Classic literature through a Catholic lens

Joseph Pearce is an astoundingly prolific writer. A native of England, with a fascinating and moving conversion story of his own, he is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn, and Belloc. He is a senior fellow at the Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal.

Pearce also serves as series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. Recently, he penned a piece for the journal of the Cardinal Newman Society about this series and his involvement, entitled “Critical Editions You Can Trust.” With the permission of the author, we are happy to share the article here with our readers.


Many years ago, when I was teaching a course on Romanticism at Ave Maria University in Florida, I was horrified to see the poisonous criticism that had seeped into the critical editions of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights that I had assigned as set texts to my students. These editions were full of feminist criticism, so-called queer theory and anti-Christian propaganda. Why, I thought, should I put such poison into the hands and therefore the minds of my students? Why, furthermore, should I patronize such trash by assigning the texts in the first place? I felt responsible for increasing the sales of these iconoclastic editions, and felt responsible also for any uncleanness that might enter into the minds and hearts of my students through their reading of them.

In response to this far from edifying situation, I suggested to Father Fessio of Ignatius Press that he should give me the go-ahead to become series editor of new editions of the classics. And so it was that the Ignatius Critical Editions were launched to provide a tradition-oriented alternative to the Norton Critical Editions and other similar series, which have succumbed to the radical relativism of postmodernism and its offshoots, such as the aforementioned feminist criticism and queer theory. These mainstream editions warp the original meaning of the great works through what can best be described as literary abuse. The Ignatius Critical Editions, by way of contrast, would respect the integrity of the works and the intentions of the authors, most of whom were devout Christians whose works reflect their living faith.

A call for papers was sent out to hundreds of tradition-oriented academics across the United States, and indeed to Europe also, and many excellent essays were received. In 2008 the first three titles were published: FrankensteinWuthering Heights and King Lear. Over the following years many more titles followed. There are currently 27 titles in the series, ranging chronologically from Augustine’s Confessions and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from the earliest years of Christendom to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published at the end of the nineteenth century. Included among these 27 titles are seven of Shakespeare’s plays, providing a much-needed corrective to the egregious Shakespeare abuse which is currently rampant in the academy.

My personal favorite of all the editions published thus far is the edition of The Merchant of Venice, published in 2009. Apart from my own introduction to the play and, of course, the full text of the play itself, newly annotated, the edition includes seven critical essays on various aspects of the play by some of the finest contemporary tradition-oriented scholars. Film critic James Bemis wrote about film adaptations of the play; Raimund Borgmeier, from the University of Giessen in Germany, wrote about the role of the family in the drama; British scholar Michael Brennan, from the University of Leeds, compared the functions in the plot of Venice and Belmont; Anthony Esolen, who will be no stranger to readers of the Journal, wrote of “the hazard of love”; James Hartley, a professor of economics at Mount Holyoke College, wrote about the problem of usury in the play, indicating Shakespeare’s evident sympathy with the Catholic Church’s position on the subject; Daniel Lowenstein, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote on law and mercy in the trial scene. Other scholars wrote of ways of reading the play and of the role of friendship. How many different facets of this most difficult and misunderstood of plays were thus revealed within the pages of one solitary edition!

Most of the titles in the series come with Study Guides which contain study questions and a selection of essay prompts. They also include a detachable answer key, so that educators can have guidance with respect to the grading of the questions and the essays, which would be especially useful for homeschooling parents.

The most satisfying thing about my involvement with the Ignatius Critical Editions is the knowledge that no teacher at a Catholic school or college, or no homeschooling parent, need ever again find themselves in the position of putting into the hands of their students those editions of the classics which have been poisoned by the toxic mainstream. There is now a healthy choice and a tradition-oriented alternative.


