30 December 2008

Guidelines for Faithful Catholic Reading (Updated)

Question. . .

1). Can you give me some guidelines about what books are OK for Catholics to read?

Sure, but first you have to decide where you are on your road to be perfected with God's grace. For someone who is intellectually and spiritually solid, that is, someone who thinks with the Church and believes with the Church, most anything is appropriate so long as you approach it with a strong critical eye. A Catholic who knows his/her faith well and holds to it tenaciously will not be easily dislodged from the Body. Now, I do not mean to say here that you must be a closed-mined anti-intellectual with your mind made-up already. What I mean to say is that your relationship with God through the Church is sufficiently strong that you "see" the world through your faith. Some tend to make their faith (or Church teachings) as just one more compartment of their lives that can be kept separate from their personal relationships, their politics, their jobs. This sort of compartmentalization gives us divorced/re-married, pro-abortion Catholic Republicans who work for Greenpeace and who see no contradictions in their lives yet wonder why they are unhappy!

If you are new to the faith, your situation is quite different and I would urge a different approach. So much of our faith is about just living day to day with the sacraments, in personal prayer and service. The more intellectual side of the faith is attractive b/c it allows a certain distance from the grubbiness of working on our perfection in grace. That's a trap. Our faith is about beliefs and works, knowing and doing, trusting and acting. For a new Catholic, I would suggest that you ground your first few years in the Church in three things: 1) frequent use of the sacraments (Mass, confession, etc.) and a prayerful devotion (rosary, etc.); 2) stick to the basics in your reading--the Catechism, a good "treasury of Catholic writing" type book, the Bible; and 3) do volunteer work consistent with our tradition (pro-life work, St Vincent de Paul Society, etc.). Your intellectual needs will arise out of these and give you a better direction for reading.

NB. If you have a copy of Richard McBrien's popular work, Catholicism, throw it away. It's useless for understanding the faith. I mention this book in particular because it is one that most new Catholics buy for instruction and is widely used in diocesan RCIA programs. Though he gets some things right, he has been admonished multiple times by the American bishops to revise the errors in this book, and he has steadfastly refused. Most of it is modernist nonsense and heresy.

General Guidelines for all Catholics

Catholics have nothing to fear from reading material that opposes the Church or attacks our faith. God is in control not us. The question for your reading choices is this: will this book help me to better cooperate with God's grace given through the Church to grow in perfection? If not, don't waste your time. If so, try it out.

Don't waste your time on most of the books in the Self-Help section of your bookstore. There is no such thing as "self-help" for Catholics. "Self-help" is just Pelagianism and gnosticism dressed up in pop-psychology. God helps us and we cooperate with that help.

Don't waste you time on most of the books in the Spirituality section of your bookstore. Most of these are New Age and neo-pagan garbage. The only good thing about these books is that they don't lie about their non-Christian origins and pretend to be helpful to Catholics. This section will likely include many books with Christ, christian, Catholic, etc. in the titles. Don't be fooled.

Don't waste your time on most of the books in the Christian Inspiration section of your bookstore. Most of these are fundamentalist Protestant or "community church" movement versions of Positive Thinking pseudo-theology or Purpose-Driven Life drivel. The fiction is mostly anti-Catholic nonsense from a fundie Prot perspective, i.e. the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation blahblahblah.

In the bookstore, go to the Christian religion section and look for books published by Ignatius Press. These books are normally written for intelligent Catholics who are curious about growing with Christ in his Church and who want to do more than memorize the Catechism but aren't yet willing or able to put in the time and effort to delve full-time in the complicated academic world of Catholic theology. They well-written, solidly orthodox, challenging, but not high-brow theology. Now, having said all of that, let me add: Ignatius Press does publish some very, very high brow stuff. They publish Hans Urs von Balthazar. There are probably three people in the world who have read his stuff and understood it. One of them currently occupies the Chair of Peter. The other two teach at Oxford University and one of them has decided that von Balthazar is probably dangerous to the faith. But generally, Ignatius Press is the way to go.

