What's It All About, Catholic?

Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions

edited by Leon J. Suprenant Jr. and Philip C.L. Gray

(Emmaus Road Publishing, 1999, 223 pages, $11.95)

May a Catholic serve as a godparent for a non-Catholic? What is the origin and purpose of papal authority? How can the Catholic Church teach that Mary was a virgin after the birth of Christ when there are references in Scripture to the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus?

These are the kinds of questions Catholics need to have the answers to — whether they're asking for themselves or being asked by someone else. By taking on such pressing issues, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions is not only a “must read.” It is a “must-have-on-hand” resource for anyone seriously interested in understanding and propagating the Catholic faith at the turn of the millennium.

Faith Facts is the latest offering from Emmaus Road Press, an outreach of Catholics United for the Faith. Each chapter was originally developed by the group's Information Services department, whose members have found themselves in need of a concise source as the questions have poured in. Recognizing that most inquiries have been variations on a relatively small number of themes, they've arranged the book into a collection of the most frequently asked questions.

While self-contained, the essays are editorially arranged to build upon each other within topical sections — Creed, Liturgy, Morality, Marriage and Family, Catholic Education, Biblical Apologetics and Mary. The result is a highly informative volume that will aid study, evangelism and personal growth.

As presented here, a “faith fact” is a short essay on a specific area of concern. It's introduced in a statement of the issue to be considered, answered through a discussion section, and expounded upon by reflections and recommendations on additional resources.

Despite an evident dedication to brevity and conversational language, the essays are thorough and remarkably deep. Combining thought-provoking insights with practical applications, the writers rest their arguments on sacred Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Church's constant teaching over 20 centuries. Many of the answers also contain historical overviews of the theological problem in question, highlighting quotations from the Church Fathers and other important thinkers. Yet, despite their depth and breadth, they're well within reach of even the casual lay reader.

In fact, it's no small accomplishment that the book manages to turn fairly dense theological and apologetics discussions into such an upbeat and stimulating reading experience. For example, a chapter on the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Mother doesn't take for granted the typical perception that Mary is some kind of theological anomaly, and then attempt to explain why she should be so. Rather, it begins by pointing out that “Mary's immaculate conception should be seen as the way God wanted all of us to come into the world: in the state of sanctifying grace and free from original sin, just like Adam and Eve.”

The eye-opening suggestion that, if anyone is an anomaly, it's us, provides a refreshing point of departure for a discussion of Mary as “full of grace,” as the New Eve, as the premier disciple and as the person most completely saved by Christ. Many of the essays included in this book demonstrate a similar ability to turn the tables on clichéd, reflexive thinking.

The chapter on modern catechesis — often subjected to the vagaries of individual opinion — states, “Christ and his teachings change us (the process is called conversion); we do not change Christ and His teachings.” Commenting on the “overly biological approach to sex education” rampant today, another chapter says, “This approach turns the program, in the crudest sense, into a ‘how-to’ course. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, should it not be a ‘how to wait until marriage’ course?”

What's more, the book challenges lazy thinking. A reflection question for a chapter on “same-sex marriage,” for instance, prompts, “Do I truly strive to love homosexual persons, even when they are not at present willing to abandon an openly homosexual lifestyle?”

One shortcoming that may put off some readers is the book's heavy emphasis on responding to the objections of evangelical Protestants. Ecumenical dialogue is certainly important, and the Faith Fact authors (deliberately left anonymous) deal with it deftly. However, much of American culture is by now far more secular than Protestant.

While a high number of the chapter-ending reflection questions ask, “How can I explain (this Catholic viewpoint) to someone who doesn't accept Church authority?” we should be asking just as urgently, “How can I explain this to someone who does not accept Jesus Christ at all?”

Alas, an expanded focus on this broad area may well be soon to come: Intriguingly, the book is subtitled “Volume 1.” According to Leon J. Suprenant Jr., president of Catholics United for the Faith, at least one sequel is being contemplated; if it comes to fruition it will contain sections on doctrine, apologetics, liturgy, the virtues and right-to-life issues.

Given the caliber of the present Faith Facts collection, one can't help but wait with high expectations.

Helen Valois writes from Steubenville, Ohio.