Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism
Edited by Richard P. McBrien 
HarperCollins, 1,349 pages, $45

A legendary story at Seton Hall University records this conversation between two freshmen: “What dorm are you in?” “Cabrini Hall.” “Who’s Cabrini?” the friend inquires. “Oh, he’s the rich guy who donated the money to build the place.” So much for the contributions-not to mention the gender-of Mother Cabrini.

This story comes to mind on reading The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, because one has the impression that it was written for undergraduates who have little or no idea of what was once the common world and parlance of Catholic culture. In fact, this is not far from the truth. The general editor of the one-volume work, Richard McBrien, notes at the outset that the encyclopedia was compiled “for the widest possible audience.” This should be an important clue to the type of work it is. It is not a book intended for theologians or for scholars. It is intended as a handy reference for students or journalists who need a quick and succinct explanation of some Catholic term or practice. It is an indication of the intended audience (and a sign of the times) when a Catholic encyclopedia offers us phonetic help for Anno Domini (ah’noh daw’mee-nee) and Thomas Uh-kwinuhs.

The volume is the work of eighteen editors and 280 contributors, most of whom (from well-known theologians to Ph.D. candidates) have some connection with the University of Notre Dame, a link freely acknowledged in the general editor’s introduction. It has some 4,200 entries ranging from Aaron to Zwingli, encompassing virtually every area of Catholic life: creeds, councils, history, and spirituality. Longer articles are signed and given more space; briefer articles are anonymous. The general editor notes that the intention of the work is to be informative, clear, and objective. Personal views, ideologies, and editorializing are excluded.

Students will be introduced to the meaning of such Catholic arcana as aggiornamento, agnus Dei, burse, buskin, ciborium, and cincture. They will learn of old time goodies such as custody of the eyes (a spiritual practice virtually impossible to implement today if one turns on a television), the Dies Irae, the distinction between ex opere operantis and ex opere operato, the Legion of Decency, occasions of sin, partes inhonestae, parvitas materiae, sede vacante, seal of confession, spy Wednesday, works of supererogation, Tantum Ergo (with verses in both Latin and English), advocatus diaboli, and the Forty Hours Devotion.

An entire range of theologians, ancient and modern, enjoy entries: Albertus Magnus, Augustine, Basil the Great, Cardinal Bellarmine, Avery Dulles, Tertullian, Henri de Lubac, Bonaventure, Yves Congar, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Joseph Geiselmann, Cardinal Cajetan, Bernard Lonergan, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Catholic political and literary figures are not overlooked, including the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, William Buckley, and Mario Cuomo. The lives of the saints are briefly outlined and differing paths of Catholic spirituality are clearly detailed, including newer fields such as Spirituality and Psychology.

Although this is not a theological dictionary, most theological questions are examined. These range from more arcane topics such as the de auxiliis controversy to the major doctrinal beliefs at the core of the Christian Church. Some of these articles are models of precision and succinctness. The better ones include Revelation, Apostolic Succession, Conciliarism, Faith, Hell, Heresy, Homosexuality, Immortality, Inerrancy, Justification, Magisterium, Mary, Purgatory, and the Vicar of Christ. These have the merit of explaining clearly and concisely what the Catholic Church believes and why.

Although clearly a Catholic encyclopedia, there are attempts to incorporate ecumenical and interreligious dimensions. The article on Anglicanism by George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, is accurate in documenting the growth of dialogue between Catholicism and Anglicanism over the years and the remaining obstacles dividing the two churches. The most significant Protestant historical movements and figures receive at least some treatment: Theodore Beza; Calvin and Calvinism; Luther, Lutheranism, and the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue; Methodism and the Methodist-Catholic dialogue; the Book of Concord; the Augsburg Confession and the traditional themes of sola gratia, fide, et scriptura . With an eye to interreligious dialogue, one also finds entries on such topics as Catholicism and Jews, haggadah and halakhah, Judaism, Talmud and Targum, Yom Kippur, the Koran and Islam. Catholicism in the various countries of the world is also well-documented, with many fine entries devoted specifically to Eastern-rite Catholicism.

The book contains some very helpful features, especially such lists as the thumbnail sketch of the twenty-one ecumenical councils recognized by the Catholic Church, from Nicea to Vatican II, along with their dates and accomplishments-though limited space somewhat curtails the list’s usefulness. Two other useful features are an extensive liturgical calendar indicating annual feast days celebrated by the Church and an index chronicling the 262 occupants of the papacy from St. Peter onwards. An amusing list is that of patron saints. One can fairly guess that St. Augustine might be the patron saint of theologians and St. Francis Xavier of foreign missions, but who knew that St. Clare of Assisi is the guardian of television? And it was someone with a sense of humor who assigned St. Stephen as patron saint of stonemasons.

