Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Ground Plan for Catholic Reading

by Frank J. Sheed


The following pamphlet outlines a comprehensive plan for increasing the depths of knowledge of the Catholic faith through serious reading. F. J. Sheed explains why serious Catholic reading is necessary for spiritual growth and how it is different from reading for entertainment. He recommends books by Catholic authors such as Christopher Dawson, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and many more.

Publisher & Date

Sheed & Ward, New York, NY, unknown

Discussion of education is forever being muddled by two confusions, between Education and Literacy and between Education and Scholarship. The first confusion is gross and easily cleared up; the second is subtle and needs the very closest scrutiny.

There is a kind of superstition about Literacy; you are told that in one country ninety per cent of the people can read and write; while in another ninety per cent cannot. Intellectually the figures mean little. Reading is scarcely an intellectual activity at all; the power to take words off a page is in itself little more than an extra sense. By hearing, for example, what is said reaches the brain through the ear; by reading, what is said reaches the brain through the eye. The whole question is what happens to it when it reaches the brain, and literacy statistics cannot tell you that. Or again, we are delighted that so high a proportion of our fellow-countrymen can read and write; it would be too cruel to ask what can they write; but even if you stop short with the question what do they read, the answer is not a matter for great exultation.

The trouble about reading is that it is the name for two totally different activities. Reading — serious reading — the great means of contact with the world about us and our fathers before us, is an educational activity in the fullest sense. Education cannot proceed without it; a defective education can be rectified by it; what a man reads is a surer measure of his education than any number of degrees. But there is a game of the same name, played with similar implements — the pastime called reading. Its genesis is easy to trace. Men hate having anything to do. But men also hate having nothing to do. The human race therefore has always been fertile in the invention of things to do which are equivalent to nothing — things which will pass the time. This accounts for most of our reading; nothing happens in the mind — simply the time passes.

Now obviously everyone wants to pass some time, and the most intellectually active of men will do a certain amount of pastime reading. The question is how much time can one afford merely to pass. The problem is pressing for this reason also, that a man tends to become what he reads; and while real reading may become a passion, this second thing becomes a craving, like smoking, of which the intellectual value is about the same. The trouble is that anyone can read to pass the time, but one has to learn how to read in the proper sense.

When Carlyle said that the aim of all education was to teach men to read, he certainly did not mean a mere equipment of alphabets and spelling books and ink on a page. It is only when all this is mastered, that one can begin to learn to read. That stage reached, the choice lies before every man: either he will make the effort and learn to read, or he will devote his newly acquired technical equipment solely to the passing of the time. In the second case he possibly makes an occasional effort at better things: reads some real book — history, biography, theology, philosophy, poetry; tries to read it at the same pace as the pastime books — not realizing the difference — as though one tried to eat meat as fast as jelly; at that pace makes nothing of it, and gives it up for ever. There is a discipline of reading as of every other good thing. It involves a certain self-conquest. If we are not prepared for that discipline then our universally literate generation will be worse off than the Middle Ages by one more sedative. With this question of reading, the whole of education is bound up, for the greatest thought of mankind is in books and the greatest living teacher can do no higher thing in the intellectual order than teach his pupil to read.

Education fits a man for living. Man exists in a universe. Man is: other things are: successful living means a right relation between man and all else that is. A treatise on education would work this out in relation to all man's faculties and powers — mind, will, imagination, emotions. But this is not a treatise on education, and our only concern here is with education as it affects the mind. Successful living, as we have seen, means a right relation between man and all else that is. The mind's part is to come to the knowledge of that right relation. An educated man is one whose mind is responsive to being, to everything that is. It will be noted that the words "all" and "everything" have kept recurring in this paragraph. This is of the very essence of education. You cannot fully know anything until you know everything: less cryptically, the parts get their significance from their place in the totality. If you know only a part but not the whole, you do not even know the part.

Thus we come to the second great distinction, between Education and Scholarship. Scholarship is necessary to education and an educational system which claims to mould character and neglects learning is charlatanism. Yet a great scholar may fail to achieve that right mental relationship to all that is, which is of the very definition of education. The explanation has already been suggested: he knows an enormous amount about something or other; but he does not see the totality; lacking a view of the whole, he is unbalanced by what he knows of the part. Scholarship is pure gain to the mind which knows the totality: to any other it is, in greater or less degree, an eccentricity. Only the educated mind is at home in the universe. A very crude example will make clear what I am trying to say. The human eye is very beautiful — in the human face. Put that same eye on a plate, and though in one sense it can be investigated more closely and thoroughly, it has lost its beauty and even its significance. A being who knew only eyes and not faces would not even know eyes. A being who knew masses of facts about each feature separately but did not know how the features were arranged in a human face, could imagine only a nightmare and no face.

