Starting from the essential foundation of Jesus Christ's incarnation, life, and teaching, Father Barron moves through the defining elements of Catholicism - from sacraments, worship, and prayer, to Mary, the Apostles, and Saints, to grace, salvation, heaven, and hell - using his distinct and dynamic grasp of art, literature, architecture, personal stories, Scripture, theology, philosophy, and history to present the Church to the world.
Original publication date
I was struck by the number of times, especially near the beginning of the book, that I wanted to jump out of my seat and high five Father Barron. His scholarship and passion regarding the centrality of Jesus in the life of the church was breathtaking. I also noted that he used a fair bit of the conceptual world of N. T. Wright (duly footnoted). In the end, I was delighted to share much more in common with Father Barron than I had anticipated.
Of course, there were areas that frustrated me. The role and status of Mary for one. The doctrine of Immaculate conception seems to be so far removed from scripture it’s absurd. On the other hand, I freely acknowledge that most Protestants underemphasize Mary because we like to keep the boundary markers between us and them nice and neat. (Side note: Martin Luther would have rolled over in his grave to read the title of that chapter: “Our Tainted Nature’s Solitary Boast”. Boast! Seriously?)
Father Barron takes a hard line on other denominations:
"From the Roman Catholic point of view, all of the non-Catholic Christian churches have sacrificed one or more of these qualities and therefore fall short of completeness or catholicity." (164)
(It’s interesting how, instead of stating his personal view, he prefaced it with, “From the Roman Catholic point of view …”.) Father Barron goes on to suggest that apostolic succession—the idea that the current Pope is the descendant of Saint Peter—is a “guarantee” (168) that they are preserving the faith. It seems to me like Jesus’ treatment of the Pharisees rules out this sort of naïve comfort. If the Jewish religious leaders couldn’t be trusted to faithfully preserve the faith, what makes us think that we can pull of the same feat?
I could argue theology all day, but I’ll leave with one last particularly irritating argument. In discussing the afterlife, Father Barron states clearly that Protestants object that “purgatory is an unbiblical doctrine, a medieval innovation” (262). In response, he mentions misleadingly that “incarnation” and “Trinity” are also absent from scripture. I don’t know of a single person who argues that since the term “purgatory” cannot be looked up in a concordance, the doctrine is false. It’s the concept that matters. He then goes on to quote 2 Maccabees for a convoluted hint that purgatory may exist. In the first place, the reference to 2 Maccabees 12:44-46 isn’t a direct statement about purgatory. In the second place, Father Brown knows full well that the vast majority of Protestant churches view the books of Macabees as extra-canonical (or, at least, deuterocanonical).
Now that my cathartic moment has passed, I still have to say: an objective Protestant reading of Catholicism will discover far more common elements of the faith than discord. You may even, like this Protestant, be inspired.
Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided at no cost through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program.
Fr. Barron is, in turns, poetic and intellectual throughout the book. His initial descriptions of the Incarnation (pages 9-10) and the liturgy (pages 172-4), for instance, are so beautiful they could easily become verse. And his discussion of God (chapter 3), for example, wonderfully breaks down very difficult and rather heady concepts in language that anyone can understand. Adding to the beauty of the book are the black and white photographs of some of the most beautiful sites in Christendom sprinkled throughout the book and the wonder-evoking set of color photographs in the center.
Also contributing to the excellence of this book are the numerous short quotations, bits of wisdom, and anecdotes sprinkled throughout. For these, Fr. Barron draws especially heavily on modern Christian thinkers like Paul Tillich, Thomas Merton, and Edith Stein, giving us a presentation of a Christianity that has grappled with the great problems of the modern and postmodern world and its thought as encapsulated by such figures as Marx and Freud (whom Fr. Barron references specifically). In course, he demonstrates to the reader that Christianity is not the medieval superstition and antiquated silliness some would like to paint it as, but it continues to be what it has always been: the Truth, the way to Life from the realm of unbecoming.
I recommend this book as an introduction to Christianity for the newcomer and an engaging refresher for the experienced – with a uniquely but not exclusively Catholic flavor. I especially recommend that all Catholics have a read of this book.
It's worth noting that the text of the book follows the script of his ten-episode TV series rather closely. That's not a bad thing; while the book omits most of the colorful visuals and the visceral aspects of universality that the show conveys so well, it gives the viewer a means to go back and ponder some of the points that may have passed by too quickly in the narrative on screen.
