Best Books on the Nature of Catholic Faith
I am asked often which books I take to be the best for getting an overview of the Catholic faith. Of course, Catholic literature abounds, so finding an easy to read introduction is no laborious task. But what about those who are looking for a book that is much deeper than mere apologetics but not too academic or prohibitively technical in its presentation? I am listing six books here that I think are the best for a thoughtful theological view of the Catholic faith written for those who are already well-grounded in the Catholic faith and want something more rigorous and substantive than apologetics (not that there’s anything wrong with apologetics, of course!). The following books are not manuals or handbooks, nor do they belong only in the hands of theological experts. Rather, they are profound meditations, reflections, and studies of the central tenets of the Catholic faith that I think will benefit anyone who devotes the time to reading them.
Henri de Lubac, Catholicism
Pope Benedict XVI described his first encounter with de Lubac’s Catholicism as “a turning point” in his own understanding of Catholic thought and life. This work is not only my favorite of de Lubac, but my favorite book on Catholicism, period. It contains the seeds of all of de Lubac’s subsequent work. Casting the reality of grace and salvation along with their implications for human history in a new light, it is easy to see why Pope John Paul II rewarded de Lubac, a humble Jesuit priest, with the cardinal’s hat. I think this is the most profoundly beautiful book I have ever read on the Catholic faith.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Credo
Along with de Lubac, Balthasar is one of the most important and influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century. Pope Benedict XVI has noted several times his deep reverence for Balthasar’s thought, and the Pope counts him among his chief influences. Credo combines Balthasar’s sensitivity for the Beauty of revelation and his clarity in communicating that Beauty. A very short, unimposing book, Credo is required reading for anyone seeking a spiritually motivating overview the faith.
Avery Dulles, The New World of Faith
Written by perhaps the most important American theologian to date, Dulles’ The New World of Faith is always the first book I recommend to friends who ask for a primer on the Catholic faith. While not as penetrating as Catholicism and Credo (it is not intended to be), Dulles’ book is clear, concise, and accessible to the general reader. Yet, it still can capture the interest of someone who is already well acquainted with the Catholic faith. Like de Lubac and Balthasar, Dulles was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in recognition of his theological achievements. The New World of Faith is really an attempt to not only explain the main features of Catholicism to a general audience, but to do so in a way that is relevant to contemporary life.
Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity
Don’t let the title fool you; this is a difficult but rewarding read. Ratzinger reflects on everything from the meaning of faith in a world of violence, technological advancement, and relativism to the meaning of each line of the Apostle’s Creed. This is Ratzinger at his very best, confronting contemporary difficulties without sacrificing the truths of Christianity. In this work, Ratzinger encourages us to go beyond the bare minimum requirements of Christian living and teaching and to live a life of Christian “excess,” permitting grace to spill over into everything we do. This particular text has been used in several introduction to Catholic theology courses at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism
This is the classic 20th century reflection on the nature of Catholic faith. Adam was probably the first to employ, loosing speaking, a personalist/phenomenological method in examining the faith. Even before de Lubac’s pioneering approaches fundamentally changed the way Catholic theology is done, Adam challenged the prevailing neo-Scholastic, manual theology approach of the early 20th century that compromised the vivacity of faith in favor of an arid, “scientific” approach to theology. Adam re-focused Catholic theology’s attention on the Bible, especially St. Paul’s ecclesiology. The result is a breath-taking and refreshing presentation of the dynamics of belief in Christ.
Matthias Scheeben, The Mysteries of Christianity
Finally, for those who are very ambitious, is Scheeben’s masterpiece The Mysteries of Christianity. Scheeben, writing in the 19th century, was well ahead of his time, anticipating the return to the Church fathers that marked Resourcement theology (de Lubac, Daniélou, Balthasar, Ratzinger, et al.) and the attention to contemporary philosophical themes that marked transcendental Thomism (Maréchal, Rahner, Lonergan) and phenomenological theology (Schillebeeckx, Wojtyla, et al.). Scheeben was a thorough-going Thomist who, unlike his neo-Scholastic peers, drew extensively from the Eastern Church Fathers to bring the theology of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) out from under the suffocating Christmonism that dominated much of post-Tridentine Catholic theology and Protestant theology. Indeed, I think Scheeben is the pivotal theological figure of the 20th century, calling Catholic theology back to its roots in Scripture and the Church Fathers.