The process of education thus requires two elements. First, the mind must see the universe of being as a totality, with all its constituents in right relation to one another: it does not know everything but it knows where everything is. Second, there must be the study of individual things. Given such a total view as has been described, then every new piece of knowledge is an enrichment. Indeed the value of this individual knowledge is immense. If it is true that the part lacks significance to one who does not see the whole, it is also true that the whole lacks reality to a person of small knowledge.1 After all the totality is a totality of being and we must study not only totality (which as seen by the mind is a matter of shape and arrangement2) but also being (which is the stuff thus shaped and arranged); being comes to us in the individual thing learnt and there is no limit to our progress in the realization of it. Everything that is has something to contribute to our knowledge of being in its immeasurable richness and variety.

But here again a careful distinction must be made: the new knowledge is of educational value not simply as an item known, adding one to the total of items remembered. Nothing is more instructive than to dig out the question-papers of old examinations — the examinations we passed in our youth. Usually we find that we do not know the answers — often enough we do not so much as know what the questions mean. Yet we knew once; we spent long years in acquiring the knowledge; education could not have proceeded without it. Education, then, is arrived at by learning things most of which we are destined ineluctably to forget; and this is not as wasteful as it might seem. Even the thing forgotten may be of high educational value.

The object of the mind is to know what is — that is, to know being. Being comes to it through fact, or event, or another man's thought. The mind takes in the fact (of science, say) or event (of history) or thought (of this or that philosopher or poet3). This is the mechanics of the educational process — this pushing into the mind of facts and events and the rest of it. All this is simply something done to the mind. Therefore in itself it is not education. Education is something that happens in the mind. What does happen in the mind? Often enough nothing. The fact learnt may lie there — not acting, not acted upon, quite useless — long enough to be written down in an examination; after which it can with impunity be forgotten, leaving the mind as unaffected by its passing as by its entry. In the better case the mind takes hold of it, thinks about it, extracts the kernel of being from it, enriches itself with that. Even if the individual fact or event or set of words in which that speck of being was clothed be forgotten, it is a great thing that the mind should thus have fed upon it. Fortunately we do not forget everything. Our minds hold on to certain truths, and the store of these increases. New relations of things are seen and new depths, carrying the mind further towards that right relation to all that is, which is its own special perfection.

What happens in the mind is educational. The really valuable knowledge is not that of which we can say — "On such a day, in such a book, I learnt this." Facts can be shoved into the mind like books into a bag: and as usefully. Push in as many books as you please and the bag has still gained nothing. All that happens is that it bulges. A bag is no better for all that it has carried. Heads can similarly bulge from the mere mass of facts known but not assimilated into the mind's substance. A phenomenon the student will have noticed, at first incredulously but with a growing callousness as the years pass, is that very learned people are often utter fools. And far from this being a paradox, one sees how it happens; so far from learning and foolishness being incompatible, they are frequently bedfellows. There is no fool like the learned fool: a mind which merely takes in facts without assimilating them can obviously take in far more of them, since it can devote to learning new facts that time which better minds devote to nourishing themselves upon the old. The mind's feeding upon being is education; examinations, alas, are mainly a test of what remains in the memory: the best kind of examination may go further and discover what has happened to the surface of the mind; but the educational reality — what has happened in the very depths of the mind — no examination has been devised to discover that.

To return to the totality: it will be clear that this is the indispensable element. The man who rightly sees the whole will gain an enormous amount from a mere handful of individual things known. It cannot too often be repeated that the man who knows only the individual things, will not know even them: for he will not know their context.

What then is this knowledge of the totality, and who can impart it? I was once talking on these matters at a Teachers' College; and, arrived at this point, I said that for the total view which education demands one must know God; the air chilled instantly; plainly the educators I was addressing were disappointed in me. What, they felt, had God to do with education? Education was a matter for specialists. Yet two things seem to me clear: that unless we rightly see God, we have no true view of the totality; and that one who does not believe in God is by that very fact stating the sheer impossibility of a total view and so of education itself.

