New books address baptism, Galileo, the history of religions and the relationship between popes and the Jewish people.Lessons learned in famous baptism class 1,600 years agoFont of Life: Ambrose, Augustine and the Mystery of Baptism, by Garry Wills. Oxford University Press (New York, 2012). 194 pp. $21.95.The great St. Ambrose of Milan met 60 times during a period spanning Lent and the days after Easter with those he baptized in the second half of the fourth century, according to Garry Wills' new book "Font of Life."Sixty times!St. Augustine, who would become one of the most influential church fathers of all time, was among those Ambrose prepared for baptism in Milan in the year 387. Augustine was 33; Ambrose was 48.Wills writes that "the weeks of baptismal instruction Augustine received twice daily were of crucial importance to him." Daily, but probably not weekends, Ambrose instructed those to be baptized on Easter.As one who frequently leads a single, hour-long session to prepare parents in my parish for their babies' baptisms, I always have cited St. Cyril of Jerusalem for the benefit of anyone tempted to imagine that baptism ever was a mere formality for the church.Cyril's historic "Catechetical Lectures" indicate he spoke at least 23 times to those he prepared for baptism earlier in the fourth century. But now, after reading Wills' book, I doubt I ever will omit mention in the parish class of Ambrose's quite amazing regimen.What I appreciated most about "Font of Life" was how it described baptism in the early church and demonstrated the esteem accorded this sacrament.A renewed accent in our times on baptism as the first source of all vocations makes these recollections of baptism in the ancient church all the more valuable.In Milan, "baptism took place at the earliest dawn" on Easter, Wills says. After baptism, "the neophytes in their 'snow white' garb" probably led a procession out of the baptismal site.Ambrose thought that in coming up from the pool of baptismal water they were "like Christ coming from the tomb." Then, "wearing their white garments all week long," these new Christians "had a special place in the basilica when they attended Mass."Wills' goal in this little book is not just to point out baptism's meaning for these early church fathers. He also investigates the extent to which Ambrose may have influenced Augustine's future theology.That is of interest because Ambrose and Augustine, together with St. Jerome, "make up the core of the church's 'Western fathers,'" Wills suggests.But he insists it was not Ambrose who converted Augustine. It seems Ambrose initially did not overly impress Augustine. "Ambrose and Augustine were temperamentally very different," Wills observes.Moreover, the scope of Ambrose's responsibilities and public defense of the church apparently meant he was not as available for conversation as Augustine might have wished.So, Wills says, "though Augustine received from Ambrose a wonderful scriptural education in the Lent and Easter season of 387," it would take decades for him "to warm to Ambrose as a person."Yet, Ambrose made a "real impact" on Augustine during his weeks of baptismal preparation. Ambrose's approach to interpreting Scripture would leave a "lasting mark" on Augustine's "later readings of the Bible."It is difficult to say who Wills envisioned as the audience for "Font of Life." He writes as a historian, and other historians of the church and the liturgy, along with the theological community in general, will form part of the book's readership.Of course, the era of the church fathers is a source of endless fascination. In that light, many more general readers could be drawn to the book.I did feel, though, that the book presumed some basic awareness of the often-hostile turmoil surrounding the Christological controversies of the church's early centuries.Not only bishops and theologians, but imperial leaders in the Milan of Ambrose's time were caught up in debates and struggles over Christ's identity — whether, indeed, he was divine from all eternity or was created by God.Augustine's baptism "was especially dramatic in 387 because, among other things, it marked the first anniversary of Ambrose's most emotional conflict with his imperial opponents and their heretical allies," Wills says.Wills, a prolific writer, is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University in Illinois. I'm sure he is known to many for writing "Lincoln at Gettysburg." Some undoubtedly know him from a TV appearance here or there.Interestingly enough, "Font of Life" does not represent the first time Wills has written on Augustine. This time Wills virtually invites readers to Augustine's baptism.The book, I must confess, left me wanting to visit Milan to learn more of its history in Ambrose's time."The story of Ambrose and Augustine is a tangled one, full of surprises," Wills says. He adds that whether "by luck or providence," they, with Jerome, "helped one another transcend their individual shortcomings."Thus, Wills concludes, they "became stronger together than any of them could have been standing alone."—David Gibson The church's difficulties in resolving Galileo caseThe Case of Galileo: A Closed Question?, by Annibale Fantoli. Translated from the Italian by George V. Coyne, SJ. University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, Ind., 2012). 