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What books should be in every Catholic’s reference library?

Zbiór starych książek na półce

John Burger - published on 10/05/20

To find a quick answer or to deepen one's knowledge, consider putting these volumes on your shelf.

When you’re looking for a quick answer, do you automatically “google” the question? Has the popular search engine replaced everybody’s reference library? Whatever happened to pulling a book off the shelf and looking things up? 

Sure it’s easy, it’s convenient, it’s quick, to just “google it.” But having good solid books where you can go for ready answers has great advantages. For one thing, if you’re using a reference book that’s been thoroughly vetted by experts and authorities on the subject, you can rest assured that you’re getting straight answers. The internet can be so full of misinformation and conspiracy theories that we’re sometimes not sure where to find the truth.

That’s even more important when dealing with matters of faith. Parents who take seriously the Church’s teaching that they are their children’s first teachers in the faith need to have a set of books that will assist them in handing down the eternal truths and wisdom to their children. 

So what would be the best reference books for every Catholic library? 

We’ve consulted with a number of Catholic thinkers, writers, theologians, teachers and parenting experts to see what they recommend. Here’s what they said:

Butler’s Lives of the Saints

“Although the obvious choice for any must-include reference in a Catholic library would be either the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I must admit that my most often consulted reference book is a well-worn version of Butler’s Lives of the Saints that was gifted to me by my childhood pastor,” said Catholic author Lisa Hendey. “As a collector of hagiography, I find myself turning time and time again to Fr. Butler’s classic stories of the men and women who have been canonized by the Church. In studying the stories of the saints and seeking their intercession and accompaniment for my own journey, I find both edification and spiritual friendship. Though lacking in detail on the lives of modern-day saints, Butler’s continues to be my go-to starting place when researching the saints.”

No doubt, Hendey pulled this one off the shelves many times when she was writing her new book I’m a Saint in the Making.


Read more:
Some of the best books on the history of the Church, according to historians

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church came out in the fall of 1992, Brian Caulfield felt it was a “leaven” for the Church and those who sought to teach and defend the faith.

“Turning each page was like opening a door and setting foot onto firm land amid the catechetical confusion of the time,” said Caulfield, vice-postulator of the cause for canonization ofFr. Michael J. McGivney. “I was teaching parish religious education, preparing second graders for first Communion, and I began making copies of the section on the Eucharist for my students, to supplement the ‘meal with friends’ message of the textbook we were given. Soon after, even the religious ed textbooks began to get better as the bishops required publishers to conform to the CCC. Every time I consult the 1992 edition I still have on my shelf, I recall the fresh sense of mission so many of us had back then.”

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Author David Mills noted that Church teaching about how we should live in the world is an “increasingly crucial topic for American Catholics.” Just look at any news site (or pick up a newspaper), and you’ll agree. Mills, author of Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God, said that it’s not so much because of the upcoming presidential election, but because Catholics are being more and more marginalized, “and at the same time we have a growing sense of our being ‘a peculiar people’ and ‘strangers in a strange land.'”

“The Church offers an amazing amount of teaching on the subject, but it’s spread across dozens of documents,” he said. “The Compendium puts it all in order so you can quickly find the teaching on any subject you need to know about.”

The Bible

Of course, the “Book of Books” should be on every Catholic’s shelf, along with a good Bible Concordance. There are many times when we need to check a quote: What did Jesus or St. Paul say about such-and-such?

“In terms of what I reference the most, it’s got to be the Bible itself,” said Regina Doman, author of the upcoming The Stations of the Cross for Kids (Saint Benedict Press). “These days I usually just go to which has all the Catholic (and non-Catholic) editions I could possibly want and allows for easy cross-referencing. I’m a fan of the Ignatius Bible (RSVCE) and I have the New Testament Ignatius Study Bible for non-digital referencing. But for my personal devotion, I like the Jerusalem Bible (not the revised one) with the Book of Job’s translation by J.R.R.Tolkien.”

[Editor’s note: The “Reader’s Edition” of the Jerusalem Bible does not include all the notes and commentary of the original edition.]


Read more:
The best books about early Christianity, according to experts

The Fathers of the Church

“A  go-to for me is Mike Aquilina’s The Fathers of the Church, which is now in its third edition from OSV,” said Gretchen Crowe, editorial director for periodicals at Our Sunday Visitor. “From St. Clement of Rome to St. John of Damascus, the short biographies of the Church Fathers (and a few mothers) can be read as a whole, or individually, and the reader can’t help but come away with a much greater understanding of — and dare I say appreciation for — the early Church.”

A Daily Defense: 365 Days (plus one) to Becoming a Better Apologist

As a member of St. Paul Street Evangelization, Ed Graveline often finds himself in discussion with strangers about just what Catholic teaching is on this or that subject. In order to strengthen his own arguments, he often turns to A Daily Defense: 365 Days (plus one) to Becoming a Better Apologist, a book by Catholic Answers’ Jimmy Akin. 

“This book has 366 defenses on everything Catholic,” Graveline said. “It does very well in equipping you with what to say to people who question your faith. Jimmy writes in a very homey style so you can understand even complex teachings. He covers things that every Catholic should know how to refute or defend: Sola Scriptura, Tradition, the Sacraments, abortion, and a host of other topics.”


Read more:
New Bible translation promises greater accuracy

Some other books you might consider putting on your shelf, or among your bookmarks:

The Documents of Vatican II

What the Council Fathers said about living the faith in the modern world can be found in the 16 documents they issued from 1962-1965.

Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life

Whether it’s modern solutions for infertility, science’s brave new approaches to finding cures, or questions about when a person’s life ends, bioethicist William E. May produced a comprehensive volume explaining Church teaching on life. A third edition was published in 2013.

Eastern Christians and Their Churches

It’s a big Church — so big that it includes 23 other Churches besides the Roman Catholic. This handy pamphlet from the Knights of Columbus gives a detailed overview of the history and traditions of the Christian East.

The Catholic Encyclopedia

Though it was published over a century ago, the Catholic Encyclopedia still contains a lot of history and references that are still worth knowing. It’s now handily online at New Advent.

Catholic history
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