It is very difficult for me to review a book like Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith. Years in the making and heralded by a healthy dose of promotion across the Catholic corner of the internet, it can be hard to separate the hype from the thing itself. I also have the nagging feeling that I’m not Fr. Barron’s primary audience for this work. I say that less as someone who works full-time for the Church, and more as someone who prefers systematic theology to philosophy. (Fr. Barron’s masters degree is in philosophy and he is an unabashed admirer of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose life and writings are frequently cited in the book.)
With those provisos, what can you expect from Catholicism?
In the introduction Fr. Barron promises to take us on “a guided exploration of the Catholic world… I want to function as a mystagogue, conducting you ever deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation in the hopes that you might be transformed by its power.” He intends a celebration of the faith, rather than an academic overview, and he keeps his word.
Fr. Barron covers the major topics of the faith in ten chapters that mirror the ten episodes of his DVD series. These include the person of Jesus Christ, his teachings, the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Eucharist, the saints, and prayer, among others. Each chapter includes highlights from the Church’s historical and theological heritage, from Bl. Theresa of Calcutta to St. Augustine, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris to Bl. Pope John Paul II. The book also boasts an impressive amount of photography and artwork, much of it from Europe’s great cathedrals and basilicas.
As anyone who has seen his YouTube videos knows, Fr. Barron has a gift for explaining the faith in simple, understandable terms, and this gift is on full display in Catholicism. Even notoriously complex issues such as theodicy (the problem of evil) are dealt with in clear terms, with non-Christian alternatives laid out in contrast with the person of Christ:
For the Christian faith, the only adequate “resolution” of this dilemma is the one effected by God himself on the cross of Jesus Christ. On that cross, the darkness of the human condition met the fullness of the divine love and found itself transfigured into life. On that cross, God went to the limits of godforsakenness and made even death itself a place of hope. God, in his love, becomes the answer to the problem of evil.
One thing you should not expect is a systematic walk through the Church’s teachings. This is actually one of the little things that bugged me about the book: it’s incomplete treatment of certain subjects. For instance, in the chapter on prayer, Fr. Barron spends most of his time on Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila — important figures, to be sure, and ones who have much to teach on prayer! But Fr. Barron then offers a few pages on petitionary prayer before wrapping up the chapter — neglecting the other four forms of prayer laid out in the Catechism. Similarly, his chapter on the “last things” includes very good reflections on heaven, purgatory, and hell — but no mention of judgement, the traditional first “last thing.” Again, Fr. Barron’s approach isn’t wrong or even unhelpful. But for someone acquainted with the Catechism and the traditions of the Church, the omissions are curious.
Another troubling aspect of the book is it’s solid Euro-centrism. Almost no attention is paid to Catholicism as it is lived in the global south, either in the stories Fr. Barron tells or in the artwork used throughout the book. At a time when Christianity is seeing unprecedented growth in Africa and South America, this makes Catholicism look rooted in the Church’s past, rather than its future.
But those are minor quibbles about an otherwise impressive accomplishment. Fr. Barron has crafted what may prove to be the defining introductory text to the faith for the coming decades; I predict that Catholicism will be added to many personal and parish libraries and will become a classic text for inquirers and RCIA candidates. Anyone interested in learning more about the Catholic faith could hardly do better than picking up this book.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program.