The Church has created a massive library of texts over her 2,000 year lifespan, and it can be overwhelming to even contemplate attaining (much less reading) them all. The good news is that among the millions of volumes of writing the Church has produced, many of them are summaries or collections of previous writings. While specialists will require numerous particular texts, everyone needs the basics. With a small armful of such resources, one can be prepared to meet nearly any need. Here are my pick for the top five reference books, listed in the order I would suggest getting them if you cannot get them all at once.
1. Sacred Scripture (The Bible)
This should be a no-brainer, but I don’t want to justify a “Catholics Don’t read their Bibles” joke (although there are some good ones). All Catholics need a Bible – but which one? I wrote a separate article on this, so I will be brief: get one you’ll read and that isn’t going to lead you astray with a theologically-biased canon, translation, or study notes.
2. The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed.) is an extremely valuable resource for understanding Catholic theology. It is “conceived as an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety” (CCC 18). The Catechism is presented under four major headings (“pillars”): Creed, Sacraments, Morality, and Prayer. It can be used as an Encyclopedia of Catholic theology, or read straight through. While not itself infallible, it’s the most trustworthy and up-to-date compilation of Catholic theology available.
2.5 The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church
Also of value is The Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church which gives the texts cited in the Catechism (even Bible passages) in order of reference. It is like having a librarian running around opening books to the correct page in front of you as you read the Catechism so you don’t have to get up and find them yourself.
3. The Code of Canon Law
The Code of Canon Law (1983) probably sounds intimidating, it’s actually quite helpful. Where the Catechism focuses on Catholic theology, the Code presents Catholic practices. Canon Law is a code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church, so if you have questions about how to receive the sacraments, choose Godparents, deal with divorce, become a priest, serve at Mass, etc., this book has it all. One caution: the Church actually has trained Canon Lawyers to deal with tricky situations, so don’t try to be a hero.
4. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma
Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott is not only a handy listing of Catholic doctrines, it is a well-written explanation of them as well. One of the most outstanding features of Fundamentals is that it lists the sources of Catholic theology as well as each doctrine’s grade of theological certainty.
5. The Sources of Catholic Dogma (and/or)
The Christian Faith
Heinrich Denzinger’s work (aka Enchiridion Symbolorum) is an historical compendium of official church documents and theological source texts. It is a standard resource, and indispensable for scholarly theology work. Its classic nature is shown in that other theological works use Denzinger’s numbering system for their own citations. Neuner and Dupuis’s The Christian Faith is a more recent resource that contains much of the same material as Denzinger, but arranges it topically rather than historically (it also includes a convenient concordance to Denzinger).
There are a LOT more books that faithful Catholics will want to get over the years, but these reference materials will go a long way toward one’s preparation for Catholic thought.
(BTW, I understand that much, if not all, of this material is available online – but books are better than screens, and personal libraries are sexy.)