Roman Catholicism

The Basics, 2d ed.

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Michael Walsh
  • Abingdon, UK: 
    Routledge
    , June
     2016.
     246 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780415845014.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Michael Walsh’s book presents the basics of Roman Catholicism in a systematic fashion. It is neither a defense of Catholicism nor an effort to convince others of its truth; it is written simply as an overview of Catholicism’s beliefs, structures, unique features, and life: a “primer” on what it means to be a Roman Catholic. The book is both comprehensive and logically organized. It moves from an introduction to the Roman Catholic Church through its beliefs, offices, structures, the Vatican, its liturgy, devotional life, the church in society, and what Walsh calls its “unfinished business”: its relations to other Christians, other religions, and governance. Each chapter concludes with a brief summary and suggestions for further reading. Boxes in the text treat special questions such as the Eastern Catholic Churches; the creeds, councils, and doctors of the church; the process for electing a pope; the Inquisition; and notable theological formulae, prayers, and teachings. The conclusion of the book includes a helpful appendix on the history of the papacy, a glossary of terms, a bibliography, and an extensive index. 

The chapter on what Catholics believe is very helpful. Walsh provides the background for the Nicene Creed, though not of the Apostles’ Creed which originated in the Church of Rome. He outlines key Christian beliefs: the Trinity, Incarnation, Redemption, and the Resurrection, distinguishing the Catholic approach to scripture from other, more literal interpretations. favored by other types of Christians. He notes that that these and other basic statements about Christian faith are called “dogmas.” They are expressions of Christian faith which Catholics are obliged to accept as true, yet they are always limited statements, capable of better expression and more perfect understanding of the truths each dogma seeks to express. Here, a distinction between unchangeable dogmas and doctrines (official teachings which occasionally change) might have been helpful. 

Another interesting chapter is on the Vatican, beginning with the multiple uses of the term from the cemetery on the Vatican hill where Peter is said to have been buried, the church built there by Constantine in his honor, the later papal residence, and finally the papal “curia” or court with its officials and administrative offices. Walsh details the curia itself and its “dicasteries” or congregations, including the Secretary of State and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with its history dating back to the Roman Inquisition established in the mid-sixteenth century. He points out that the number of those charged with heresy who were actually executed was “only a tiny proportion of those actually charged” (98), with the exception of Spain, where the Inquisition was used as an instrument of national unity. 

Walsh’s book is practical, nuanced, and easy to read. He writes with a good sense for history which enables him to contextualize his narrative, explaining how Roman Catholics may differ from other Christians on a particular issue or teaching, and he is critical about historical claims without being dismissive (for example, his discussion of what is thought to be Peter’s tomb beneath St. Peter’s Basilica). He is careful to explain terms with Greek or Latin roots and doctrines that would be unfamiliar to the reader. Occasionally he slips, as in claiming that Clement of Rome dates Peter’s death to the year 67 (most commentators argue that he died in 64), or in twice saying that Pope Benedict XVI returned the word “perfidious” (unbelieving) to the Good Friday petition for the Jews in giving general permission for the traditional or “extraordinary” form of the liturgy (187, 204)—although the prayer does ask that the Jews “acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men,” causing concern within the Jewish community. But overall, Walsh’s book gives a fine overview of the basics of Roman Catholic faith, life, and Church. Those unfamiliar with Catholicism will find it very helpful.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas P. Rausch, SJ, is the Emeritus T. Marie Chilton Professor of Catholic Theology at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Walsh is a writer and broadcaster. He was librarian at Heythrop College, University of London from 1972 to 2001 and was the editor of the Heythrop Journal. A former Jesuit, he has written on many aspects of the history of Christianity, and especially on the contemporary Church.

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