When it comes to proactively living out the Christian faith, it comes without saying that there are books which help cultivate our spiritual lives. Whether you’re just starting to build your library or are looking to complete an already excessive collection, it helps to know what books are essential to exploring one’s faith.
For this reason, I have compiled a list of 10 essential books that (in my humble opinion) every Catholic ought to own.
1 – The Bible
This book is a given and a first priority. While almost every Christian usually owns a copy of the Bible, many will say not all English translations are created equal. Some supposedly have missing verses, questionable additions or language that seems to appeal too much to a contemporary reader at the expense of ancient cultural context.
Regardless, the Bible is the most revered and referenced book in the world, as well as the most central literature in the Christian walk of life.
Choosing a Bible translation can be very personal. In the age of ebooks and digital streaming, it is easy to resort to the most conveniently accessible translation.
My personal favourite online resource would be the Bible Gateway app. It has a customizable search engine which allows you to search for specific passages, and can be viewed in almost any language.
As for translations of the Bible, my go-to is usually the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition) while others may enjoy an older English translation such as the Douay-Rhiems (a similar translation to the Protestant King James Version).
2 – The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is an important reference tool used to summarize the teachings of the Bible and the Church. It is an official statement of faith and doctrine used by Catholic Christians worldwide. It also acts as a study companion when reading Scripture or during
The Catechism of the Catholic Church can also be viewed online via the Vatican website. A hard copy can also be purchased at Ignatius Press or your local book store.
3 – The Didache
The name ‘Didache‘ is Koine Greek for ‘Teachings of the Twelve Apostles.’ The authorship of the text is unknown, but it is believed to be the first catechism used by the Early Church when Jewish Christians first adapted their religious practices with Gentile Christians. The text is believed by scholars to originate from the first or second century.
The Didache is divided into three main parts dealing with ethics of Christian morality, the rituals of baptism and the Eucharist, and ecclesiastical organization. Many of the writings of the Early Church Fathers draw heavily from this text. And though it is a short read, the text reads as though it is quoted verbatim from the Gospels.
The Didache can also be viewed online at NewAdvent.org. A copy can also be purchased on Amazon.
4 – Summa Theologiae by St. Thomas Aquinas
Arguably one of the most influential philosophical works since Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas’ Summa is credited to be responsible for shaping much of Western civilization as we know it. Originally written as a theological instruction for seminarians, this literary work sought to present all points of Christian thought and belief in the cycled order: God, Creation, Man, Man’s purpose, Christ, the Sacraments, and returning back to God as the Source.
It is believed that, had Aquinas not died as early as he did and completed his Summa Theologiae, it would have been at least a couple volumes longer than it was left as. Regardless of its unfinished status, it is considered his “most perfect work and the fruit of his mature years.”
The Summa Theologiae can also be viewed online at NewAdvent.org.
Hard copies are expensive and difficult to find, but an excellent resource for those studying it for the first time would be A Summa of the Summa by Peter Kreeft.
5 – Saint Augustine’s Confessions
From Ignatius Press:
“The Confessions of Saint Augustine is considered one of the greatest Christian classics of all time. It is an extended poetic, passionate, intimate prayer that Augustine wrote as an autobiography sometime after his conversion, to confess his sins and proclaim God’s goodness. Just as his first hearers were captivated by his powerful conversion story, so also have many millions been over the following sixteen centuries. His experience of God speaks to us across time with little need of transpositions.
This acclaimed new translation by Sister Maria Boulding, O.S.B., masterfully captures his experience, and is written in an elegant and flowing style. Her beautiful contemporary translation of the ancient Confessions makes the classic work more accessible to modern readers. Her translation combines the linguistic accuracy demanded by 4th-century Latin with the poetic power aimed at by Augustine, not as discernable in previous translations.”
Augustine’s Confessions can be viewed online at NewAdvent.org. A copy can be purchased from Ignatius Press or your local book store.
6 – The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis
Since the Epistles of St. Paul, the Imitation of Christ is an ideal that is quintessential to Christian theology. It is divided into 4 books: Book I: Helpful Counsels of the Spiritual Life, Book II: Directives for the Interior Life, Book III: On Interior Consolation, and Book IV: On the Blessed Sacrament.
Originally composed in Medieval Latin, this devotional text is considered to be one of the most important (and widely read) devotional works next to the Bible itself. It has also influenced literary works of other notable Catholic authors such as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.
For online viewing, the Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis can be found here. It can also be purchased at Ignatius Press or your local book store.
7 – Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
From Ignatius Press:
“Gilbert Keith Chesterton is one of the most celebrated and reverently esteemed figures in modern literature. He was a phenomenally prolific writer. After achieving early success as an illustrator, he subsequently established his fame as a playwright, novelist, poet, literary commentator, pamphleteer, essayist, lecturer, apologist, and editor. The depth and range of his work are astounding.