UPDATE: from the comboxes I want to add two publishers:

TAN Books: mostly reprints of Catholic classics
Our Sunday Visitor: contemporary spirituality, theology of moderate difficulty

Spend some money on a good Catholic theological dictionary (O'Collins is good, so is Hardon). This can help you get a grasp of basic terms and usage. Also there are a number of "shorter catechisms" out there as well as catechisms written for adults.

Some new Catholics like to jump into the classical Catholic spiritual tradition (mostly writers like John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, Theresa of Avila). If you can read this stuff and it helps, go for it! Generally, I steer young Catholics and those new to the Church away from these texts because these mystics and saints are writing to and for monks, nuns, priests who have been at this perfection in grace thing for a long while. Many of my spiritual directees at U.D. were reading Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. This is a classic Catholic work. It is also a dangerous book for those not ready to use it properly. And the proper way to use it is with an experienced spiritual director! A requirement, by the way, that the saint himself insists on. These classic texts require religious maturity and a deep discernment. They are NOT textbooks or DIY manuals.

Finally, for all Catholics, check everything you are reading against the Catechism. This sounds juvenile, I know. However, the Catechism, for all of its structural flaws and misplaced emphasises, is a distillation of 2,000 years of Catholic wisdom. Use the index to find specific topics. There are a number of searchable Catechisms on-line. There is a book titled A The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church that contains the texts of all the footnotes in the Catechsim. Having this book handy can make your reading easier. You can read the CCC as a book, starting on page one and going to the end. It is a "one piece" book in that understanding page two requires that you understand page one. Using it as a reference book is OK, but don't expect to get fullsome answers 100% of the time. You will still have to think through most of your questions with a critical mind.


If you are new to the faith and/or not sure of your spiritual maturity, I would caution you against the following:

--trying to read advanced works of theology/spirituality
--works of spirituality without a solidly orthodox spiritual director
--works that claim to combine Catholicism with some other spiritual tradition (New Agey junk)
--"self-help" books, even ones claiming to be Christian/Catholic
--avoid identity politics theologies: feminist, queer, black/latino, liberation, ecological theologies
--books of private revelations, "An angel came to me and told me that. . ." type books
--books that stress "spiritual warfare" or "apocalyptic" themes; "end times"
--purely "social justice" works, i.e., books that focus on good works alone
--books by self-anointed prophets and mystics
--books about a Catholic spirituality using the "new cosmologies," junk science, junk theology
--Merton's later works, i.e. his Buddhist writings & his peace/justice writing; early work is great
--anything by any of the following popular writers: Eckhart Tolle, Don Miguel Ruiz, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Jon Kabat-Zin, Anthony De Mello, Ken Wilber, Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, Fritjof Capra, Elaine Pagels, Joan Chittister, Richard McBrien, Matthew Fox, and Richard Rohr. This is not a comprehensive list, just a mention of authors I've read and have found damaging.
--generally books published by Orbis Books, Paulist Press*, St Anthony Messenger Press, The Liturgical Press are dodgy though not always. . .just a caution.
--big caution: books about Ennegrams, centering prayer, yoga, angelic prayers, Buddhism
--basically anything that negatively challenges your faith too early in your growth

Let me also direct you to a recent post titled "Can Catholics Dabble in the New Age Practices?" Under section three ("Discernment") of this post you will find a fairly comprehensive set of questions designed to steer you clear of dangerous spiritual practices. To apply these questions to your reading habits, just replace "Does this practice. . .?" with "Does this book. . .?"

A (very) few recommendations:

Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (adults, moderately advanced)
Joseph Ratzinger, God is Near Us: the Eucharist, the Heart of Life (adults)
Robert Barron, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (adults)
Pope Benedict XVI, The Church Fathers (adults)
Romano Cessario, Introduction to Moral Theology (adults)
Kenan Osborne, Sacramental Theology: A General Introduction (adults, advanced)
John O'Connor, The Catholic Prayer Book (general)
Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics (advanced)
Servais Pinckaers, Morality: The Catholic View (adult)

Happy reading! If you have questions about a specific book or author, leave a comment and I will respond if I know anything about either.