Humanae Vitae at 50, and teaching sexual morality


It can be quite a profound challenge to figure out the right way to teach sexual morality to teens today. There is even a debate as to the best age to teach it: while we want to avoid teaching it too early, and opening that can of worms before it is appropriate to do so, we also want to ensure that we (as parents and educators) are the ones who give them the right message and the correct information, rather than the dangerous misinformation they may get from peers or pop culture.

This year, the Church commemorates the 50th anniversary of the release of Humanae Vitae, Pope Bl. Paul VI’s landmark encyclical on human life and sexuality. By far, most coverage of this encyclical focuses on the fact that, in this document, Bl. Paul VI affirmed the Church’s ancient and unbroken opposition to artificial methods of birth control — famously going against the final decision and recommendation of a committee he had set up to look into the issue. But the encyclical contains so much more than that — beautiful elucidations of Catholic teaching on human sexuality, love, living life in the vocation of marriage, and much more. Humanae Vitae has been a great gift to the Church.


For the 25th anniversary of the encyclical’s release, 25 years ago, Ignatius Press produced a volume edited by Janet E. Smith called Why Humanae Vitae Was Right, featuring a number of essays on the encyclical by some of the finest minds in moral theology. This year, for the 50th anniversary, Dr. Smith has edited a new compendium of essays, entitled Why Humanae Vitae is Still Right, which Ignatius Press will be releasing this summer. Both of these volumes are invaluable resources for unpacking and understanding the encyclical itself, as well as the import it has down to today.

Perhaps it is due to our fallen nature that the debate about sexual morality rages ever on, and western society continues to fight the natural, common-sensical, ancient understanding of the proper use of the sexual faculty. It seems as though things only get worse with each passing year. It is more important than ever to be able to impart the truth to our young people, so that they go out into the world properly equipped, and fortified by grace through the sacraments to fight temptation and sin.

Ignatius Press offers a Catechesis on Christian Sexual Morality for teens called Love & Life, which utilizes the great patrimony of the Church’s Tradition, and in particular the writings of Paul VI and John Paul II, to guide the instruction. Offering a student guide, a teacher’s guide, and a parent guide, Love & Life is an orthodox guide to sexual morality that does a great job of appropriately approaching the topic. (If you have questions, or would like a free review copy, please contact me at, or my colleague Julie Johnson at

Another great resource for teens is the YDisciple video series components on chastity: “True Beauty: Chastity for Girls,” and “True Strength: Chastity for Guys.” Each of these is in four sessions, each session only a few minutes long. These videos are short and engaging, packing terrific information about the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. The YDisciple videos can be ordered from the Augustine Institute, and they are available on

Of course, there are also the crucial reflections of Pope St. John Paul II, collectively known as the Theology of the Body. Reflections given at his general audiences over the course of several years, this catechesis on human sexuality and love is one of the greatest treasures the Church has given us, and is the fruit of a lifetime of reflection from this man, a great philosopher with incredible insights into God’s desires for human sexuality. There are many great resources on the Theology of the Body, but perhaps the best place to start would be the texts of the reflections themselves.


It was recently announced that Paul VI will be canonized sometime in 2018, although the date has yet to be released. It will likely coincide either with the anniversary of the encyclical’s release, or possibly with the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. Let us pray for the intercession of Bl. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and St. Maria Goretti, that we are able to adequately impart to young people the beauty and truth of the true ends of human sexuality.

The Call: Helping young people to discern their vocation


The Call of St. Matthew, by Caravaggio

Vocation: too often this is a word that is misunderstood, particularly in the Catholic context, and particularly among young people — in other words, those who are at the most critical stage of vocational discernment.

This past Sunday was the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. From many a pulpit throughout the world, congregations heard their pastors preach on the importance of vocational discernment, and of answering God’s call to whatever vocation he is calling you to.

As educators — be we parents, teachers, parish catechists, pastors, or anything else — it is important that we help young people to discern the path to which God is calling them. First and foremost, in many cases, we must instruct them on the concept of discernment itself.