Flaws may be found in the work, some light-hearted and others more serious. Among the former is a certain incipient Indianacentrism-certainly not as pernicious as the ominous Eurocentrism, but nonetheless a phenomenon to be carefully watched. Notre Dame is roundly proclaimed the “most famous Catholic university in the world,” though one would think that the venerable Catholic University of Louvain has at least some claim to this title. Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal is featured, though there is no mention of the various awards issued by other prominent Catholic institutions, e.g., the Aquinas Medal by the distinguished American Catholic Philosophical Association. Besides a legitimate entry on Theodore Hesburgh, one notes that that general editor includes a less clearly justifiable entry on himself. (Indeed, one wonders about several choices in this encyclopedia. Will the accomplishments of Teresa Kane, Rosemary Reuther, and Bryan Hehir be judged to have outstanding value in the long view of history?) Rather impishly included is an entry on Howard Engel, the general editor’s physician.

Some minor factual errors occur. The bull Exsurge Domini only threatened Luther’s excommunication; Decet Romanum Pontificem accomplished it. Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) stipulated that Thomism should be the principal philosophical and theological system taught not only in seminaries but in Catholic colleges and universities as well. Denzinger’s famous Enchiridion Symbolorum (a collection of church teachings) has long since passed its thirty-third edition and its best English translation is now the one edited by the Jesuits J. Neuner and J. Dupuis. Bernard McQuaid did not found Seton Hall University; Bishop Bayley, Mother Seton’s nephew, did.

More seriously, it must be noted that some of the articles are lacking in balance and theological precision. I mention only a few which indicate a certain flavor of the book. The article on the former Franciscan theologian, Leonardo Boff, says that he was “exasperated by the Vatican’s persistent efforts to restrict his work.” But surely anyone who has carefully examined Boff’s ecclesiology, especially as outlined in Church: Charism and Power, will recognize that his teaching is no longer in harmony with fundamental Catholic beliefs about a hierarchically structured community. This clear departure from fundamental ecclesial affirmations, however, is not mentioned.

In a major article on the Catholic Church, the author writes of the Modernist period as if all of the excesses were produced by the magisterium. As Etienne Gilson wrote to Henri de Lubac, the Modernist suppression was, indeed, conducted by unreasonable men and led to unwarranted excesses. We do no service to scholarship, however, if we pass over the fact that a good deal of Catholic Modernism was an inheritance from nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism and was championing notions of truth, revelation, and doctrine that were unacceptable, then and now, to the Catholic Church.

The articles on the “brothers of Jesus” and on “St. James” conclude, baldly, that Jesus had four full-blooded brothers, children of Joseph and Mary. The question of siblings of Jesus can and should be raised by exegetes and theologians. But proper Catholic theological methodology, relying on Scripture and tradition, should take into account the long doctrinal, liturgical, devotional, and artistic tradition in the Church affirming the perpetual virginity of Mary. Should not the anathema hurled by an early Lateran synod (649) against those denying the perpetual virginity be, at the very least, wrestled with?

In several places in the encyclopedia, the papacy of John Paul II is called restorationist in character. One need not agree with every point uttered by the bishop of Rome to conclude that it is entirely too glib to say that the present pontiff is “dedicated to the containment of progressive ideas.” The social encyclicals alone militate against this point of view. And what of the Pope’s deep humanism, manifested in his concern for art and literature, for human spirituality? His very approach to the mysteries of faith is mediated primarily through existentialist and phenomenological eyes rather than the stolid rationalism of an earlier period.

A similar lack of nuance may be found in other entries. The article on the laity, for example, shows little appreciation of why the post-Tridentine period necessarily stressed the unique vocation of priesthood. The entry outlining the issue of women’s ordination barely touches on the arguments proposed by Inter Insigniores or the quite different line of reasoning pursued by Mulieris Dignitatem . Henri de Lubac, the great theologian, is said to have become “reactionary” after 1970. It is true that de Lubac insisted that too much stress on the autonomy of the local church might harm the unity of the Church Universal, but he remained to the end of his life a staunch supporter of the reforms intended by Vatican II. It is said of the Filioque that the “vast majority of Western theologians” believe it should be removed from the liturgical recitation of the Creed. This statement in itself is contestable, but it should at least be added that even many who support its excision do so on the condition that some statement be made by Eastern patriarchs attesting to the Filioque’s absolute orthodoxy. A photo caption describing the Church’s magisterium portrays it as an “error-prone participation in the teaching authority of Jesus Christ.” While one should acknowledge the reversibility of ordinary magisterial teaching, it is theologically fatuous to maintain that the magisterium is disposed to error. These examples indicate a tone and texture that detract from the encyclopedia’s reliability as a guide to Catholicism.

One wonders if trying to compress all of Catholicism into a one-volume work, and concomitantly aiming to reach the widest possible audience, is feasible. Theological issues are difficult to compress. Rarely can they be accurately discussed apart from their historical and cultural contexts. What renders the limitation of space particularly troublesome for this work is that it tries to offer the reader not only the current state of Catholic teaching, but contemporary speculation on disputed questions. There is nothing wrong with this method per se, but its successful adoption indubitably requires the kind of space not available here.

On the level of historical issues, however, the encyclopedia is helpful and successful. The inquirer will discover the difference between canon law, the canon of the Mass, and the canon of Scripture. Students will see the difference between Ambrosian, Byzantine, Gregorian, and Mazarabic chants.

And Mother Cabrini will be unmistakenly identified.

Thomas Guarino is Professor of Theology at Seton Hall University.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift