The Complete Idiot’s Guide
Understanding Catholicism

Alpha Books (Macmillan), 2000. 409 pages.

The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism has its uses.

The nuts and bolts information it contains about Catholic practices are essentially accurate and pleasantly respectful of tradition. Cartoony sidebars cover a good variety of saints, remind the reader to go to Mass on Sunday, support the parish and say his prayers. The attitude is positive: Being Catholic is cool. It connects you with a lot of interesting people all over the world and through time. It’s an earthy, holistic, practical religion.

Good for Catholics, good for us.

But the theology? Please.

The first problem lies in the book’s sociological orientation. The authors – one a teacher at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola in Chicago, the other a psychotherapist and director of the “Institute of Integrated Healing Arts” in Nashville, essentially describe Catholics as a group of people who choose to get together to do stuff, sort of like the Kiwanas, rather than a group of people who are called by God to do His will, which is sort of like - well – Church.

This narrow approach offers us no sense of why the Church exists beyond people’s need to connect to God in a certain cultural context through this guy Jesus who had a lot of really good things to say. (Nary a word in this book about the salvific role of Jesus’ death on the cross. Of course.).

It’s a completely bottom-up ecclesiology that doesn’t even get close to the idea that the Church exists because God wants it to, because this is how He wants the world to come to know Him and be saved.

But there’s more. Read The Idiot’s Guide carefully and you’ll find some absolutely fascinating definitions that are guaranteed to surprise, startle and amaze.

The book’s account of Jesus’ life begins with the fact that he was “born in Bethlehem of simple parents named Mary and Joseph, who were a young couple from Galilee

And? And? Oh yes.

Do you know why Catholics call Mary “Virgin?” According to the Idiot’s Guide, “in the ancient world, the word virginity was associated with autonomy and did not have physical or moral connotations…. Mary’s virginal state represented her complete autonomy as she said “yes” to God’s request, making the Incarnation (the birth of God in Jesus Christ) possible.” (p. 161)

Read those statements carefully. It’s not an explicit denial of the Virginal Conception of Christ, but honest to Pete, could we come any closer?

Skip to Eucharist. Do you know why Catholics refer to the Mass as a “sacrifice?” It’s because “they are bringing the gifts of themselves to God at the altar.” Oh.

Swing back to Jesus. Did you know Jesus was accused of blasphemy because in saying he was the “son of God” (notice the lower case), “he claimed that he had a special relationship with God – and that we all have this relationship, too.” Yup. That will get you crucified anytime.

Similar misstatements are scattered throughout the book, as are equivocal, apologetic, and deeply unenthusiastic explanations of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, artificial contraception and abortion. Note to the authors: “rhythm” is just so over. Like thirty years over. We do “Natural Family Planning” now, okay?

It’s a shame and a wasted opportunity. It also leads to instantaneous understanding, even on the part of the most open-minded reader, of the function of the imprimateur and the nihil obstat (neither of which these books bear within).

It’s just not right for a publishing company (even a secular one) to market a book as any kind of “guide to understanding Catholicism” when that very same book contains faux authoritative and (dare I say it?) near-heretical statements about what the Church supposedly teaches.

Idiot’s Guide?

Yup, that about covers it.

-Amy Welborn