By Tim Walch
A review of “Confession of a Catholic Worker: Our Current Moment of Christian Witness,” by Larry S. Chapp. Ignatius Books, 223 pages. $17.95
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s a familiar admonishment. And don’t judge a book by its title. That came to mind as I finished this passionate new book by a retired professor of theology and current farmer near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
Larry Chapp isn’t trying to deceive us. He uses the word “confession” not as revelation of past sins or mistakes. Rather, he uses the word in the manner of St. Augustine — as a testament, a call to action for a Church that he loves deeply.
Chapp doesn’t mince words. He believes that the Church is in crisis and caught up in a secular hedonistic world. The signs of this decay are all around us and Chapp sees it in rampant capitalism and greed. He bemoans the loss of religious faith, family values and even basic morality.
“Our political order and our culture all proceed as if God does not matter as a basic principle for organizing our common life together,” notes Chapp. “And the net effect of all of this is the subtle, but very real construction of an alternative reality that stands in direct competition to the Christian description of reality.”
He devotes his “confession” to how we as Christians and Catholics can respond to this crisis. He finds solace and guidance in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and in the lives of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement.
It’s an interesting journey. After entering the seminary with an “energetic agitation” at the state of the Church, Chapp searched for guidance in the work of G.W. F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger, among others. He found these and other philosophers and theologians wanting.
Through his spiritual director, Chapp discovered the work of Balthasar, particularly his book, “Love Alone is Credible.” “It was a tough book to read,” Chapp observes, “and yet strangely not boring, since the Christ presented in its pages was a burning and bracing challenge. In point of fact, it was the road to Damascus moment of my early life.”
Balthasar’s work helped Chapp understand that the contemporary Church was in a perpetual state of crisis. As Christians, we are under assault from the material world. To fully embrace Christ, we are called to turn away from secularity and materialism. That is the story of Chapp’s journey from the seminary to graduate school to the college classroom and finally to a Catholic Worker farm.
There is thunder in this book, written in the manner of an Old Testament prophet. “Never before has there been an entire culture (the modern West),” Chapp concludes, “devoted to the ordering of all of society around the idea that the question of God simply does not matter, and that God is a complete public irrelevance.”
Those words make your hair stand on end! Chapp’s response is for us to surrender to the radical message of Christ. We must embrace the world with our love and devote ourselves to turning that world back to Christ.
As exemplars of that task, Chapp points to the life and work of Maurin and Day. The last chapter of the book focuses on how the core of Balthasar’s call to arms reflected Maurin’s own beliefs. Chapp begins that chapter by quoting Maurin’s poem, “Blowing the Dynamite,” and notes that by blowing the lid off the Church, we could make it again a social force in world.
“Confession of a Catholic Worker” is not easy to read. Chapp offers us a path forward but it’s a rocky road. He points to Balthasar, Maurin and Day as beacons along the way. More important, he offers a personal guide on how to take up the cross and follow Christ.
(Timothy Walch is a parishioner at St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of The Catholic Messenger Board of Directors. He regularly reviews books for the Messenger and other publications and is the author of many books, including “Irish Iowa.”)