Get Your Faith off the Shelf

By Cunningham, Lawrence; Pavlik, Kara et al. | U.S. Catholic, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Get Your Faith off the Shelf


Cunningham, Lawrence, Pavlik, Kara, Schorn, Joel, U.S. Catholic


U.S. Catholic asked University of Notre Dame professor Lawrence Cunningham to name the most influential books published in the past ten years. He and other astute obeservers of the Catholic publishing scene offer a guided tour of books that will make a lasting impression.

What have been the most influential books published in the Catholic world in the past generation? I expanded the scope of that question to include the three decades which have passed since the closing of the Second Vatican Council. I narrowed the question by thinking only of books available in English. As a second step, I proposed the same question to a number of my colleagues who gather for lunch each day in the faculty building here at the University of Notre Dame. I was a bit taken aback by the paucity of their suggestions.

My own reflections and the suggestions of my colleagues have helped me to develop a few ground rules for what follows in these reflections. First of all, I will not cite the published documents of the Second Vatican Council even though they have been more studied, cited, and fought over than any other set of Vatican documents that I know of.

Nor will I discuss post-conciliar papal documents even though it could be argued that the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae on contraception is the watershed Catholic document of the century. Some thoughtful persons have argued that the publication of that encyclical was more responsible for church decline than any other single event of the contemporary period. Adherence to the teaching of Humanae vitae is clearly one of the major tests used by Rome to determine who and who will not be named to the episcopate.

The second ground rule is to distinguish popular books from those that are really groundbreaking. Hans Kung's On Being A Christian (1974) was an international bestseller, but there is little evidence that it has had a lasting influence on the way Catholics think or act.

More recently, The Catechism of the Catholic Church sold at a phenomenal rate when it first appeared (600,000 copies in France alone; more than that in the English-language version), but its long-range impact on Catholic thinking is yet to be determined. Its vast bulk and somewhat bloodless style will demand "translation" into an intelligible idiom and a more manageable size before it will prove itself a useful catechetical tool, especially for young people.

We need to remember that the catechism is meant to be a template for bishops to use to supervise the productions of catechetical materials just as the old Catechismus Romanus, published in the 16th century, was meant to be a handbook for parish priests as part of the reforms of the Council of Trent.

Finally I will omit from this survey the immensely useful reference works that appeared in English after the council. The 14-volume New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) takes into account conciliar developments, contains much useful factual information, but is now rather dated despite a series of supplemental volumes. The six-volume theological encyclopedia Sacramentum mundi (translated from the German in 1970) as well as the five-volume Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (1968) can still be consulted, but both show their age and must be supplemented with later materials.

Likewise, the second edition of the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) represents the apex of a certain period in North American Catholic biblical scholarship, but newer trends may soon make it a period piece.

What, then, constitutes the list of truly seminal works published in the last generation or so?

Liberation theology by the book

At the head of my list I would have to put Gustavo Gutierrez's A Theology of Liberation (1971; English translation, 1973). While Gutierrez's book, again, represents a certain historical moment in Latin America, the long-range impact of his insights is truly revolutionary. …

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