10 Books That Belong in Every Catholic Library

‘Reading has made many saints’

Carlo Dolci (1616-1686), “St. Catherine Reading a Book”
Carlo Dolci (1616-1686), “St. Catherine Reading a Book” (photo: Public Domain)

I have to admit that I am not easily scandalized. Not to sound jaded or world-weary, but it takes an awful lot to shock me, and yet, as a very young priest, a simple statement spoken by an older priest, which, unfortunately was not made in jest, shook me to my core.

He stated simply, clearly, and directly that, after his first three years of priesthood, he never, ever wrote another homily. After all, he had gone through the lectionary cycle, and, although the translations of the readings has changed over the years, the content of the readings had not. Father had simply done his work in the 1970s and over twenty years later, reading off yellowing sheets of hand-written paper, was still living off the fruits of his labor.

I was dumbfounded. I asked if he ever adapted them to whatever congregation to whom he was preaching and he replied in the negative. I asked if he ever incorporated anything new that the Church had articulated, like encyclicals or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, since the first three years of his priesthood. And, Father replied in the negative. He had done his work early on and that was that. I asked if he still read theology and he said not since he left the seminary.

I know that this sounds so judgmental and I don’t want to be like the Pharisee who of Luke 18 who states “‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity...” but I made a pledge to never be like that, to always try to update my homilies, even if some (or even most) of my thoughts on the Sacred Scriptures remain the same in some cases.

I recall looking around the priest’s room where we sat and I noticed the he had not a single book in his room, not a one. I then recalled the words of a spiritual director who was at the College Seminary that I attended: “Beware the priest who has NO BOOKS in his room, because he’s probably not keeping up with his intellectual formation. Beware also the priest who has LOTS OF BOOKS in the room and the binding is not cracked on any of them, because he has allowed himself to become just a book collector.”

Yes, I know that we can now have many books all digitally, but this was said years ago. I made a pledge to keep up with my intellectual formation as a young priest and to not just be a dilettante who collected books and never really read them. And I have found that having a good, basic theological library has been a blessing in my life, as a Catholic believer and as a priest. May I offer you some suggestions of some books which you might want to have in your personal Catholic library? I’ll give just ten. And, as I make these suggestions, I remind you that these are just for some very basic, necessary books. Please let me know what you think of my choices for a starter-kit theological library and what you would add or subtract from it.

1. A good Catholic study Bible in English is a necessity. For me, the Ignatius Bible: Revised Standard Version — Second Catholic Edition (Ignatius Press, 2005) is a jewel to be treasured. This edition was revised according to norms set forth in Liturgiam Authenticam (2002). The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament (Ignatius Press, 2010) has some excellent notes by Dr. Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, and they also publish a large number of study Bibles for the Old Testament with some solid, orthodox notes.

2. Absolutely essential for a theological library is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Be sure to get the second edition of the Catechism from 1997! The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium to the Catechism to the Catholic Church are also very helpful to someone creating a theological library.

3. A great collection of the main texts of the Catholic Church is to be found in Enchiridion Symbolorum: A Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations of the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2012) (Latin and English Edition). This new 2012 edition takes the reader through the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI and has many (but not all) of the Magisterial Documents. All of Pope Francis’ work is not yet collected in this English edition, but hopefully will be soon. You can find the Holy Father’s teachings online at Vatican.va.

4. The Documents of Vatican II, with Notes and Index: Vatican Translation (Alba House, 2009) offers the sixteen documents of the Council along with a faithful notes and a handy index. A Catholic should know what Vatican II actually states, not just what other people say Vatican II says.

5. Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica can be found in a brand-new edition, which brings this massive, but essential work into one volume (824 pages, albeit with small print) in Jake E. Steif’s Summa Theologica: The Only Complete and Unabridged Edition in One Volume (2017). There are, of course, so many different editions one could choose for the Summa, but this is a fairly new and concise one. A good introductory guide might be Peter Kreeft’s A Shorter Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica (Ignatius Press, 1993). Whether you consider yourself to be a Thomist theologically or not, Saint Thomas’ thought is the building block for all Catholic theology.

6. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity: Revised Edition (Ignatius Press, 2004) is a classic, really setting the scene for an understanding of late 20th-century Catholic theology. The product of this young professor’s study and experience after Vatican II and written in 1968, the future Pope’s work can set the reader on a proper path for the study of theology.

7. Aidan Nichols’ The Shape of Catholic Theology: An Introduction to Its Sources, Principles, and History (Liturgical Press, 1991) is, in my opinion, the best introduction to the study of theology for any student. It is a book that I have used since I was beginning my own theological studies and it is one that I use today as a professor. It offers a proper understanding of the fonts of Divine Revelation, namely Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, as well as an understanding of the Church’s Magisterium. It is just a clear, easily readable introduction.

8. Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers: Revised Edition (Paulist Press, 2012) gives a thematic overview to the great thinkers of the Patristic period, and, as an introduction, might inspire the reader to really study the Fathers of the Church.

9. Richard A. Spinello’s The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016) is a masterful edition to the thought of this great Saint, whom I pray will one day be a Doctor of the Church.

10. For a great introduction to some great spiritual writers and their theology, check out Jordan Aumann’s Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition (Ignatius Press, 1985). From the early Church to post-Tridentine period to the Twentieth Century, the reader’s appetite will be whetted to want to know more about our great saints.

You will note that I didn’t list some of the theologians whom I would think could be great contributors to any theological library, like Henri de Lubac, Tracey Rowland, Bernard Lonergan, Rene Latourelle, Yves Congar and Gilles Emery. This is because I designed these ten books to be a basic starting point for a good, Catholic library. Please let me know what you think should be part of a Catholic library!

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