271 pp. $28.Pope John Paul II visited Pisa Sept. 22-24, 1989, to honor the Italian city's hometown hero, Galileo Galilei, the astronomer whose telescopic observations and mathematical calculations provided scientific evidence that the earth revolved around the sun, contradicting the accepted theology of the day.The pope's praise assumed special significance as 356 years earlier the church had condemned Galileo's view, accusing him of suspected heresy and forcing him on bended knee to renounce his heliocentric belief. The church also sentenced Galileo to house arrest for the final nine years of his life.History, of course, proved Galileo right; and for centuries the case symbolized the tensions between religion and science. Pope John Paul's visit was one of several steps to erase this stain on the church's history and the accusation that religion is an obstacle to the advancement of human knowledge.For people unaware of the historical, theological, cultural, academic and political complexities surrounding the case, "The Case of Galileo" is a must. Using original documents, Annibale Fantoli masterfully reconstructs the events in Italy and Catholic Europe at the beginning of the 17th century that led to the confrontation between the church and Galileo, a devout Catholic. Fantoli is also the author of a 1994 Galileo biography and a philosophy professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.His book gives a highly nuanced reading of the cultural and academic environment of the time, including the interwoven issue of the relationship between theology and the newly emerging modern concept of science as a separate academic discipline. During Galileo's time, "natural philosophy," as science was then called, was considered subordinate to philosophy and theology. Thus, Galileo was open to accusations of heresy by simply trying to spread his scientific findings.Though heliocentric theories predated Galileo they lacked concrete proofs so his evidence was a threat to mainstream theology that the earth was the center of the universe.The book notes that in Galileo's era the church wielded political and legal power as well as religious authority in Catholic Europe, especially in the Italian states. Any intellectual wanting to publish original works needed the church's imprimatur. Refusal of the imprimatur effectively stifled dissemination of new ideas and open debate on them.In theory, the Galileo case should never have happened. As the book informs, the issue was set in perspective 1,200 years earlier by one of Christianity's greatest thinkers, St. Augustine of Hippo.In the early fifth century Augustine wrote: "One does not read in the Gospels that the Lord said: I will send the Paraclete so that he may teach you the course of the sun and the moon. Because he wanted to make them Christians, not mathematicians."Pope John Paul paraphrased Augustine in 1979 when announcing the formation of a church commission to restudy the Galileo case.Fantoli criticizes the commission's findings as not rectifying an injustice but "saving the decorum of the church," in much the same way as church officials did during Galileo's era. He faults the commission for shoddy scholarship and for scaling down the church's responsibility by laying blame on lower officials and judges while brushing over responsibility at the top as two popes and the highest church offices at the time were directly involved in condemning Galileo, sentencing him and prohibiting his works and other writings promoting the heliocentric position.Fantoli's thought-provoking advice for the contemporary church is that it should be more tolerant and prudent in judging the discoveries of science and technology which seem to challenge the faith. He calls for the Catholic Church to work together with other Christian churches and with the other great world religions to analyze and absorb the novelties of the modern secular world.After reading the book, though, one might wonder if St. Augustine got it all wrong. What if the Holy Spirit did come down to form mathematicians? Would the institutional church, over its 2,000-year history, have had more or less bean counters?Also of interest: "Galileo's Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church" by Wade Rowland. Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing (New York, 2012). 320 pp., $14.95.—Agostino BonoA thoughtful history of religions — not just for scholarsGods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions, by Bruce Lincoln. University of Chicago Press (Chicago, 2012). 136 pp., $27.50.Bruce Lincoln starts the wide-ranging collection of essays in "Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars" by throwing down a gauntlet: "Many who would not think of insulating their own or their parents' religion against critical inquiry still afford such protection to other people's faith, via a stance of cultural relativism. Once can appreciate their good intentions while recognizing a certain displaced defensiveness, as well as the guilty conscience of Western imperialism."What follows is a consistently critical and thoughtful assessment of the history of religions. Lincoln, a University of Chicago professor of the history of religions, Middle Eastern studies and medieval studies, is also an associate in the departments of anthropology and classics. His interdisciplinary background illuminates every page of "Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars."The book scrutinizes aspects of ancient religions — the establishment of pantheons, the interpretation of demons, chaos and the dead — and relates them to broader, comparative themes that ultimately inform us about our humanity.In a fascinating chapter on demonology, Lincoln asserts that this subject "challenges our most fundamental ideas about the nature of being itself, not to mention the smug condescension we commonly harbor toward those who believe in demons." Demonology, he demonstrates through a case study of pre-Islamic Iran, "is an unflinching attempt to name, comprehend and defend against all that threatens, frightens and harms us."Thus, in ancient Iran, demons were conceptualized in four general categories: appetite (including, for example, envy, rage, lust, deprivation, miserliness, grief and sorrow); ignorance and falsehood (i.e., denial, deceit, slander and falsehood); torpor (i.e., fever, pain, old age and death); and natural disasters (i.e., drought, whirlwinds and earthquakes). "These are, in effect, the black holes of a premodern cosmology; terrifying forces of a void that