In our age, the idea of discernment is somewhat foreign. Society encourages us to do what we want, what feels right in the moment, with little or no consideration of long term effects or consequences. In the context of vocations, this attitude is reflected in the way that marriage is so often treated. No longer considered a lifelong commitment, marriage is a temporary state for as long as the couple pleases: no longer is there any weight given to the vows, no true commitment.

This is symptomatic of the larger issue at hand, and a sign of what is sorely needed: proper catechesis on discernment and vocation!

For one thing, it is important to emphasize that discernment is not a passive process, but an active one.

Let’s take a brief look at a classic biblical example of active discernment, from the First Book of Kings. In this passage, Elijah comes to a cave on Mount Horeb, as he flees for his life. God tells him to “‘Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12) Elijah sought the Lord to see what he should do. And God was not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, not in the powerful, booming signs. Rather, he was in the still small voice at the back of the cave. If Elijah was not listening, he would not have heard.

We should also make note here of an interesting study that was recently released, detailing the influence of homeschooling on vocational discernment in the United States. According to the study done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, young men who were homeschooled are four times more likely to enter the seminary than those who attend Catholic schools. Nearly one-in-ten US seminarians were homeschooled, which is drastic considering how many fewer homeschoolers there are than Catholic school students. At this time there are around 100,000 homeschooled Catholics in the United States, compared to two million students in Catholic schools.

This speaks to the importance of the home being the first place where vocational discernment happens, and the profound effect that families can have.

As readers of this blog know (but it never hurts to remember), when we speak of vocations, we do not mean only the priesthood and religious life. ALL of us have a vocation, to one state of life or another. The priesthood and religious life are only two possibilities, but many are called instead to marriage, and some to devoted single life.

For those readers who teach Confirmation classes, it might be worth considering incorporating a vocational discernment element into the Confirmation course. This is a perfect point in a young person’s life to seriously begin a discernment process, and there is no better time than when they are sealed with the Holy Spirit and infused with grace!

Catechesis is about instruction in the faith, for the salvation of souls. It is important, as part of our catechesis, to help young people be open to hearing God speaking to them. When God calls, we should always be listening, and answer without hesitation.

Gaudete et Exsultate — Pope Francis’ new call to holiness


As many of you may know, yesterday saw the release of a new apostolic exhortation from the Holy Father, Pope Francis, called Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad!).

The document is subtitled “On the call to holiness in today’s world,” and that is certainly the crux of the matter. The Church teaches a universal call to holiness, and this is expounded upon in the Holy Father’s exhortation.

Many of the commentaries which have been published in the last couple of days give focus to a couple of points that are more “newsworthy” or controversial. For example, in light of the pope’s recent interview with Eugenio Scalfari wherein he purportedly denied the existence of hell (he did not, in fact, do any such thing), the document explicitly affirms the existence of hell and of the devil as not merely symbolic images, but realities we must face. It certainly makes sense that a document on the pursuit of holiness would address the diabolic forces that strive to keep us from being holy!

Jesus “wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence,” the pope writes. He continues that the document is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and the like, but rather his goal is to “repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges, and opportunities.”


Here is the text of the document:

And here are several commentaries on the document:

A collection of “key quotes” compiled by the UK’s Catholic Herald:

Christopher Altieri on what Gaudete et Exsultate means for the Church:

JD Flynn, Editor-in-Chief of Catholic News Agency, on “Reading Pope Francis in love”:

Catholic World Report‘s Carl Olson’s take on the document:

A Zenit report on Cardinal Daniel DiNardo’s assessment of the document: (Cardinal DiNardo is Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, and the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register

And lastly, from the great Italian vaticanista, Sandro Magister:

These commentaries bring out a lot of the more salient points of the apostolic exhortation, but as in all things, the best way to familiarize yourself with a document is to sit down and read it. It will be well worth your time!

Gaudete et Exsultate is a reminder, in the truest sense of an exhortation, that we are all called to holiness.