A pagan at only 12 and totally agnostic by 16, Chesterton had the remarkable experience of developing a personal, positive philosophy that turned out to be orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy, his account of it all, has not lost its force as a timeless argument for the simple plausibility of traditional Christianity. C.S. Lewis and many other emerging Christian thinkers have found this book a pivotal step in their adoption of a credible Christian faith. This intellectual and spiritual autobiography of the leading 20th century essayist combines simplicity with subtlety in a model apologetic that appeals to today’s generations of readers who face the same materialism and antisupernaturalism as did the “man at war with his times.”
Of the numerous works that Chesterton wrote, the most scintillating synthesis of his philosophy and deeply religious faith was manifested in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy, written when he was only thirty-four and which tells, in his inimitable, soaring prose, of his earth-shaking discovery that orthodoxy is the only satisfactory answer to the perplexing riddle of the universe. Orthodoxy is perhaps the most outstanding example of the originality of his style and the brilliance of his thought.”
I could not find a site that allows you to view Orthodoxy for free, but it can be purchased through Ignatius Press or at your local book store.
8 – The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent
The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent are a list of canonical books which documents the Church’s counter-response to the Protestant Reformation. It addresses many theological topics often raised by Protestant Christians, affirms what is universally true and cites the scriptural and historical sources which condemn the errors of the revolution.
As we in North America live in a culture of mixed beliefs, many of those who profess to be Christians have varying beliefs that come at odds with official Catholic teaching. This is why the Canons of Trent are especially relevant in distinguishing beliefs which are traditionally orthodox from beliefs that are erroneous.
The full transcription of the Council of Trent can be viewed online here. A copy can also be purchased on Amazon.
9 – Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Not a Catholic author, but the works of C.S. Lewis are regarded as some of the most sought-after apologetics writings of the 20th century. Mere Christianity offers a summary of fundamental truths that bind Christians of all denominations and traditions. Lewis asserts that “at the centre of each there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks the same voice.”
Other notable works of C.S. Lewis include The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, The Great Divorce, Surprised By Joy as well as the renowned fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia.
Mere Christianity, along with Lewis’ other literary works, can be purchased online or at your local book store.
10 – The Code of Canon Law
While most of us are probably not meant to become canon lawyers, having a copy of the Church’s Code of Canon Law is a handy reference tool for those who want to understand Church structure and authority. It is also useful for those who enjoy apologetics.
An excerpt from SimplyCatholic.com by Fr. James Goodwin explains the purpose of Canon Law succinctly:
“So what is canon law all about? Put simply, canon law is how the Church organizes and governs herself. The word “canon” basically means rule. There are about 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, and the Church administrates a large collection of institutions. Therefore, the Church needs an organizational structure to carry out its office of governance and its saving mission. Every society needs laws — and so does the Church. There is an old saying: ubi societas ibi lex (“where there is a society there is law”). Imagine driving on the highway where there are no rules of the road? It would ultimately lead to disaster.
Canon law deals with all the issues that any legal system does — for example, rights, property issues, procedures, administration, personnel, crimes and trials. It also does some things that civil law cannot, such as laws regarding sacraments, sacred places and magisterial teachings.
The Church’s laws have developed greatly over its 2,000-year history. Beginning in the New Testament, we see that there are procedures for replacing an apostle (see Acts 1:15-26); also, what to do when there are disputes in the Church (Mt 18:15-20). As time went on there were various councils that legislated on issues of concern. Popes would issue decretals to settle disputes or enforce discipline. Courts were established to hear cases and issue decisions. In addition, they used procedures adapted from Roman law.
Eventually, these disparate laws and decretals were collected into what became known as canon law. In 1917, there was a major reform and the law was codified, published as the first Code of Canon Law. After the Second Vatican Council there was a revision, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law was issued for Latin-rite (often referenced as Roman-rite) Catholics by Pope St. John Paul II. Later, in 1990, a separate code was issued for the Eastern Catholic Churches. While not all of the Church’s laws are in the code, it is the place to start.”
The Code of Canon Law can actually be viewed on the Vatican website. An annotated copy can be purchased here.
Honorable mentions: City of God by Augustine, Against Heresies by Ignatius, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, Metaphysics by Aristotle, Paradise Lost by John Milton, Heretics by G.K. Chesterton, A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor.
There are so many other books that could have easily made it into this list, but these are only what I personally consider to be the top ten must-haves in a Catholic home library.
What books would you recommend? Please share your favourite Catholic book recommendations in the comments!