Top Five Books on All Things Catholic

So on Nick’s blog, I was asked for “5 essential, academically oriented works on all things Catholic” from a classist interested in the Catholic Church. It was a thought-provoking question. Here are the Five I came up with:

The first two are obvious choices: the Catechism, and the Summa Theologica. The Catechism is written more as a confession of Faith rather than an apologia, but it’s a great starting place for determining precisely what the Church teaches. Plus, if you hunt the footnotes, you’ll find lots of references to papal encyclicals which explain each topic in greater depth. The Summa is almost unreal. Thomas presently the strongest form of the anti-Catholic argument for each proposition (providing quotes which seem to support each position), then dismantles each one systematically. If you’re a Classics major, you may have already read him. If not, do so. That said, the Summa is crazy long, so you might consider New Advent’s online wiki-style version, so you can find specific answers to specific questions.

Msgr. Ronald Knox was a genius and a classist to boot. When I say “genius,” I mean he was writing Latin and Greek epigrams from the age of 10, was a widely-read author by his twenties, and single-handed translated the Vulgate into English. He wrote a lay-friendly book called The Belief of Catholics which remains one of the finest short systematic treatments of Catholicism I’ve ever seen. As much as I love Mere Christianity (and think Lewis may be a more engaging writer), Knox is a more rigorous thinker, and predicts (and refutes) virtually every counter-argument you can come up with. [I’ve only read one of his other books (The Church on Earth: The Nature and Authority of the Catholic Church), and while it wasn’t nearly as engaging, it was very engaging. So Msgr. Knox is probably a good author to check out overall.]

Fourth, I’d say Against Heresies by St. Irenaeus. He’s writing it to instruct new Catholics in the Faith, so it’s naturally systematic in scope, and explains lots of things which many other Church Fathers just assume their readers know (like that the Church is subject to the Bishop of Rome, that Apostolic Succession is the mark of the True Church, that the Liturgy is a Sacrifice, that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ, etc.).

Fifth, I’d say St. Francis De Sales’ Catholic Controversy. He’s better known for his Introduction to the Devout Life (an incredible devotional book for those interested in improving their spiritual lives), but Controversy takes on the specific issues dividing Catholics and Protestants, and shows why the Catholic position is correct.

Hope that helps. If you’re interested, I run a Catholic blog, too ( and am more than happy to field any specific questions you’ve got about the Faith. God bless!


P.S. Here’s a bonus book: Fr. James O’Connor’s The Hidden Manna deals specifically with the Eucharist, but the style is one you’ll likely find appealing. He goes chronologically through the writings of virtually every major Christian thinker. Part I is on the Early Church on up through the Middle Ages, Part II deals with the Reformation, and Part III deals with the modern era. Part I is by far the most interesting. Fr. O’Connor’s writing style is engaging, and he explains ambiguities and likely meanings in the Greek in an easy to understand way. He saves a lot of technical stuff for the footnotes. The clear conclusion one draws after reading is that the early Church was unanimous in its belief in the Eucharist. This one is technically not about all things Catholic, but it incorporates collaterally many other important things Catholic (like that there are bishops in the early Church, that people are answering to Rome, etc.).

I’m curious: what books should I have included? What do your top fives look like? (If you can’t think of five, that’s fine: just mention whichever ones you find are your personal favorites).


  1. Chadwick’s Penguin History of the Church. The Early Church volume is pretty neutral (on dogma) and gives a fair overview. You really need the historical reference when trying to make sense of dogmatic development.

    I learned all the basics of my adult faith from that history, the Catechism and the Summa.

    Should have figured you were a classicist, Joseph. Yet another explanation for why I like your work!

  2. You’ve got my top three: Catechism, Summa (I have the shorter version, which is nice, but look things up on New Advent for more detail – still can’t figure out exactly what Aquinas is saying about the ethics and the object of an action…) and definitely Catholic Controversy.

    I think Against Heresies is great, but I find myself recommending Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures more often. It’s a clear, detailed description of the Catholic Church at an early time. I have to say, his description of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist and the liturgy knocked the wind out of me when I was still Protestant minded. Likewise, Tertullian’s Perscription Against Heretics is good.

    I think you’ve got clarity and apologetics covered, but I like what Michael added. History gives essential perspective. My favorite history is Crisis of Civilization by Hilaire Belloc (Obviously. I was giving that one away. Still am if anyone wants it.). It’s a broad overview of pre-Christian civilization, through Christiandom’s rise and decline, all the way to present day. Belloc has a ton of other history books, with different focuses, like The Great Heresies, etc.

  3. I’m late to this party, and if we’re only supposed to provide answers for classists I’m going to be non-responsive. But for the sophisticated skeptic, here’s my roadmap from there to Catholic Chrisitanity in 5 steps.

    1. God in the Dock. C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s greatest hits in apologetics.  Everything essential to Lewis is in this book. It is a fantastic introduction to sophisticated Christian thought and also a book worth reading simply because each article is so beautifully written. But I include it in my roadmap because it includes the argument of Miracles ch. 3 (you could also read that book, of course).  This argument, which is largely discounted because of the Elisabeth Anscombe incident, is to my mind a decisive refutation of physicalism when properly developed (as it is in the first part of this paper).

    2.  The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.  This book includes an excellent defense of the resurrection (along the same lines that Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig use) by Timothy and Lydia McGrew which is here. And it also includes Catholic Philopsher Alexander Pruss’s outstanding formulation of the cosmological argument, which is available here.

    3.   An Introduction to Philosophy by Jaques Maritain. After you’ve gotten a taste of apologetics, this will give you some more academic grounding.

    4. Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome by Thomas Howard. In about 100 pages the this Catholic convert from a famous evangelical family who caused a stir in evangelical circles (like Christianity Today) tells the story of his conversion. Howard is a beautiful writer. The book is worth reading for that reason alone. But he also provides a fair and convincing apologetic for Catholicism. Here’s a taste:

    As a Fundamentalist I had discovered while I was in college that it is possible to dismiss the entire Church as having gone off the rails by about AD 95. That is, we, with our open Bibles, knew better than did old Ignatius or Clement, who had been taught by the very apostles themselves, just what the Church is and what it should look like. Never mind that our worship services would have been unrecognizable to them, or that our governance would have been equally unrecognizable: we were right, and the fathers were wrong (about bishops, and about the Eucharist). That settled the matter.

    5. This blog. Seriously. Whenever I talk to my Protestant friends, I always send them here. This blog covers the argument from Protestant to Catholic Christianity better than any book I’ve read.

  4. HocCogitat,

    I’ve never read it. I have heard a priest joking refer to it as “Introduction to Christianity for German Theologians.” He made it clear that while it was not an easy read, it was quite solid. So I can do a second-hand recommendation, if that counts (and I trust the recommending priest a lot).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *