Gerald O’Collins, Catholicism, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
O’Collins is an English Jesuit priest employed at St. Mary’s University College in London. His contribution to the very short introduction series is intended for a wide readership who want to learn more about the Catholic Church. O’Collins asks questions about the origins of the church, how it has changed over the 2000 years or so of its existence, and what pressing challenges face the church in the current century.
There is a lot to like in this text, especially in terms of the fast pace and the intent of the book, though I tended to enjoy chapters three and on more completely. The first two chapters, in which O’Collins traces the history of Catholicism from about the year 30 through 2008, can be problematic. While much is revealed, there is a tendency towards “lists” as the author identifies quite a few personalities and trends of reform. To be fair, we are discussing 2000 years of development in under 150 pages, so there are going to be a few weak style moments here and there. This was more of an issue in the third chapter, as the worldwide expansion of the church was described wit new monastic orders, a variety of important popes, and the Reformation period and all it entailed.
Extremely useful as a shorthand reference guide to the actions of the Church, the various councils (particularly Trent and Vatican I and II), the book also gives readers a quick overview of the sacraments, appropriate for affiliates and non-affiliates alike. The fifth chapter gives readers a nice sense of moral teaching as it relates to Catholicism, including a second reference (after being brought up in an earlier chapter), to Rerum Novarum, the vitally important encyclical of Leo XIII, released in 1891. This particular encyclical has been cited time and time again as an important document for emphasizing social justice and redeeming humans from oppressive situations.
In his final chapter O’Collins asks some vital questions about the future of Catholicism as a faith and a church. Along with these questions, he has some critical remarks – it is probably his willingness to do so that endears me to him. Full disclosure however, O’Collins is a Jesuit and I am a graduate of a Jesuit college, so I have an affection for their logic and willingness to ask tough questions. I am interested to find out what O’Collins thinks of the new pope, particularly in light of some of the issues raised throughout this very short introduction. Whether you are a Church member or an individual seeking knowledge about Catholicism in general, the book should prove useful.