Keeping catechesis invigorated

As we approach the end of Lent, and the beginning of the Easter season, the thoughts of pastors, teachers, and catechists naturally begin to turn to those lovely days of sunshine in the spring and summer. In many places, catechetical classes, bible studies, faith formation groups, and other such activities begin to wind down, fade away, for a summer hiatus.

This need not be the case!

We are all called to continue nurturing our faith at all times, not only during the school year. There are many ways to go about this, and this blog will be an encouragement to do just that! It will also provide several ideas on ways to continue to invigorate parish faith life, even during the spring and summer slowdown.

Faith formation groups and classes are meant to be so much more than “something to do,” or a way to foster community. While they certainly are positive ways to build a sense of community and faith-sharing, it is really about nurturing each individual’s faith.

Reading groups and book clubs

After 2,000 years, the Christian tradition (and particularly the Catholic Church) has accumulated an unimaginably vast and rich intellectual patrimony. Some of the foremost men and women thinkers of all time served the Church founded by Jesus Christ, and we would do well to continue reading their words and prayerfully reflecting on them.

You might consider organizing reading groups or book clubs to prayerfully read and reflect on these great works from throughout the history of the Church. There are many dozens of beautiful encyclicals and other writings from the popes; writings of the saints, like the Confessions of St. Augustine, the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, the Story of a Soul of St. Therese of Lisieux, or even Eusebeius’ Ecclesiastical History; more recent theologians such as Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Adrienne von Speyr, who wrote monumentally profound and moving works, that are available in beautiful and easily readable English translations; British Catholic writers such as Ronald Knox (The Hidden Stream, to take one example), Robert Hugh Benson (novels including Lord of the World and Come Rack! Come Rope!), and G.K. Chesterton (OrthodoxyThe Everlasting Man, and everything else to flow from his pen); American fiction writers, like Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood and a mountain of short stories) and Walker Percy (Love in the RuinsThe Thanatos Syndrome, and others); and current figures such as Robert Cardinal Sarah (The Power of Silence and God or Nothing) or Carl Olson (Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?).

Read the Bible. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Read the documents of the Second Vatican Council. There is no shortage of beautiful and profound texts to read, and this is a terrific way to continue nurturing the faith.


Movie nights

While it may not seem like it when looking at the usual Hollywood fare, there truly are many wonderful, well-made, and thoroughly-enjoyable movies suitable for an explicitly Catholic viewing. Some of these come from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood; others are foreign films that come out of a more strongly Catholic milieu. Hosting family movie nights to view some of these films continues that faith nurturing to which we keep referring, and is also a pleasant social gathering for the parish.

Consider classic films such as The Song of Bernadette, Going My Way (with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in Academy Award-winning performances), Jesus of Nazareth, The Ten Commandments, Becket, A Man for All Seasons (a marvelous film about St. Thomas More, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards), or The Scarlet and the Black (with Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer). Alternatively, if it is more recent productions you are looking for, try The 13th Day, Ignatius of Loyola, Restless Heart, or Pope John Paul II (starring Jon Voigt and Cary Elwes as the old and young Karol Wojtyla, respectively). All of these make for great viewing, and all are beautifully edifying.

There is also the series called Footprints of God, by Stephen K. Ray. This is a documentary series in which the host/author takes viewers to the Holy Land, to the real places where Jesus walked and taught, where the saints prayed and preached and gave their lives. The series consists of several episodes, each of which would make for a fine night of community viewing.


Bible studies

Above all, parishes should encourage and foster prayerful reading of the Bible, and this can be emphasized during the spring and summer slowdown. Bible studies do not have to close down during the summer; if there is a volunteer to lead the Bible study, people will come.

There are many Bible study resources that can be utilized to help in this effort. Ignatius Press’ Study Bible series consists of commentaries that can easily be used to lead such classes; the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology also has many resources available. Jeff Cavins, Father Mitch Pacwa, and many others have made resources available to help communities break open Sacred Scripture, to fall in love with the Word of God. There is no better time than the present to do so.