*Paulist Press often gets it right: Thomas McDermott, Catherine of Siena: Spiritual Development in Her Life and Teaching, 2008.


  1. Okey dokey Father, it's all very helpful. I have one question, you mention having a spiritual director. How does someone go about finding one? In my parish of over 4000 souls there are two priests, one being a married convert from the Episcopalians (so I'm sure HIS plate is always full).

    I really doubt either one has the time to answer questions on a regular basis, so what other resources are available in finding a spiritual director?

  2. "There are probably three people in the world who have read his stuff and understood it. One of them currently occupies the Chair of Peter. The other two teach at Oxford University and one of them has decided that von Balthazar is probably dangerous to the faith."

    *coffee spewed in laughter all over iMac*

    "he Catechism, for all of its structural flaws and misplaced emphasises"

    Such as...? I'm on the cusp of being Catholic, and am curious what you mean.

  3. Irenaeus,

    Overall the CCC is great! I highly recommend it to new Catholics and old.

    The problem is more arrangement and emphasis.

    Even though the CCC was edited by a Dominican (Cardinal Schonborn), the emphasis in the moral section is on the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. No problem as such. However, the emphasis would have been more effective on the virtues. This would make that section easier to teach as a Catholic spirituality.

    The structure is OK (Creed, etc.) as it is, but it would have been better to take a more historical approach. I'm sure the material could rearranged as some intrepid soul.

    Again: there's nothing wrong with the CCC.

  4. Subvet,

    Look to local monasteries, convents, seminaries, retreat centers; call the diocesan center and ask for recommendations. Often priests and religious in retirement homes love to do spiritual direction.

    Don't forget good old lay folks. Check with your pastor and ask about a reliable lay person in your parish.

    Keep in mind: a SD doesn't have to be academically trained. Most SD programs in the US are incredibly dodgy anyway--New Agey, or some form of eco-spirituality.

    I will link to my post on finding spiritual directors.

  5. Well, I had a post on finding a good spiritual director, but I guess I deleted it.

  6. Anonymous7:56 AM

    Hi Father,

    You mention Thomas Berry in the list of those to avoid. I just wanted to know specifically why. Are you thinking of Thomas Berry, C.P.?

    Many thanks and God bless,

  7. I would add any of the For Dummies books written by Fr Trigilio, especially Catholicism for Dummies. He and Fr. Kenneth do a wonderful job of explaining things simply while keeping it very catholic. In that same vein, avoid the Idiot's Guide to Catholicism like the plague.

    Joseph Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth is also very good. Someone who is moderately versed in the faith (like myself) can get through the first 3/4 of the book with only a minor headache. The last quarter was a little fuzzy in my memory. When I catch up on some of my reading, I'll go back and try again. I think Ignatius press recently put out a study guide for it, I might try that too.

  8. Patrick,

    Yes, Fr. Thomas Berry, CP. His work falls within the "new cosmologies" trendiness that infecting so much of contemporary Catholic spirituality. He's basically a pantheist: nature is God, God is nature, etc.


  9. Fr Philip,
    What's wrong with A.De Mello's books? Was he as bad as Richard McBrien?

  10. A suggestion - what about the lives of the saints?

  11. Mery,

    De Mello's books have been investigated by the Vatican and found wanting. His work is basically non-Christian...weird blends of Hinduism, New Age junk, highly syncretistic.

    Don't waste your money.

  12. Father, what about Tan Books, i.e. the publisher? They seem as good as Ignatius Press, if a little more traditional minded...

  13. Lynne,

    TAN books are great! I didn't include them b/c they usually reprint classics and that will fall outside the range of books I'm recommending for beginners.

  14. Any comments about Teilhard de Chardin? Some of his writings seem a little iffy and I have read that there were some problems but no details. My anthropological theology professor is a big follower. Thanks.

  15. Flaptop,

    We just discussed de Chardin in my sci/theo seminar a few weeks ago. Theologically, he's a pantheist. And he tends to downplay the historical incarnation in favor of the "Cosmic Christ.". Very, very dodgy. Play nice in class but don't buy it.

  16. If you are looking for a thoroughly searchable version of the Catechism, I freely offer my online Catechism gateway.

    Fr. Philip, what say you of Our Sunday Visitor?