For the theist, the matter hardly needs stating. God is not simply the supreme Being, enthroned at the apex of all that is in such wise that the universe may be conceived as so many strata of being from the lowest to the highest and God over all: if that were so, one might conceive of a true study of the lower strata which should take no account of God. But the truth is that God is at the very center of all things whatsoever. They come into existence only because He creates them; they remain in existence only because He sustains them. To omit God, therefore, from your study of things is to omit the one being that explains them: you begin your study of things by making them inexplicable! Further all things are made not only by God but for God; in that lies their purpose and the relation of each thing to all others. For the believer in God, therefore, a view of the universe unrelated to God is a chaos far worse than a vision of features unrelated to a face.

This truth, which to the theist is a positive reason for knowing God, that education may be a possibility, is for the atheist a sad condition making education impossible. If there be no mind directing the whole universe of being, then there is no universe, no totality. There is only a constantly fluctuating sum of individual things, accidental in their very origin (since no mind brought them into being), purposeless (since no mind meant them for anything and accidents have no purpose), a drift of things drifting nowhere. Nothing can be known save out of its context, for there is no context.

But the place of God in our view of the totality of things — and so of education — is not simply a matter of recognizing Him as first cause and last end and sustainer in being more intimate to each being than it is to itself; there is also His revelation of the purpose for which He made man — not simply that He made man for Himself but just what this involves in terms of man's being and action. This question of purpose is a point overlooked in most educational discussion, yet it is quite primary. How can you fit a man's mind for living if you do not know what the purpose of man's life is? You can have no reasonable understanding of any activity — living as a totality or any of its departments — if you do not know its purpose. You do not even know what is good or bad for a man till you know the purpose of his existence, for this is the only test of goodness or badness — if a thing helps a man in the achievement of the purpose for which he exists, then it is good for him; if not, it is bad. And the one quite certain way to find out the purpose of anything is to ask its maker. Otherwise you can only guess. The Catholic knows that man has a Maker and that the Maker has said what he made man for. Therefore — not of himself but by the revelation of God — the Catholic knows the purpose of human life and if he be an educator he has the answer to this primary question. He may be a thoroughly bad educator — perhaps through being like so many of us a born fool — but he has the first requirement. For the life of me I cannot see how anyone else can have it or can even think he has it.4

Beyond these elementary truths about God, there is His further revelation of His own nature, and of the means by which man may achieve fulfillment. There are refinements here which belong only to the theologian but there is also a mass of truth necessary for all men in the sense that without it their view of the whole will be falsified and for that very reason they will know nothing properly. That there is a God; what He is; that man's destiny is to do something which by nature he cannot do, so that he must receive from God powers to act above his nature; that his own dependence upon God is literally that of nothingness since apart from God's will there is in man only nothingness; yet that man is not nothing but a being of eternal significance; that his dependence, absolute as it is, is not that of a machine upon a mad mechanic or a slave upon a mad king but of a child upon a father whose power and love are one single thing; that God's incomprehensibility, the root of what we call mystery, is a matter of exultation since it assures us that the universe is controlled by a being infinite in perfection; that all things in life — suffering and failure included — are incidents in a universe directed by God and so can be for his own richest advantage — all these and a mass of truths beside are necessary to be known by man and education is impossible without them.

And not only to be known in the sense that if we were asked about any of them we could think of the correct answer; but so known that automatically and spontaneously they enter into every judgment that the mind forms. The test of maturity in a mind is precisely this: how much of what a man knows enters as a matter of course into all his judgments. Normally, if a man has to come to a decision, he will without effort take certain things into account — his own inclination, for instance, his bodily needs, the effect upon his wife and children, the reaction of his employer, the run of public opinion; a man may do so much who has never received any education at all. If he as automatically takes into account the will of God, the purpose of his own life, the relation of the temporal to the eternal, the relation of his own partial knowledge to God's total knowledge, the fact of Calvary, his relationship to other men in God, his relationship to other members of the Mystical Body — then, and only then, has he the first essential of an educated mind.

The upshot of all this is that education has as its one indispensable requisite something that only a Catholic can give. This is the strictly educational argument for Catholic education. There are other arguments of a moral and theological order, but the two sets of arguments must be sharply distinguished. A non-Catholic institution may be dangerous to Catholic faith and practice and that is the most serious consideration of all. But my point here is that a non-Catholic institution cannot give an education; it can give a magnificent mass of scholarship and a rich mental training; but in the intellectual order there is one thing necessary, a comprehensive view of the totality of being, and this it cannot give. This does not mean that a Catholic institution will inevitably succeed. It may fail on the side of scholarship and the minds of its students, not fed on truth to the measure of their power, will emerge all feeble — even if the total view has been given to them, they will have it only as a skeleton; or it may fail in the communication of the total view, teaching religion as simply one subject in the curriculum and a rather dull subject at that.

