers, and then passes along what he has learned for the good of his brothers.

The book's subtitle is “80 days to unlocking your power as a father”, and that's exactly how it is divided up – as 80 brief, 1-3 page meditations which are perfect for reading over the morning cup of coffee.  But each one is profound and insightful, illustrating important truths and challenging men to step up to their Divine calling. Unlike many other books on fatherhood, this book doesn't deal with superficial, how-to formulas, as if raising Godly children was some kind of mechanistic process. There's a place for such books, but more important are the “heart adjustments”, where men learn to form a Godly character. Using Old Testament saints like Abraham and Jacob, and always returning to the shining example of St. Joseph, Devin shows how Godliness is not only attainable but necessary for every man.

One thing I deeply love about this book is that it's an antidote to the subtle poison of clericalism. As Catholic men, it's easy for us to fall into thinking that if we're really serious about our faith, we should become priests or religious. Then we make the logical and spiritual error that because we're not priests or religious, therefore we don't have to be serious about our faith.  We want to leave holiness to the professionals (and maybe our wives) while we bring home the paycheck and insure the lawn is mowed.

My beloved brother Devin doesn't let anyone get away with this attitude.  He makes clear that marriage and fatherhood is every bit as much a Godly vocation as the priesthood is, and that our personal paths to holiness lies through our diligent attention to that ministry, whatever the cost to ourselves.  This echoes what I believe to be the central lesson that I've learned over the years as a father, and the one lesson I'd emphasize as central to whatever success I've had: that I – not my priest, not my wife, not the religious ed department – was primarily responsible for my children's spiritual formation as well as their physical welfare, and I would someday answer before the Throne of God for my attention to that responsibility.  (I give credit to my own father for teaching me this.)  Not that I can't accept assistance from any possible source, but ultimately I would be the one responsible. That more than anything was what drove me to my knees to seek the help of the Lord, St. Joseph, and anyone else I could find.

If you're serious about growing as a husband and father – heck, if you're serious about growing as a man – this is the book to get. Don't order one copy. Order four, because as you delve into it, I promise you that you'll want to hand along copies to men you know. Sisters, order this book for your husband, or for any man in your life who wishes to grow in holiness.  (Right now, it's on sale at!)

I thank Devin Schadt for writing this book, which clearly is the result of much experience, prayer, and personal devotion.  I look forward to reading the followup books he's written.  He has clearly and profoundly laid out the path to holiness for husbands and fathers, the path trod by our great hero and mentor, St. Joseph.