That brings me to the one significant aspect of the book that I found lacking. While Father Barron's explanations are excellent and highly insightful for the reader/viewer who may already have some familiarity with Catholicism, at times I felt that they might not be completely accessible for those who were coming in with no prior knowledge. Thus, while this is certainly a fine celebration of the Catholic Church and faith, it may not be the best introduction to them.
If I had a compliant it would be that while some of the pictures add to the text, at times they didn't seem particularly related or there weren't pictures when I would have wanted one.
(It might be helpful to note at this juncture that although I am sympathetic to the Catholic tradition and to Fr Barron's project, I am not myself a member of the Roman Catholic communion, nor have I seen the video series on which this book is based.)
For Barron, the starting point of Christian belief can only be the mystery of the Incarnation, the implications of which give rise to the distinctive doctrines and practices of Catholicism. The book begins, therefore, with the story of the life and mission of Christ, taking us through the Biblical narrative of his life, teachings, execution and resurrection. It's from this basis that the book moves on to other matters: the nature of God, the special significance of Mary, Peter, and Paul, the nature of the Church, the saints, and the Four Last Things (death, judgment, hell, and heaven). This Christocentric and Scriptural approach is refreshing and wholly appropriate, and it brings the more abstract doctrines later in the book into a concrete context. The Thomistic doctrines of the nature of God, particularly difficult to grasp for most modern students, are placed into the context of Moses's encounter with the burning bush, making it clear that Thomas's account of God is not mere imaginative speculation, but something deeply grounded in the divine self-revelation.
Catholicism consistently strikes just the right tone: theologically grounded without being pedantic, rich in anecdotes and illustrations without being sentimental or folksy. I was particularly impressed by the eighth chapter, which tells the story of four twentieth-century saints: Katharine Drexel, Theresa of Lisieux, Edith Stein, and Teresa of Calcutta. The discussion is not long, but it reveals much about the nature of sanctity and the Christian vocation. These four women, so different in their background and in the lives they led, nevertheless give witness to an underlying unity of faith and purpose. It is hard to imagine a better demonstration of what the Catholic faith means in day-to-day life.
Despite my endorsements, there are some problems with this volume, mostly relating to the transition from a televised form to a written one. C. S. Lewis memorably spoke in his preface to Mere Christianity of the dangers involved in moving from a spoken format (colloquial, transitory) to a book (formal, permanent). These difficulties have not been surmounted here, and there are intermittent stylistic infelicities and grammatical errors of the sort that everyone makes in speech but that look awkward in print. The brief online clips I've seen from the TV series seem to reproduce passages from the book almost verbatim, which would go some way towards explaining this. Another unfortunate relic of the TV series is in the book's choice of pictures: there is a black-and-white picture on nearly every other page, most of which relate fairly obviously to the book's narrative: a picture of Edith Stein during the discussion of her life, a picture of Cologne Cathedral during a discussion of Gothic architecture, and so on. But why is there a picture of the roof of a cathedral in West Virginia next to a discussion of the divine names, and a picture of Santa Sabina, Rome, next to a discussion of Thomas Aquinas? By squinting, I can see that there is a prominent Hebrew tetragrammaton (YHWH) in the roof of the cathedral, and by Googling I can learn that Santa Sabina is a Dominican priory where St Thomas once lived. Presumably these connections are made in the videos, but they are not drawn in the text, and someone who has not seen the DVDs will need substantial expertise to understand what is going on.
Existing fans of Fr Barron's work will have bought this already; for others, this is a superb introduction to its topic, although probably best enjoyed in conjunction with the DVD set rather than alone.
With those provisos, what can you expect from "Catholicism?"
In the introduction Fr. Barron promises to take us on "a guided exploration of the Catholic world... I want to function as a mystagogue, conducting you ever deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation in the hopes that you might be transformed by its power." He intends a celebration of the faith, rather than an academic overview, and he keeps his word.
Fr. Barron covers the major topics of the faith in ten chapters that mirror the ten episodes of his DVD series. These include the person of Jesus Christ, his teachings, the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Eucharist, the saints, and prayer, among others. Each chapter includes highlights from the Church's historical and theological heritage, from Bl. Theresa of Calcutta to St. Augustine, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris to Bl. Pope John Paul II. The book also boasts an impressive amount of photography and artwork, much of it from Europe's great cathedrals and basilicas.