But whether he goes to a non-Catholic college or not, the Catholic will find himself soon enough in the largest non-Catholic institution of all — the world of real life. This precisely is the problem for all of us. In papers, movies, novels, in daily conversation, in normal practice we are constantly under the pressure of a different view from our own; no need to particularize; the plain truth is that the Church teaches us one universe and we live in another. If the superiority of the world's view were treated in the world as matter of argument, it would be a help; but it is simply assumed. Argument might stimulate us to defense; indifference soothes us into apathy. The temptation is to accept one set of values by faith but live by another set in daily practice. This temptation must be resisted with all our might. Yet to throw all the burden of resistance upon the will is sheer cruelty: the mind too must be fortified. The fortification of the mind is the total possession of the true view — a possession fundamental and operating as a matter of course in every judgment; to a mind thus fortified, everything serves; falsehood is seen to be false and not given hospitality. Yet every falsehood contains truth or suggests it; and this truth, too, the mind makes its own.

Courses of Catholic Reading

Education being of this sort, how is it to be obtained? Not in college. The student finishes his college career too young for that. His mind will still be growing too fast. A man in his twenties cannot possibly graduate from college educated; the college will have done its work nobly if he leaves it educable — that is with such mental habits that his mind will continue to take and feed upon all that life in any way brings to it. A reading habit he must have, as we have seen; and if he has never had a proper formal education as a youth (whether because he did not go to college or because being there he preferred extra-curricular activities) he may still, by reading, arrive at the maturity proper to his own mind.

I. Ground Plan

A. Preliminary — to clear the mind's atmosphere and prepare it to get the most out of what follows.

B. A course of reading for the total view.

C. Sectional reading for the vivification of the total view.



The Catholic reads roughly the same things as everyone else, is subjected to the same pressure of current opinion and emotion as everyone else, and under that pressure varies more or less from the Catholic norm. His mind has lost certain right tendencies and acquired certain wrong tendencies. He is not fully responsive to the true values: he is unduly responsive to more questionable values. Insensibly he has acquired certain sympathies which his judgment tells him to be wrong but which from daily habit come automatically into operation. Watching a film, for instance, he finds himself, along with all his fellow patrons, hoping that the nice man may divorce his heartless wife and marry his devoted secretary, though he knows that this will be adultery. Before he can set about the serious study of life, his mind needs certain corrective exercises or, to change the metaphor, a kind of fumigation. It must pass some time in company of minds fully emancipated and thus fully Catholic. Thereby right sympathies, expectations, standards will once more be in the mind's forefront.

The following four books will be useful here. Why out of the hundreds of possible books are these four chosen? Partly because they are all fascinating to read; partly because all of them are totally Catholic — there is not in any of them any taint of the world's judgments; yet the authors are as different from one another as four men can well be; the Catholic mind is not stereotyped.

Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton

A kind of shock treatment, a first course in healthy scepticism: the assumptions which are the columns of the modern mind are shaken to pieces: above all the assumption that orthodoxy is de-vitalizing and heterodoxy life-giving. The book is an education by itself, to anyone who will read it with care.

Now I See by Arnold Lunn

Brilliant impressionist picture of the chaos which is the alternative to the Church; you will not easily be tempted to take the world at its own valuation after seeing it at Lunn's.

The Path to Rome by Hilaire Belloc

A perfect example of the truth hammered home by Orthodoxy of the vitalizing power of the Faith; here is a world of enormous beauty and energy and variety so seen because it is a Catholic who is looking at it; there is enough vitality here to equip a dozen Scarlett O'Haras.

Secret of the Curé d'Ars by Henri Ghéon

Comes at the same truth quite differently: vitality and sanctity are convertible terms; Belloc is splendidly vital because he is a Catholic, the Cure d'Ars is miraculously vital because he is a saint. (Belloc may be a saint too: that is not a question his publishers can settle.) It completes the reversal of values begun in Orthodoxy: the "natural man" is now seen to be a sheer oddity and only the saint quite normal. (It is now published in Secrets of the Saints, along with lives by Ghéon of three other saints — John Bosco, Thérèse of Lisieux and Margaret Mary.)

One or two pieces of general advice may be given here; they apply to all reading whatsoever.

(1.) Do not be put off from getting a writer's real message by dislike of his personality, a preliminary feeling of his dullness or any such reaction. You have to peel an orange before you can get at the juice; and everyone finds his first olive nauseating. (There is the story of a woman reading a book by Belloc, who suddenly summoned the maid and told her to throw the book out the window, saying angrily, "I won't be talked to like that in my own house by anyone." Belloc often has that effect on people, yet not to have read him is to have missed one of the greatest intellectual joys of our age.)

