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Best Books on the Nature of Catholic Faith

July 15, 2009

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, Catholicismcatholicism

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

credoAlong 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 new world of faithWorld 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 titlratzingerintrochristianitye 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 probabkarl adamly 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

mysteriesFinally, 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.

8 Comments
  1. Legion of Mary permalink
    July 15, 2009 9:40 pm

    What about Blessed Columba Marmion’s “Christ the Life of the Soul”?

  2. Legion of Mary permalink
    July 15, 2009 9:46 pm

    I find Neo-Scholasticism’s contributions are much more penetrating in the areas of mystical or ascetical theology rather than on overviews of the Catholic faith. For example, I much prefer Garrigou-Lagrange’s The Three Ages of the Interior Life instead of his straight commentaries on Aquinas. This seems to be the point that the author of the “Sacred Monster of Thomism” made as well.

    As far as commentaries on Aquinas go…I think the four-volume set by the American Fr Walter Farrell is magnificent (at least what I have read so far). And it is aimed at the layman to boot.

  3. MJAndrew permalink
    July 15, 2009 10:55 pm

    For example, I much prefer Garrigou-Lagrange’s The Three Ages of the Interior Life instead of his straight commentaries on Aquinas.

    Agreed.

  4. Br. Matthew Augustine Miller, OP permalink
    July 16, 2009 7:36 am

    I like Bouyer’s Introduction to Spirituality for a broad overview of Catholic spirituality. The works of Fr. Herbert McCabe are also quite good for the English speaking reader. However, I always recommend people spend most of their effort on the classics. At most of our ministries we will offer, at one time or another, introductions to or study groups for Aquinas’ Summa. Its not to hard once people get the basic concepts.

  5. July 16, 2009 10:51 am

    I would rather recommend St Bonaventure’s Breviloquium than some “study on Aquinas,” for many reasons — including the fact that it helps remind people not everything is Thomism, even in the scholastic world, and I think it does a good broad sweep of Catholic doctrine. But that’s just me.

  6. Justin Nickelsen permalink
    July 19, 2009 8:57 pm

    “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?”

    MJ Andrew: Seriously… none of those books would be good for anyone who didn’t already have a pretty solid understanding of the faith and theological jargon. Out of all of them, perhaps Adam is the best.

    Suggestion-Theology for Beginners, Frank Sheed

    Br. Augustine Miller: Nice to e-see you… when you are in the area you should drop in again!

    jn

  7. July 19, 2009 11:16 pm

    Seriously… none of those books would be good for anyone who didn’t already have a pretty solid understanding of the faith and theological jargon.

    I find most of these titles to be fairly jargon free. The group of people who possess an understanding of the Catholic faith but do not have an acquaintance with theological academese is quite broad, so these titles extend that spectrum. The easiest to read is without question Dulles’ The New World of Faith followed by Adam’s Spirit and Balthasar’s Credo, in that order. A bit more advanced but certainly not strictly for scholars are Ratzinger’s Introduction (used in Theology 101 at Franciscan University) and Scheeben’s Mysteries. Finally, I would suggest that de Lubac’s book is the most difficult, but it is nothing compared to the sort of theological scholarship that is found in peer-reviewed journals or out of academic presses.

    I think Sheed’s book suffers from two limitations: 1) It is too basic and, consequently, would be redundant to those who already have a grasp of the theological dimensions of faith; 2) It is a bit too idiosyncratic, covering topics that were of primary interest to Sheed rather than the essential aspects and contours of the faith (his Theology and Sanity is an improvement with respect to (1), but to (2)). I would count Sheed’s Theology for Beginnings among the more basic initiations to Catholic thinking.

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