While many parishes may struggle to find the resources necessary for much activity during the spring and summer, it is important to keep up the availability of catechesis, as the formation of hearts and souls is the primary task. God willing, holy habits have been cultivated during these last weeks of Lent, so let’s keep the momentum going through Easter and into summer!

25 Years of the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Earlier this month, the Church marked a pair of historic and important landmarks: the 55th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and the 25th anniversary of the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Both of these landmarks are truly impressive, but in this post I want to briefly explore the incredible effect that the Catechism has had on the life of the Church.

The Catechism is largely a passion project of Pope St. John Paul II and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who spent 24 years as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. In 1985, John Paul convoked an Extraordinary Synod to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. During the Synod, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston called for a new universal catechism. The following year, a commission was founded to begin work on this monumental task.


There were some who did not think this would come to fruition. There had not been a universal catechism produced since the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. While there were many local and regional catechisms produced during the intervening centuries (including, memorably, the famous Baltimore Catechism here in the United States), this would be the first attempt at a catechism for the whole Church since that council.

The general editor of the Catechism was Bishop Christoph Schönborn, OP, who would later be named cardinal and Archbishop of Vienna. One of the most prominent and articulate theological minds of the last 30 years, Cardinal Schönborn proved an able editor who helped guide the Catechism through a relatively swift 6-year process to its publication.

I don’t think it can be easily overstated what an impact the Catechism has had on the Church all over the world. Frankly, it may be many years, or many decades, before we can adequately assess the effect it has had. The tenets of the faith have been articulated carefully, and beautifully, with incessant reference to Sacred Scripture, the Church fathers, official Church documents, and great theological minds. A summary in almost 3,000 paragraphs, it is truly a masterful work of art.


Here are a number of recent pieces celebrating this jubilee of the Catechism:

Matthew Bunson writing for the National Catholic Register:

Luke Coppen writing for the UK’s Catholic Herald:

Fr. William P. Saunders writing for the Arlington Catholic Herald:

Junno Arocho Esteves writing for Crux:

Carl E. Olson writing for Catholic World Report:

George Weigel writing for First Things:

A new year for Catholic education

We’ve reached the beginning of yet another school year. The beginning of school, the beginning of religious education classes, the beginning of sacramental prep. Most of the readers of this blog are teachers and catechists and parents; so many of you are likely considering just how you are going to cover all the material you would like to this year.

One problem that many parish catechists, religion teachers, and parents have is finishing the book. So much effort is put into choosing the texts that will be used, and planning out the year. The instructor wants to make sure certain topics are covered in a limited amount of time, and sometimes even at certain times of year.

Time is at a premium — but it is, of course, recognized that this is important material! So it is a balancing act. How can we cover all the material, without having to speed through it and sacrifice the opportunity to really delve deep?


This is the perennial question!

Many textbooks, including Ignatius Press’s Faith & Life series, have teacher’s manuals with detailed lesson plans. Each chapter provides a full week of detailed color-coded lesson plans, with four days for presenting new material and one day for review and assessment. These lesson plans are designed to be guides in teaching even the most complex truths of the Catholic Faith with age-appropriate examples. The plans can be adjusted as needed to fit the context of the classroom and how often the class meets.

For parish catechists and CCD programs, Ignatius Press has developed once-a-week lesson plans which can be found at These lesson plans cover the essential material and doctrines of each chapter in a one-hour format.

Using methods such as this, it becomes easier for teachers, catechists, and others to work through an entire text in a given year. These texts are developed with a careful eye towards age-appropriate materials, and gradually learning the truths of the Catholic Faith in greater detail. You can trust that pedagogy was a top priority!

As we begin the school year, let us pray that our hearts and intellects be blessed and enlightened.

St. Albert the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas, patrons of students, pray for us!