(2.) Do not swallow any writer whole: not even a Catholic writer. Don't swallow him, listen to him. If he be a really great writer he can see far more than you can: borrow his eyes: but do not surrender your own mind.


Here should follow a concentration on the being who is the key to the meaning of everything whatsoever. It is quite literally true that Christ Our Lord is the light of the world, and the fully-formed Catholic mind will know as a matter of plain fact that it can comprehend nothing whatsoever apart from Him. That certitude will be the conclusion of any course of Catholic study. Therefore such a course must begin with a study of this Christ who is the key to all understanding, a study that will give coherence and clarity to the possibly vague and scattered knowledge we at present have of Him. The gospels are indispensable. No life of Our Lord written since can be a substitute: the gospels draw on a personal companionship with Christ as He lived for which no later degree of scholarship or sanctity can compensate. For all that, the external framework of life has changed so immensely in the two thousand years that have elapsed, that the gospels will not yield all their fruit to one who comes to them unprepared. A good life of Our Lord is an excellent aid to gospel reading. The following is a practical scheme:

(a) The Gospel of St. Luke

Any of the first three gospels would do, but St. Luke has the lovely gospel of the Infancy which scholars think he must have heard from Our Lady's own lips, and he is one of the world's great literary artists.

(b) The Book of the Saviour assembled by F. J. Sheed or The Life of Christ by Guiseppe Ricciotti

There are many excellent books on Our Lord. These two are especially good. The first is shorter (not more than longish novel-length). In it writings of forty authors are arranged to cover the life and teachings of Our Lord and the fruit of the Church's meditations on both. The second is much longer, and full of interesting background information.

(c) The Gospel of St. John

The reader will now be prepared to read the gospel of the man who was the beloved disciple of Our Lord and lived as a son with Our Lady for twelve years.

A useful edition of the New Testament is the out-of-print Layman's New Testament, edited by Hugh Pope, O.P. It devotes the left-hand pages to the text, with the right-hand pages given to the notes, which explain most of the things that a layman wants to know. If you cannot lay hold of a copy, there are several good editions — the old Douay Version, the Confraternity Version, or the Knox translation into modern English.


Having thus come to a clearer knowledge of Christ in Himself, the reader should get some notion of what is meant by the statement that Christ is the key to the understanding of history. This notion will grow later — will never cease to grow while the mind remains active — but for a first introduction to it, read

The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton

This book is a survey of history with Our Lord as the central figure. Among animals, man is unique. Among men, Christ is unique. All prior history is marked by the need of His coming; all subsequent history takes its meaning from what He did and man's reaction to it.


The essential elements are now distinct in the mind. For a first rough notion of what is meant by synthesis or total view, read

A Map of Life by F. J. Sheed


This course will of necessity be stiffer. Much of it will be plain hard work. For the mind develops only by thinking, and thinking hurts. What doesn't hurt isn't thinking, just as what doesn't hurt isn't exercise. If a man always stops doing when his body feels the strain, he will be flabby and unmuscular in body: if a man always stops thinking as soon as his mind feels the strain, he will be flabby and unmuscular in mind. Reading is thinking — thinking with someone else. It is not simply listening. Above all it is not letting someone else cultivate your mind. No one else can. Others can provide the seeds and the fertilizer: you must do the actual cultivating. It is part of man's dignity as man that there is in him this one plot of ground that no spade but his own can touch — and part of his tragedy as fallen man that there is no cultivating without an aching back. Reading as a pastime, with no purpose but to save man from the altogether intolerable boredom of his own company, may be taken at any speed! Not so that reading which will make a man a fit companion of his own solitude. Let no one think that these books are above his head; but they are not to be read at a hand-gallop. You must settle down to them or else leave them alone.


While the course proper is being followed, it would be a good thing to read concurrently with it

  • The Gospels
  • The Epistles
  • The Psalms
  • The Acts of the Apostles
  • The Imitation of Christ

There is no question here of reading these through at a sitting. The aim should be to have completed them roughly when this second section is completed.

1. GOD

Begin by coming to a clearer notion of what is meant by God, and what reasons we have for our certainty of His existence. Read:

Natural Theology by G. H. Joyce, S.J. (Introduction, Chapters I-V, XIII )

The reader need not aim at mastering the matter of these chapters. It is sufficient that he read them carefully and with a real effort to grasp the main ideas. He will return much later to this book and really settle down to study it; the reading he will have done in between will shed a flood of light on it and it will seem like a new book. But this first reading is of the greatest value, and the reader must not be discouraged at the feeling that much of it is escaping him.