As anyone who has seen his YouTube videos knows, Fr. Barron has a gift for explaining the faith in simple, understandable terms, and this gift is on full display in "Catholicism." Even notoriously complex issues such as theodicy (the problem of evil) are dealt with in clear terms, with non-Christian alternatives laid out in contrast with the person of Christ:
"For the Christian faith, the only adequate "resolution" of this dilemma is the one effected by God himself on the cross of Jesus Christ. On that cross, the darkness of the human condition met the fullness of the divine love and found itself transfigured into life. On that cross, God went to the limits of godforsakenness and made even death itself a place of hope. God, in his love, becomes the answer to the problem of evil."
One thing you should not expect is a systematic walk through the Church's teachings. This is actually one of the little things that bugged me about the book: it's incomplete treatment of certain subjects. For instance, in the chapter on prayer, Fr. Barron spends most of his time on Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila -- important figures, to be sure, and ones who have much to teach on prayer! But Fr. Barron then offers a few pages on petitionary prayer before wrapping up the chapter -- neglecting the other four forms of prayer laid out in the Catechism. Similarly, his chapter on the "last things" includes very good reflections on heaven, purgatory, and hell -- but no mention of judgement, the traditional first "last thing." Again, Fr. Barron's approach isn't wrong or even unhelpful. But for someone acquainted with the Catechism and the traditions of the Church, the omissions are curious.
Another troubling aspect of the book is it's solid Euro-centrism. Almost no attention is paid to Catholicism as it is lived in the global south, either in the stories Fr. Barron tells or in the artwork used throughout the book. At a time when Christianity is seeing unprecedented growth in Africa and South America, this makes "Catholicism" look rooted in the Church's past, rather than its future.
But those are minor quibbles about an otherwise impressive accomplishment. Fr. Barron has crafted what may prove to be the defining introductory text to the faith for the coming decades; I predict that "Catholicism" will be added to many personal and parish libraries and will become a classic text for inquirers and RCIA candidates. Anyone interested in learning more about the Catholic faith could hardly do better than picking up this book.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.
I was received into the Catholic faith at 20 last year, and I wish I had had a book like Barron's to read before I made the leap. I have heard some of his CDs from Lighthouse Catholic Media, and he is one of the few popular Catholic speakers I like. Unlike many of the others, he does not bring his fundamentalist Protestant baggage into Catholicism. Also unlike many on the apologist circuit, he writes and speaks with a moderate tone.
This book in particular is an exposition of the basics of Catholicism: Jesus, God, Paul, Church, saints, prayer, Mary, life and death. Thankfully, Barron avoids the more controversial issues of abortion, homosexuality, and women priests. Instead he packs in allusions to all kinds of writers and thinkers, saints and cathedrals. He explained Jesus' "turn the other cheek" as a kind of turning the other's conscience into their face with love (I had never been able to make sense of this). I loved his story of staring at the rose window of Notre Dame for twenty minutes, as I recently did that at St. Thomas Church in NYC. While some of the chapters dragged on, such as the one on Peter and Paul, the chapters on saints and prayer more than made up for it. I especially like that he picked an all-female lineup of saints for that chapter.
Overall, a book good for non-Catholics to get a flavor of the tradition written neither in a polemic nor a removed academic style. Also good for Catholics needing a refresher.
The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the basis for the COMMON faith of true believers, not just Catholics as Barron seems to state...but then, maybe that was just my reading of his words. But, on the other hand, this does open the doors for dialogue as believers, rather than dialogue with an opponent of the faith. As others have stated, Barron is a very engaging author who makes his case well, but not incontrovertibly. I am still intrigued by those who are enamored of Catholicism as the inconsistencies within it still remain unanswered to my satisfaction.
I would heartily recommend this book for those looking for a basic primer on Catholicism, who wish to increase their understanding or even refresh their own thinking with the basics of their faith. Barron is a good evangelist for Catholicism, and a reasonably good one for the Christian faith as a whole. In fact, I still hope to be able to go through Catholicism a fourth time so that I can respond to it in a deeper. more theologically grounded way than in a book review.
I only discovered the DVD this book accompanies after I'd completed reading. There may be slightly different material covered in the video project, (I have not seen all of it), but they seem to dovetail one into the other. Which came first? I could not say. They both use the advantages of their media format quite well.
I find Barron delightfully clear and direct. There are a few places where I find his logical arguments unconvincing, but some of that may be just my tendency to strain at gnats.