    I'm thinking of putting together my recent writings on the Mass as either articles or even a book, and I'm considering sending proposals to Ignatius and OSV.

  17. What an excellent post. Good for you. Not afraid to speak the truth. I do a talk about the "New Age" influences in our churches and cover almost everything you just listed.

    Which means that I think you're a really smart fellow 'cause you agree with me. It is all about
    meeeeeeeeeeeee isn't it??

    Good answer about the spirtual directors, too. My spiritual director when I did the SEEL retreat at Gonzaga was a bit "off the page". I just extracted all the good stuff and left the rest floating around.

  18. chrisacs10:25 PM

    Father Powell

    FYI: The Knights of Columbus actually has a “book of the month club.” Here is the link for your personal imprimatur - http://www.kofc.org/un/eb/en/publications/sk_bookclub/index.html. It has been an awesome experience (I’m on my eleventh now); there is even a discussion online for each book. This month’s book was Dinesh D’Souza’s “What's So Great About Christianity” and September’s book was Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Render Unto Caesar.” Take a look and tell us what you think. I think the selections are perfect for the lay Catholic regardless of your theological faculties or degree of faith formation and I don’t think orthodoxy, or lack there of, is a problem (your thoughts). I also think they are perfect for a convert trying to build his faith and not having the daunting task of having to pick a book in an inundated Catholic book store is nice in and of itself. One book a month seems just about right with kids, job, wife, blah blah blah!!!!!
    Just a side note but I think Tan publishing was bought by Ignacious Press. I’m not sure if they are keeping the name or just merging into one big “conglomerate.”


  19. Japhy,

    I don't know a lot about OSV publishing. We used one of their books in a sexual ethics class in seminary. It was very orthodox. The few things I've seen were OK.

  20. Anonymous5:32 AM

    Regarding the choosing of a spiritual director, please exercise tremendous caution in choosing a Sister. There are numerous holy nuns around who are well versed in spiritual direction, but there are countless kooks among them, too, many of whom have done incalculable damage to souls with new age, anti-Catholic, or just watered-down Catholic sensibilities . As a rule of thumb (and there can be exceptions), I would avoid any Sister who does not wear a habit (by whch I mean at least a veil with suitable clothing). Another clue that a Sister (or anyone) should be avoided as a director would be if they place a great deal of emphasis on peace, social justice, care of creation and such ideas instead of piety. Finally, run, don't walk, but run away from any spiritual director who seems disinclined to recommend adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or the use of the Rosary. Does this advice sound sensible to you, Father Philip?

  21. Anon,

    Yes, unfortunately, I have to agree.

    Individuals are solely responsible for interviewing potential directors. I will post some "telling questions" to ask soon.

  22. Dominicans specially beware of Matthew Fox, he is a wolf in sheep clothing. He is an expelled Dominican who claims to be Thomist. yeah, right.

    if you want to spend money in any of his books go ahead, but you are gonna end up doing just what I did: Put it right on the trash can, it's junk.

    beware also of books about buddhism, hinduism or taoism filtered for westerners too, because they never represent faithfully their original position and will only confuse many. The terms they use can cause some neophytes to end up thinking that Brahmah, YHWH, Krsna, Christ and Buddha are all the same manifestation of one supreme "Om" or universal being who is the universe. Watch out. Right, Father P?
    By the way, would you care to comment about Hinduism sometime? I have a Nepali friend, and me and him engage often in very interesting philosophical conversations, in which I always of course explain and expound the truth of Christ using the tool of logic and philosophy; and he sticks to his guns with brahma and krsna. Of course, these conversations are friendly and honest. Anyway, thansk for all your recommendations so far.

    Blessings for this new year!

  23. Anonymous2:40 PM

    Father, what about Liguori Publications? God bless you and thank you for all the work you do.

  24. Liguori Publications had some trouble a few years ago publishing books by one of these Joan-Chittister-esque Benedictine nuns...I forget her name. Anyway, event though she was teaching error, the publishing house refuse to stop publishing her. So, L.P. gets a frowny face from me. Now, that doesn't mean that they don't publish some good things. It just means: be careful!

    I've yet to see a dodgy book come out of Ignatius Press...

  25. As I was reading this, I reflected on my religion classes getting ready for Confirmation eons ago.

    We were always told that if a book that taught or discussed the Faith correctly should have the Bishop's approval in the form of the nihl obstat and the impretor (sp?), otherwise it may not be correct.

    Does this still hold true?

  26. Here is the text of your original post on spiritual direction which I had saved to a file:

    Finding Good Spiritual Direction

    This is probably one of the most important decisions a Catholic can make. All I can tell you is what I look for in a S.D.:

    1.Someone with some depth of experience and knowledge of the Church's long tradition lived in an active prayer life.

    2.A solid believer in the Church's long tradition, meaning someone who sees himself/herself as grounded in the Tradition and not set against it.

    3.Someone who is willing to challenge me in a Big Way. I don't just mean someone who will give me difficult tasks to complete, but someone who will nod solemnly while I whine and complain and justify my failings and then say, "WOW! You're full of $#%@, aren't you?" Someone, in other words, who will not let me get away with self-deception.

    4.Someone skilled at asking the right questions.

    5.I always ask any S.D. at the first meeting to describe his/her approach to spiritual direction. If there's even a hint of New-Agey wishy-washiness in it, I say so and wish them luck as I walk out the door. New-Agey nonsense here includes:
    * Any kind of preoccupation with Eastern forms of meditation or prayer;
    * Any sign that the person is deeply confused about the Church's teaching on the relationship between Creator and creature (no Earth worshippers for me!); ask him/her what he/she thinks about Brian Swimme's The Universe Story,* if he/she waxes eloquent about the necessity of replacing our mythic paradigms with "new stories," leave!
    * Any sign that the person is going to point me toward labryniths, dream-catchers, medicine wheels, mini-Zen gardens, aromatherapy, so-called "dream-work" (though dreams properly understood can be helpful in uncovering anxieties), drumming/dancing, interfaith/syncreticistic theologies or practices of any kind (ecospiritualies, "Native American spiritualities"), Reiki, any kind of "bodywork," etc. Also, be very wary of S.D.'s who insist on the usefulness of enneagrams. These things are about as useful as a horoscope and make about as much sense. Some may ask you to complete a Myers-Briggs test. Though this is a real personality test devised by real psychologists, I would be very wary of a S.D. who uses a M-B identification as some sort of "key to your soul," or uses the thing like a revelation from God.
    * Any emphasis on The Spiritual as something juxtaposed to The Religious;
    * Any sign that the person is going to juxtapose "social justice" and "orthodoxy" by constantly rattling on about "orthopraxy" as if such a thing is possible w/o the orthodox teachings of the Church!
    * Any hint that the person is thinking in terms of identity politics (feminism, "queer theologies," etc.), Marxist ideology, or liberationist theologies/spiritualities that look to human experience as the sole criterion for truth; any hint that spiritual direction will be all about ME and not God and my totally dependent relationship on Him alone;
    * Basically, anything at all that tells me that this person is not 100% dedicated to the Truth of the apostolic faith as it is taught and defended by the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.

    I've had both male and female S.D.'s. Priests, religious, and lay. My toughest (i.e., best) S.D. was a Daughter of Charity.

    NB. These are my preference for my spiritual director. Yours may (and probably should) differ.

    I was asked: "What kind of spiritual director are you, Father?" I will have to let my former directees answer that question. . .

    Hope this helps! God bless, Fr. Philip, OP

    *We could add here any of the trendy "spirituality" books that set creation up as God. Also, among those that might ought to give you pause. . .books like The Holy Longing, any of those books by that Eckhart Tolle guy, or The Four Agreements by Ruiz, most anything with an Oprah Book Club sticker on it.

  27. TomM,

    Mille grazie! I'm very happy to see that I agree with myself...that doesn't always happen, btw.

  28. I've yet to see a dodgy book come out of Ignatius Press...

    Apart from all those Balthasar titles, you mean.

    Ha! I jest! I jest in love.