If you cannot get Joyce, read

Theology and Sanity by F. J. Sheed (Chapters I-V)

But try to get Joyce.


The books just mentioned treat of God in His own nature. But, for man, a most fruitful study of God is God in our nature and this is one prime value of the Incarnation, that it enables us to study God acting in our nature, doing and suffering the things we do and suffer. Read

Whom Do You Say? by J. P. Arendzen, D.D.

A lucid statement of what is meant by the statement "God became man," and what vivifying power it has for the mind.

The Son of God by Karl Adam

This book brings into one focus all that we have so far learnt of Our Lord in this course of reading; adds certain supplementary matter — e.g. as to the sources of our knowledge of Him; and carries us deeper into the mysteries of a human nature thus uniquely related to the Godhead.

3. MAN

The mind has now a fuller and clearer idea of God: what of Man? What kind of creature is he? Read

The Human Soul by Abbot Vonier

Man is a union of matter and spirit: his soul differentiates him from the mere animals, but he is not simply a soul. This book discusses the nature of the compound being that man is.


The previous sub-section shows man's essential incompleteness and consequent need for God, as discoverable by examining man's nature. Human history testifies to the same truths about man. Consciously or unconsciously, man has always been reaching out for God and this religious element has always been the dynamic element at every stage of society: religion and vitality are linked together and the vitality of an age cannot long survive its religion. For the truth of this with regard to humanity as a whole, arrived at by an examination of every stage of human history and development, read either

  • Progress and Religion by Christopher Dawson or
  • Religion and Culture by Christopher Dawson

With reference to our own age, read

The Unknown God by Alfred Noyes

Alfred Noyes began with the discovery that each of the great agnostics — Spencer, Darwin, Huxley and Haeckel — postulated one special thing which could only mean God. He read more widely and found that the rule was invariable — each of the writers would assert, always as something enormously valued, one of the attributes of God — the Unknown God worshipped unawares by every atheist or agnostic who could think at all.


The complete answer given by God to this irrepressible human urge for communion with Him is the Church, not thought of simply as an institution for teaching truth and administering sacraments but as the Mystical Body of Christ, Christ living through the ages in His members. Read

The Spirit of Catholicism by Karl Adam

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this book for the formation and clarifying of the Catholic mind. It should be read more carefully than any previous book listed in this section. It summarizes all that has gone before and should be regarded as a good halting-place where the reader may take stock of his progress before proceeding to the second half of this section.


From what we have seen of God's plan for humanity, it is time to look more closely at man. For man the individual read:

Psychology by Michael Maher, S.J.
(Omitting much of it as suggested on page ix of the Preface.)

For the general principles of human conduct — how man may best attain the end for which he was created — read

The Pursuit of Happiness by Walter Farrell, O.P.

which is Volume II of A Companion to the Summa.

For man as a being gifted with the power of sex which he may use for the family or may renounce for God's still higher service, read

  • In Defense of Purity by Dietrich von Hildebrand
  • Life Together by Wingfield Hope

Both books are almost epoch-making by their realization of the splendour of sex — the first stating the true glory of virginity, the second the true glory of marriage, as distinct from a merely negative chastity.

For man in society, read

  • Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI
  • Society and Sanity by F. J. Sheed (published February 1953)

This book was written to fill this place in our Reading Plan. It lays down not a particular social structure, but the principles that any social structure must embody if it is to be worthy of men. It begins with a study of Man, then applies this first to Sex, Marriage and the Family, then to Society and the State.


The Christian life — the sum total of the relations between man and God — may seem a little remote simply as a set of principles. To see it as it has actually been lived will not only make the principles more vivid but take us far deeper into them, showing us certain implications (often rather startling) which we might have failed to see. The Saints are coming more and more to be seen as indispensable to an understanding of Catholicism. Read

  • St. John Bosco by Henri Ghéon (now published in Secrets of the Saints)
  • The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
  • St. Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesterton
  • Saints for Now edited by Clare Boothe Luce

These four are not chosen at random. St. John Bosco is a saint whose call was to action among men; St. Thérèse is a contemplative; St. Francis belonged to both vocations — his life was one of action among men and at the same time of almost unbroken contemplation. Saints for Now treats of the variety of saints and their aptness to our modern problems.