On the whole, I'd say this is an excellent resource for filling in the gaps for someone of the Catholic faith and a help to anyone outside the Catholic Church who wants an accurate picture of just what do Catholics believe. Once you've read The Holy Bible, and probably before attempting to trudge your way through the Catechism, walk with Robert Barron. You'll be glad you did.
Under the auspices of sharing an introduction of Catholic's like Saint Katharine Drexel, Saint Therese of Lisieux, Saint Edith Stein, Blessed Therresa of Calcutta he follows with Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton who was lead to become a Catholic Monk and prolific writer did not follow the Benedictine Rule he had vowed too follow. The book is not published by a Catholic publisher and there is no approval from even his diocese on this publication. The author does explain how this book is derived from his notes and experience gained while working on a ten-part documentary. The man can obviously write and perhaps, as his words show, this book is not about Roman Catholicism as I have inferred but the new modern catholicism popular in the U.S.A.
There were many interesting ideas proposed which I believe would cause any practicing or questioning Catholic to reevaluate their faith as well as intrigue anyone else interested in a modern view of the faith or simply on a search for God. The author deals with the topic and some common arguments against the faith seriously and honestly without an air of superiority or a 'holier than thou' attitude. Honest answers for those with honest questions.
While there is much here that will be of great use to some just beginning a spiritual journey, or someone who knows little about Catholicism, there is also so much here for a lifelong Catholic.
I have not seen the PBS series, but it closely follows this book, I can not wait to see it when it comes on our local station this year.
However, some of the pitfalls of this book became obvious as I moved through the pages. I had a difficult time determining the audience Barron is writing for. While he often writes in a style the would be accessible to non-Catholic and lay-readers, he takes for granted that the reader has an expanded Catholic vocabulary, using large terms that he leaves undefined. As an Anabaptist, who's faith is formed in part as a reaction against Catholic and high-church teaching, many of his explanations simplified Catholic teaching in such a way that I could appreciate better the connections between our traditions. However, the more I read, the more I felt that Barron may have been writing for the millions of lapsed or non-participating Catholics who already have the basic vocabulary from their Catechismal training as a way to entice them to fall back into love with this ancient tradition.
Another issue I noted is a lack of true interaction with the shadow side of Catholic history and theology. While he did not hide some of the darker times and trials of the church, for example he mentioned indulgences, inquisitions and current priest pedophilia controversies, his mentions of these difficult subjects was superficial with no honest grappling with the pain the "Church" has caused. He did speak of other movements - Quaker, Hindu, Lutheran... without animosity, but he never really spoke to the way that the Catholic Church has devalued other voices and diversity on many subjects.
What I appreciated most about this introduction was the way that Barron included short biographies of saints and important Catholic figures to exemplify the theology he was explaining. He balanced both ancient and contemporary, male and female figures. His own love for these saints and this church rang through clearly in his pages. I am hopeful that I will be able to watch the companion video series to see how Barron includes art and video and travel with his enlightening introduction.
Relying heavily on scripture and established theologians, Barron was often able to juxtapose the material in ways that shed new light.
I haven't seen the documentary that this book is intended to be a complement to. [and prepostitions aren't what you end sentences with] Thus I may be missing some of the intent by reviewing the book simply as a book, rather than as a multimedia package. That being said, there are some beautiful pictures in this book, showcasing the treasures of the Church. This is really part of the purpose, since it has been argued that the works of art Christianity inspires are among its greatest evangelists.
This book is intended to be a brief, but complete summary of the Catholic faith. Barron accomplishes this.
My single favorite part of the book is Barron's treatment of the Sermon on the Mount. Barron summarizes the Beatitudes as the more we draw on the divine life, the more we receive in return. Each of the positive attributes in the first four Beatitudes is something we need to be happy, and they are best possessed by giving them away. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. [Matthew 6:33] The negative Beatitudes are interpreted in a light of detachment. Blessed are those who love God enough that they do not need the ordinary comforts of life.
My least favorite part of the book was the section on four recent saints, Katherine Drexel, Thérèse of Lisieux, Edith Stein, and Mother Theresa. None of their lives speak to me. This is pretty normal, it is why there are thousands of saints, there is one that everyone will find interesting in the way they refract the infinite goodness of God. I found these four saints, or least Barron's presentation of them, pretty similar. This is mostly a matter of taste. Others may absolutely this this part.
Overall the book is pretty good. Anyone who wants an intro to Catholicism will find it here.