seeks — in myriad forms and by myriad means — to invade good creatures and substances, hollowing them out, infecting them with rot and turning them to its own infinitely corrupt and corrupting purposes," Lincoln writes.One is struck by the originality of this ancient demonological typology. In their own distinctive way, these people were responding to life's harsh, inexplicable realities, just as more modern humans have: witness the historian Perry Miller's famous account of the American Puritans' struggle to make sense of "the tiger, the raging storm, the lightning, the cancer."In a chapter focusing on the theme of chaos, Lincoln traverses the terrain of Greek, Old Norse and Zoroastrian texts. He concludes with an intriguing insight about modern-day "newly emergent regimes of power" that characterize their opponents as "manifestations of 'chaos'" (or disorder). They are, in effect, tapping into "an older discourse of primordial potentiality and absolute freedom ('the chaotic'), which they tendentiously remodel for use as a weapon with which to stigmatize opponents and foreclose ... any challenges to their power."The concluding chapter traces the history of the field of religious studies. Here Lincoln amplifies his call "for a rigorous, uninhibited, unintimidated, theoretically and empirically informed, wide-ranging, irreverent and appropriately critical" approach. Certainly his own scholarship in "Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars" sets a high bar. The extensive footnotes alone are worth a read; they contain innumerable nuggets of lore and bibliographical riches.With an extensive bibliography, notes and index, the book includes all of the usual scholarly accouterments, plus 16 plates (mostly in color) of the "archer on skis" motif from both ancient Norse legends and modern advertising images. Extensive tables and figures add to the book's clarity. Lincoln's style is erudite and readable, sure to attract both scholars and serious lay readers.—Nancy L. Roberts The popes on Jews: Criticism and rebuttalWere the Popes Against the Jews? Tracking the Myths, Confronting the Ideologues, by Justus George Lawler. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2012). 405 pp., $35.Justus George Lawler's "Were the Popes Against the Jews" effectively rebuts the negative critique of the popes of the 19th and 20th centuries in David Kertzer's 2001 "The Popes Against the Jews" and in those of even earlier books by Daniel Goldhagen and John Cornwell. In so doing, Lawler makes a significant contribution to what has become an ongoing discussion among scholars and journalists. He carefully analyzes Kertzer's presentation, showing where he fudges and manipulates historical facts and statements.Lawler tracks Kertzer's anti-papal attacks from the pontificate of Pope Pius IX through those of Leo XIII and Pius X, XI and XII. In Kertzer's view, each was not only theologically triumphalist toward Judaism and presumed the ancient Christian teaching of contempt that held Jews collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, but also propagated modern racial anti-Semitism, making the Vatican the "antechamber of the Holocaust." Kertzer accuses the popes of inventing the phrase "Satanic synagogues," speaking of "Jewish dogs" running in the streets of Rome, and fostering and spreading ritual murder charges against Jews.Lawler meticulously researches each accusation, providing the necessary historical context to understand the papal utterances as well as numerous statements and actions of popes seeking to defend and help the Jews in time of need.Though incisive and in many ways decisive of the historical questions it takes up, Lawler is not a theologian and does not seem to be familiar with the important literature in the field of Catholic-Jewish studies. He often omits or misinterprets developments concerning the Second Vatican Council's declaration on Catholic-Jewish relations, "Nostra Aetate," No. 4, and subsequent official documents of the Holy See and of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as the works of the Catholic scholars in the field.For example, Lawler erroneously equates the concepts of "fulfillment" and "supersessionism," defining the latter as "super-added" when, in fact, the word means to "take the seat" or place of, which is in effect to reject the church's fundamental teaching on the ongoing validity of God's covenant with the Jewish people. He likewise equates modern Judaism with the state of Israel, though many Israelis as well as American Jews have been as critical of specific actions of various Israeli administrations over the years as is he.Lawler reprints a lengthy and negative review he wrote in 1965 of Father Edward Flannery's groundbreaking "The Anguish of the Jews," ignoring the substantially revised second edition of the book. Father Flannery was my predecessor as director for Catholic-Jewish relations at the (then) National Conference of Catholic Bishops, so I take this slight a tad personally.Perhaps even more personally, Lawler uses as a leitmotif a paragraph-long selection of phrases taken from reviews of the Kertzer book without giving the full reviews or even their citations so the readers can look them up. The words he takes from my own review, which was in the main critical, make it sound laudatory. Here, Lawler should have subjected his own writing to the rigorous standards to which he rightly holds Kertzer.—Eugene J. Fisher The reviewers:David Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service's documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.—Agostino Bono is a retired CNS staff writer and former Rome bureau chief.—Nancy L. Roberts, the author of "Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker" and other books, directs the journalism program at the University at Albany, State University of New York.—Eugene J. Fisher is professor of Catholic-Jewish studies at St. Leo University in Florida.