The reader is now ready for the study which is the crown upon the edifice of Christian thinking, the supreme object of human thought, the object of unending contemplation and the source of unending happiness in heaven — the Blessed Trinity. Read

Theology and Sanity by F. J. Sheed (Chapters V-IX)

Follow on with

The Holy Ghost by Edward Leen, C.S.Sp.

For individual doctrines read especially

  • On Our Lady: The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander
  • On the Mass: The Mystery of Faith by M. de la Taille
  • On Confession: Pardon and Peace by Alfred Wilson, C.P.
  • On the Next Life: What Becomes of the Dead? by J. P. Arendzen

For the relation between dogma and the mind of the Church, read

An Essay on Development by John Henry Newman

This, in addition to the light it sheds upon individual dogmas and upon the nature of the Church, is a magnificent introduction to the reading of Church history.


Catholic doctrines are not items on a list, of which one might choose some and reject others. They are parts of a living system, so related to each other that to reject one is ultimately to lose all. Until the system in its totality has come to be the mind's inseparable possession, the study of individual dogmas may be accompanied by an obscuration of this total view. It might be well at this stage, with the far richer knowledge of dogma the reader now has, to glance once more through

A Map of Life by F. J. Sheed

thus ending this second course with a picture of God and man, this life and the next, in proper order and relation.


The reading so far suggested should suffice to equip the mind with that view of being in its totality which is the indispensable element in education and in relation to which the parts may be seen in their proper significance. While the totality is held clear, every new thing learnt is an advance for the mind, and that equilibrium is reached in which parts and whole illuminate each other. So far our first concern has been with totality; but totality itself will gain by further concentration on the parts. The following reading is suggested:


St. Thomas Aquinas by G. K. Chesterton

Immeasurably the best statement for the layman as to why philosophy matters.

Introduction to Philosophy by Jacques Maritain

Especially the first half of the book which shows what philosophy is by showing man's efforts to construct it; there is a valuable chapter on the Philosophy of Science.

Natural Theology by G. H. Joyce, S.J.

This book which was suggested for reading at the beginning of Course B, should at some stage be worked through carefully.

Meanwhile for one whose interest in philosophy has been really aroused, there is

Modern Thomistic Philosophy (2 Vols.) by R. P. Phillips

to carry him through to the next stage. But with this book, perhaps, we are going rather beyond the bounds of our reading course.


For a statement of Scholastic Psychology, read

General Psychology by R. E. Brennan, O.P.

For a full-fledged experimental psychology acceptable to a Catholic and an evaluation of other experimental psychologies, read

The Psychology of Character by Rudolf Allers

The author, a Viennese psychologist, is a first-rate Thomist philosopher.


  • An Outline History of the Church by Joseph McSorley, C.S.P.
  • A History of the Church by Philip Hughes (Vols. I, II, and III to the Reformation; Vol. IV to follow)
  • Religion and the Rise of Western Culture by Christopher Dawson
  • How the Reformation Happened by Hilaire Belloc
  • Life of Newman by Wilfrid Ward

    These books like the Saints' Lives are not chosen at random. Some general knowledge of Church History is essential for an educated Catholic and the first two books on the list provide for this. Further, two special periods of Church History are made points of attack — the Dark Ages and the Reformation: the Catholic should have a general notion of each. The Life of Newman is chosen because it gives a clear picture of the day-by-day working of the modern Church. These five books will give a true view of the Church Christ founded not as we might like it to have been but as it actually has been and is, with the divine element working in the stubborn human material. We shall know both God and man better for grasping the nature of God's Church.


    The Catholic cannot ignore either the attack upon the very essence of religion that is being delivered in this field, or the deeper view of God's dealings with humanity to be gained from its study. Read

    • The Bone and the Star by Dorothy Donnelly
    • The Religions of Mankind by Otto Karrer

    The first is the best short statement of what we can know of the origin of man by combining revelation and modern scientific discovery; the second is the complete and unexpected answer to all that effort represented, e.g. by Frazer's Golden Bough, to deny the positive value of Christianity because of similarities in other religions.


    The Bible is the book of all books. For those who hesitate to plunge at once into a reading of the whole 73 books with their million words, we suggest

    The Holy Bible: an abridgement and rearrangement by Ronald Knox

    which is the Bible itself as the story of God's dealings with the human race, minus those parts of it which are less directly connected with this major theme.


    There are countless spiritual books; in a field so crowded, one selects almost at random.

    St. John of the Cross is the first exclusively mystical writer to be made a doctor of the Church: his teaching is summarized in

    The Mystical Doctrine of St. John of the Cross by R. H. J. Steuart, S.J.

