Basics on a faith…

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.



Filed under Religion, Teaching, Teaching and Learning History

3 responses to “Basics on a faith…

  1. I’ve read two books of the Very Short Intruduction series. The are what they claim to be, an introduction, nothing more and nothing less. Once you already have some knowledge on the topic, there really isn’t much interesting going on in these books. But as an introduction to something completely new they seem pretty good! So I haven’t read this specific book, but I can follow your review.

    • I can agree to a degree, though for some people, the very sort introduction may be the only piece they may ever read on a topic so I am okay with not a lot going on in some instances. A notable exception in the editions I have read is John Arnold’s volume on history. Arnold’s book leads to more discussion and more questions, while providing a thorough overview of what is historians try to accomplish.

      • Sure, it’s a great serie as an introduction. If you haven’t read anything about the topic before, it does give you a nice and very clear impression of what is going on about the specific topic.
        Maybe I’ll check out Arnold’s History. A book for the general public about history that is thought provoking, sounds interesting!

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