Sunday, February 05, 2006

Review: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Catholicism

Not too long ago, I was looking for a good general work on Catholicism with which to supplement one of our kids' religious education. I'd heard there was a Dummies book on the subject, but couldn't find it at the bookstore. I did find a copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Catholicism . Unfortunately, I went ahead and bought it before checking out the reviews on (Having read the book, I do not recommend using it as educational material for those who have not reached the years of discretion.)

Amazon was an eye-opener. Topping the page where the commercial book reviews are normally posted, was a lengthy defense written by one of the authors. This defense started off with a dismissal of the authors of the (very numerous) negative reviews as a lot of reactionaries seeking to overturn VaticanII. Of course, after that, he went on to defend his scholarship and run through the assorted titles of those who had reviewed the book and praised it.

Personally, I considered this rather unsportsmanlike behavior unbecoming a gentleman. Besides, I was getting into Chapter 1 by this time and running into red flags already. (Once they got into the genuflection business, I knew we were in for a rough time.) So wouldn'tcha know it, I just decided I'd have to put in my two cents worth, too! Who better, after all? I am, as I note below, thoroughly post-Vatican II. I can't help it--I'm the same age as the Council itself and the reform period is all I know. Oh, I've been to a Latin mass ( not the Tridentine variety.) I'd hate to see the practice disappear entirely, but I really do believe the average Catholic gets more out of a mass that he or she understands. Liturgical formats, to me, are not a casus belli. It's about building a relationship with God; how one gets there is secondary to the fact that one does get there.

Sooo....that is how came about this first of posts. I include below a review of the book in question. Sorry if it's a bit sketchy but I did't think to take notes while I was reading. I'm kinda stuck with the book now so I'd be happy to look up chapter and verse should anyone actually stumble upon this blog and desire further details. I have recently submitted a slightly abridged version of this to Amazon. Of course, it was taking forever to process when last I checked so I'm not certain it will make it onto the site. I'm not going to try our pitiful dial-up beyond enduring if the thing doesn't go through soon.

My review, and welcome to it (haven't quite mastered things like offsetting sections of text yet:)

I noticed that one of the authors of this book has taken time out of his (I am sure) busy schedule to haunt the Amazon customer reviews for the apparent purpose of quibbling with detractors. In order to avoid falling prey to this tactic, I feel the need to clarify a few things before expressing my opinion. To wit: I was born in the same year as Vatican II. I grew up in a very liberal (liturgically speaking) diocese. I have no memory of the Latin mass or the priest with his back to the congregation. I grew up with altar girls, folk masses, and the songs of the St. Louis Jesuits, and that's fine with me. I like Marty Haugen's music. I'm married to a guy who plays guitar (shock!) in the contemporary choir. I see Holy Communion received in the hand and Mass in the vernacular as part of a "back to basics" movement in the church, not as suspect innovations. In short, I do not fit the stereotype with which the aforementioned gentleman would seem to like to dismiss those who have objected to his book.

Now that that's off my chest, I can address the matter at hand. I'm afraid this review is rather long, because I actually read the whole book and am trying to cover as broad a cross-section of it as possible. To its credit, the book is generally friendly and disarming in tone, particularly if the reader is one of those non-Catholics (you'll recognize the reference if you've read much into the first chapter. Actually it's not a term I use often.) who regard the Church with suspicion. I'd consider, for instance, giving it to my father-in-law to read, if only to throw him off a bit. It does cover pretty much all the basic tenets of Catholicism, includes brief biogs of a number of saints and several popes, and outlines the main traditions and practices of the Church understandably. To its detriment, the book spends far and away too many pages on matters the authors seem to consider fundamental to Catholicism that actually have little to do with Catholicism or religion in general. An entirely too recurrent theme is that of "ethnic" or "tribal" Catholicism, and many of the experiences and perspectives put in the book by the authors are particular more to a certain Catholic demographic than to the Church at large. Not having grown up in the immediate pre-Vatican II period in an ethnic neighborhood in the urban Northeast, I really can't relate. Neither, I suspect, can the average post-Vat. II Catholic, Southern Catholic, Hispanic Catholic, foreign-born Catholic, or recent convert. Catholicism is about a relationship with God through Christ. Much of the rest of the stuff described in this book is tangential to but not really essential to Catholicism. Most of it didn't really need to be covered in this book, either: that has been done (literally to death) in a large assortment of books, plays and movies. We've already seen it; tell us something we don't know.

Before I leave the topic of demographics, I do want to point out one demographic group that I felt was shorted in this book: the non-Romans. While the Roman rite is the largest and best-known Catholic church, the fact that the Catholic Church includes a number of smaller Eastern rite churches (i.e. the Maronites, Melkites, Chaldeans and Coptics) barely got a mention. This is a shame as the reader would never have a clue that different liturgical traditions (besides some fringe New Agers) flourish under the "One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic" mantle.

It is in the sections on social teaching and sexuality that this book really got on shaky footing. The authors' personal biases were not difficult to spot. Repeatedly, when treating a subject of which they favored the Church's view (i.e. capital punishment) or just a subject with conclusions they favored (i. e. liberation theology) the authors were very positive and glossed over any controversy or objections to their position. Likewise, when treating subject matter on which they seemed to have fundamental disagreements with established Church doctrine (i. e. almost anything having to do with sex, to include abortion) they tended to pile on the "nuances" to the Church's position or dismiss it altogether. Reading this book, one would never guess that there is as much (if not more) controversy among practicing Catholics with respect to the death penalty as there is with respect to abortion. (Sorry, pal, you lose the bet. I'm pretty much Seamless Garment.) These sections of the book and the final addendum on the clerical abuse scandal, moreover, relied rather heavily on opinion, speculation, and pop philosophy as far as I could see. I'd certainly like to see some documentation for the assertion that "there is no clear scientific agreement to determine when life begins." My background is in biology and that is a load of balderdash.

Finally, I'll reiterate briefly a couple of objections raised by previous reviewers. First, it is true that the book got genuflection wrong (I just went back and checked. Pages 7 and 182.) We genuflect before the tabernacle to acknowledge the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In churches in which the tabernacle is kept in a separate chapel, we do not genuflect before the altar. We may, at our option, bow before it. Second, including Madonna in the section on well-known Catholics was a waste of paper. Madonna may have been born an ethnic Catholic, but as far as I can tell hasn't practiced either in ritual or in spirit in years. The authors couldn't even seem to find a quote from her on Catholicism more positive than "the Church pretty much stays with you. I have never stopped being a religious person." (Well, that clears things up! And "I reek of Catholicism?" Come on! That's about as positive as "I reek of the gutter!") Madonna employed the trappings of Catholicism in her act, to be sure, but it was just trappings and it was hardly done in a repectful way. As her spiritual journey has in recent years taken her to a New Age subset of Judaism, moreover, it's a bit presumptuous to keep trying to tag her with the Catholic brand. It appears to me that the most gracious thing the authors could have done when presented with glaring evidence of their own inarguable error would have been to muster a cheerful "My bad. We'll definitely fix that in the next edition." Instead, at least one of them seems to have opted for name-calling.

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Blogger Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Sorry they got your money, glad you wrote such a solid review.

12:01 AM  

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