Catholicism is a word that encompasses many distinct meanings: a religion, a church, a way of life, a geographical region perhaps. Catholicism is all of these things and much more - it is a Christian sect (to most of its members THE Christian sect) that strives to be all encompassing and universal, as its very name implies. And yet it is probably the form of Christianity that invites the most controversy. To the outsiders it can seem imposing and even threatening, and many groups implicitly or explicitly define their raison d'Ítre as the opposition to Catholicism. The opposition is not limited to the outsiders, and there are many who call themselves Catholics who have serious issues and misgivings about certain aspects of Catholic teachings. And yet, for millions of people around the globe Catholicism remains a cornerstone of their lives and a source of great joy and fulfillment. It is often said that the Catholic Church is much vaster from the inside than it is from the outside. For all these vastly different points of view, be they opposing or promoting, it is useful to get themselves familiarized with what Catholicism really is. They owe it to themselves to understand this Catholicism better, and in achieving that goal I cannot think of a better first step than reading this slim yet informative book.
The book is written by Father Gerald O'Collins, S.J. research professor of theology at St. University College, Twickenham, and formerly the dean of the Faculty of Theology at Gregorian University in Rome. He is obviously a Catholic "insider," but that does not prevent him from making a book that is readable by and aimed at the general reader. The advantage of a Catholic theologian writing a book on Catholicism is that the reader is guaranteed to get a full picture of how Catholics understand themselves, their faith and their Church.
The book's chapters cover a handful of main themes - the history of Catholicism, Catholic Theology, the sacraments and church practices, the spiritual life, the moral and social teachings, the organization of the Catholic Church and the future of Catholicism. Each one of these topics could easily occupy vast number of volumes or even whole libraries full of books, and it is not always the easiest thing to exercise prudential judgment in choosing how much space to devote to each one of them. Many things will necessarily be omitted or just mentioned in passing. Overall, however, Father O'Collins does a remarkably good job of covering all the essential features of Catholicism.
The book is easy to read. It is written in an easy-going and legible style, but it is not condescending to the reader. It assumes a willing and interested reader who wants to learn about a new (or perhaps an old) subject.
Overall, this is a splendid book and another publishing success for the Oxford University Press. If you have any interest in Catholicism, this is a worthwhile volume to read. And just like the Catholicism itself, the appeal of this book is truly universal.