The Story of Catholic Christianity

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Gerald O'Collins, Mario Farrugia
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     448 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Catholicism: The Story of Catholic Christianity begins at the inception of the Catholic Church and deals with the election of the present Pope, and thus is contemporary yet rooted in history. Histories of religious traditions need not be unwieldy. They could be pointers to all the important references to literature on the subject. This book is a classic example of such writing. The authors place the beginning of Catholic Christianity “with the resurrection of the crucified Jesus” (3) and thus have a view that is biased towards the Catholic Church. The authors describe the history of Catholic Christianity in the first two chapters, taking care not to miss any important event from this period. Relying heavily on documents from the Vatican, this book recounts various crucial points in Catholic history.

It is daunting enough a task to write a definitive book on the millennia-old history of Christianity—that is, the goal of Gerald O’Collins and Mario Farrugia in Catholicism: The Story of Catholic Christianity. And to invite critical feedback from the reviewers of the first edition and incorporate this dialogue into the latest edition is great, enlightening labor. What could be a better way to portray the history of a living religious tradition? The openness of the authors is refreshing when they state their reservations with some of the suggestions from their reviewers. This exchange of ideas forms an appropriate preamble to the unfolding of the history of Catholic Christianity. The authors tackle difficult questions, such as the disinterest of youth in Catholicism. The entire book is highly engaging, like a piece of fiction mirroring the authors’ confidence that “history has been central to the life of the Catholic Church” (xi). It is a reminder to others that academic writing need not be abstruse and dry.

Religious scholars across the world today need to understand that theology can be written in simple language that could be understood by practitioners too. The authors write: “The fundamental interconnectedness of all creation means that it has only one history, which finds in God its source and goal” (184). Quoting Lynn White’s 1966 address blaming Christianity for the environmental crisis, the authors lament that the “Catholics have often forgotten the Benedictine and Franciscan traditions that might have helped them fulfill their God-given mission to care for the earth and carry forward God’s creative work” (187). This candor is refreshing. The burden of erasing of societies that were closer to nature lies mainly on races that were predominantly Christian.

The authors assert that “free self-determination grows in direct proportion with their nearness to and graced union with God” (227). However, the book is not clear on where this self-determination ends and how does one achieve the “graced union”. The authors refer to the views on grace from Pelagius, St. Augustine, Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas, Cornelius Jansen, and numerous quotations from the Gospels. In the final analysis, everything seems to rest with God with little space for self-determination.

This book discusses not just the precept but also the praxis by delving into the sacraments. The sacraments of initiation like baptism, confirmation, and eucharist; the sacraments of the sick like penance and the anointing of the sick; sacraments in the service of communion like Holy Orders; matrimony, and the sacraments of faith. This treatment of the subject widens the scope of the book.

Often the religious shy from discussing controversies—not so in this book. O’Collins and Farrugia take all tricky subjects heads on and give a balanced academic treatment of all issues, while at the same time being sensitive to the sensibilities of a religious devotee. The authors discuss morality in the context of a Catholic Christian’s life. Many examples of both a rich moral life and failures in morality are given.

Another special aspect of this book is that it delineates the main characteristics of Catholicism: Jesus and Mary, spirituality, and inclusiveness termed as “both/and.” While the first two are undoubtedly pillars of Catholicism, the third aspect could be easily contested. However, what the authors intend by “both/and” is the acceptance, or more likely the presence of, almost contradictory practices within Christianity. That there is much rigidity within Catholic Christianity cannot be denied. And vis-à-vis other faith traditions, Catholic Christianity is not very catholic. In conclusion, the authors discuss various challenges for the Catholic tradition that include the ministry of laypersons.

The authors have created a model of writing the history of movements in general and religious traditions in particular. This book is a must-read for all scholars and students of religious studies and also for all those who want to know about Catholic Christianity. After reading the book one understands why this text is considered authoritative on Catholicism; it is both gripping and informative.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Swami Narasimhananda is the Secretary of Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama, Kozhikode, India.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gerald O'Collins is Professor Emeritus of Gregorian University, Rome.

Mario Farrugia is Professor of Systematic Theology at Gregorian University, Rome.



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