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Catholic Manual of Civility:
A Noble Book for Young Men

Eric Hester

Book-review on Catholic Manual of Civility edited and translated by Dr Marian Therese Horvat (Los Angeles: Tradition In Action, 2008), 160 pp.

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This is a noble and beautiful book, a book of good manners for young men, inspired by Catholic teaching and tradition. I strongly recommend it to all who have sons, grandsons, godsons, nephews and young friends. It is also a book that should be read by teachers, priests, parents and all who to have to do with the young.

It is a translation of Brazilian works used for the formation of young men in Brazilian schools in the 1950s. In fact its tenets are no different from what I was taught in my Salesian Grammar School in England nor, indeed, from what I was taught at home by my good parents and brothers and sisters. The author has brought the book up to date in the sense of mentioning things relevant to today but has in no way diminished any of its high expectation of the young. And why should she? Are we to be the only generations in the history of the world where young people are not to be taught manners and decorum?

The book is a treasure. The twenty-four chapters deal with such topics as: The Proper Way to Sit, Walk and Stand; The Importance of Order in Professional Life; The Eyes and the Gaze; Cleanliness and Good Hygiene; Punctuality; The Voice - Speaking and Conversing; Writing Letters; Table Manners Reveal a Man’s Culture; Reading and Speech-Making; and many others, with nothing omitted of what constitutes good manners, comportment, and relations with members of the family and society.

As befits such a book, the style is simple but dignified. Instructions are clear and often illustrated by examples from the lives of the saints or people worthy of imitation. The tone is not that of the lecturing fault-finder but of one inspiring the young to do their best. It is as if the author is saying, “You are made in the image and likeness of God; always behave with dignity, worthy of the greatness that is in you.” How much this book is needed when so much directed at the young is saying, in effect, “You are no different from an animal; behave accordingly.”

This is not a book of detailed etiquette; such books have their place, and, in England, it is helpful to know the degree of precedence between a Duke and an Earl, which spoon to use for the soup, and the correct salutation and subscription for a letter to a Cardinal. Reference books are available for all this, which has its importance. This book is at once simpler and more profound. Here it is, for example, on “The Voice – Speaking and Conversing”: “A gentleman or lady never uses words to harm or demean another person. Being kind and courteous is more important than being considered quick and clever.” The essential concern is virtue applied to the ordinary things of everyday life.

The Manual would make an excellent present for any young man from twelve upwards. I should like to see it, too, used in Catholic schools, as a kind of textbook that could be referred to again and again. Certainly, school libraries ought to have at least one copy. Teachers themselves would benefit from studying it. Home-schoolers, whom I know you have in abundance in America, would love this book and find it useful all the time. Any parish group for the young could use copies to peruse at the appropriate time.

Queen's Birthday Jaunt

The Queen and Prince Philip: exemplary deportment on a jaunt in Hyde Park on the Queen's birthday
Does the book require too much of the young? Not at all. Each section is presented simply and clearly, and is seen often to be mere common sense applied to social situations. In any case, I was a Head Master of schools and I can witness that nothing is gained with the young, even on a superficial level, by aiming low. It is the religious orders who have kept their discipline and wear their habit that attract vocations, not those who wear anything and have no sense of purpose or rule. I am reminded of one of the best young men I have known whose ambition was to be an officer in The Royal Marines, the élite of the élite of the armed forces of Britain. The more he was told it was difficult, the more training he did and he achieved his ambition.

If you want to see male decorum at its very best, by the way, try to be invited to a formal dinner or other social event at any of the British Armed Forces. Much has deteriorated in Britain, alas! But the armed forces as well as being men of the greatest fortitude, display traditional manners and are, perhaps not surprisingly, among those who speak the very best English, more so than many of those at our universities.

Young people in England also have the example of our wonderful Queen and her great consort, the Duke of Edinburgh, who, though well in his eighties, is still an example of the English gentleman and who carries himself with a straighter back than most men a quarter of his age.

The concept of a gentleman is an important one still. Evelyn Waugh (whose novels provide examples of what to do and, since he is a satirist, also of what not to do) in the book Noblesse Oblige, speaks of the “gentleman” and says that when Lord Curzon, as Chancellor of the University of Oxford, was overseeing arrangements for the visit of the late King George VI to the university, he remarked of one item that “No gentleman ever did that.” Waugh explains: “He did not say: ‘No Monarch…’ or ‘No marquis…’ he appealed above the standards of court or castle to the most elusive standard in the world.”

I hope that the book will be followed by a similar one for young ladies since this book is for boys and young men. Might I, as an Englishman, say that America, as the world’s most powerful nation, has a special role to play. We tend to follow you; we watch your films, listen to your CDs and read your books; you are setting the manners for the rest of us. This book is a good deed in a naughty world.

Eric Hester was for 24 years Head Master of Catholic Schools in England, a Chief Examiner for English Literature, a chief inspector, and, in his retirement, writes for The Catholic Times and other newspapers and periodicals.


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Posted July 14, 2008

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