Virtue’s Alphabet From Amiability to Zeal
By Donald DeMarco (Central Bureau, Central Verein of America, $10, 112 pages)

Donald DeMarco is a very prolific writer. In addition to all the columns and articles he writes for newspapers and journals, he has written 20 books. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, and so this book contains 26 sections – though DeMarco cannot find a virtue beginning with the letter “x” and has to resort to a humorous evasion. Each virtue is shown in action, as it were, and the author constantly amazes us, in this book as with others, with his range of interests. This recent volume discusses such diverse topics as baseball, moral vision in Shakespeare and blood plasma.

Some of the illustrations of the working of virtue will be familiar to us, such as the obedience of St. Therese of Lisieux – who wrote The Story of a Soul, which has been read by millions – to her mother superior, since she considered that obedience to her mother superior was also obedience to Jesus. On the other hand, we may have heard of Franz Jägerstätter, an example of martyrdom, without knowing any of the details of his life. When the Germans invaded Austria, he refused to swear allegiance to Hitler or to serve in the German army. “He was a Catholic,” DeMarco writes, “and in conscience he could neither honour nor serve the evil purposes of an intrinsically immoral political regime” On August 9, 1943, he was executed in a Berlin prison.

To illustrate justice, DeMarco selects the late Dr. Jerome Lejeune, a geneticist whose name is familiar to many in Canada because of his dedication to the pro-life cause. During the “Trial of the Century” in Regina brought by Joe Borowski, Lejeune testified that, “At the moment of fertilization, the whole symphony of life is ready to be played out … Our intelligence is not just an abstract machine,” he wrote. “It is also incarnate, and the heart is as important as the faculty of reason, or more precisely, reason is nothing without the heart.” When Lejeune spoke at the United Nations, he decried the sympathy for abortion which he observed there: “Here we see an institute of health that is turning itself into an institute of death.” Such views brought him plenty of abuse: “Lejeune and his little monsters must die.” After Lejeune did die of cancer on Easter Sunday 1994, Pope John Paul delivered a eulogy the next day in which he said, “If the Father who is in heaven called him from this earth on the very day of Christ’s Resurrection, it is difficult not to see in this coincidence a sign.”

As an example for Simplicity of Heart, DeMarco chooses Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of the American classic The Scarlet Letter and other novels. Hawthorne had a daughter, Rose, who describes him as taking time out from his writing to play a simple game of stones with her when she was a little girl – a wonderful image of heart speaking to heart. Rose became a Catholic convert, a nun, and a mother superior – Mother Alphonsa.

As these examples show, Virtue’s Alphabet is readable and interesting – and it teaches a lesson badly needed today: the importance of understanding what the virtues are and how they are to be practised. David Dooley, a frequent contributor to The Interim, is English professor emeritus at St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto and associate editor of Catholic Insight.