    Three spiritual writers from our generation have been very widely read:

    • Abbot Marmion — read Christ the Life of the Soul
    • Edward Leen, C.S.Sp. — read In the Likeness of Christ
    • Gerald Vann, O.P. — read The Divine Pity


    Just as in the world at large there are certain books which all the literate young think they ought to read and all the literate old think they have read — The Iliad, the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost — so there are certain books which it is hard to imagine a Catholic not reading. To take a handful of these from the past one might suggest:

    • The Confessions of St. Augustine
    • The City of God by St. Augustine
    • The Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales
    • The Apologia, and The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman

    And one may venture to suggest for posterity's endorsement two modern works

    The Satin Slipper by Paul Claudel

    A drama wherein the poet sees life as all these courses of reading have shown it to be; and sees it not only as a theologian might see it or even we plain Catholics in our measure, but with the kind of seeing proper to a poet. Power to enjoy the Satin Slipper is a good rough test of how much has been got out of all our prior reading.

    Hymns to the Church by Gertrud von le Fort

    A handful of short poems, but significant because they are hymns to the Church — not to the Trinity, nor to Our Lord simply, nor the Saints, nor the great feasts — but to the Church. The mere fact is matter for deep meditation.

    We have now arrived at the end of our course. How long it will take will depend upon the individual: some will already have read many of the books here listed, some will already have the total view of which so much has been said; such people will use the lists, if they use them at all, merely for a handy summarization and to fill in gaps in their reading. Some may start from the beginning and work steadily through. Time is the least important consideration; the building or re-building of a Catholic mind is not a matter to be run through to a schedule. Everyone will have his own pace.

    What will the reading do for one who follows it fully through? At the least one who has read these books carefully is on the way to being a reasonably well-read Catholic; there is no serious gap in what may be called his background equipment; he knows what the debate is about between the Church and the World; he is coming to see the whole of life as the Church sees it, to have the mind of the Church which is the mind of Christ; he knows the relations of things to God and to each other; he is equipped for the widest reading in the same fields and in any other field for which he has the necessary special training (as physics or biology or aesthetics) — for he has the context of life and every new item of knowledge can be put to its place in the context; he can return to the reading of secular literature, and its masters will be a new revelation to him; he is in a state to verify Belloc's definition of the educated man — one who never confuses categories — for he knows where things come in the totality, and if for example he hears a great physicist dogmatising on ethics he will not allow the man's legitimate prestige in the one sphere to adorn his plain amateurishness in the other; he knows where he is. All this, of course, is not everything. In comparison with what the mind thus equipped will later make of the immeasurable wonder of God and the universe, it will seem a trifle. But it is a beginning.


    Some few of the books listed in the following Summary have gone out of print since the list was made up. But I include them again because I have not found other books to take their places in the original list. They are still obtainable in libraries, and some of them in second-hand bookstores. — F.J.S.

    Summary of Reading Courses

    It must be understood that this is NOT an attempt to make a list of the SIXTY BEST CATHOLIC BOOKS. One could think in a few minutes of scores of masterpieces not on the list; and many of the books here are not masterpieces. But every book here does do the particular job that its place in the plan requires.


    1. To tone up the mind:

    • Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton
    • Now I See, Arnold Lunn
    • The Path to Rome, Hilaire Belloc
    • Secret of the Curé d'Ars, Henri Ghéon: (Now printed in Secrets of the Saints, Henri Ghéon)

    2. God-made-Man:

    • Gospel of St. Luke
    • The Book of the Saviour assembled by F. J. Sheed
    • The Life of Christ, Giuseppe Ricciotti
    • Gospel of St. John

    3. Man and God:

    • The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton

    4. Summary:

    • A Map of Life, F. J. Sheed


    Concurrent Reading

    • The Gospels
    • The Epistles
    • The Acts of the Apostles
    • The Psalms
    • The Imitation of Christ

    1. God:

    • Natural Theology, G. H. Joyce, S.J.
    • Theology and Sanity, F. J. Sheed (Chs. I-V)

    2. God-made-Man:

    • Whom Do You Say? J. P. Arendzen, D.D.
    • The Son of God, Karl Adam

    3. Man:

    • The Human Soul, Abbot Vonier

    4. Man's need for God:

    • Progress and Religion, Christopher Dawson
    • Religion and Culture, Christopher Dawson
    • The Unknown God, Alfred Noyes

    5. God's response to Man's need:

    • The Spirit of Catholicism, Karl Adam

    6. More about Man:

    • Psychology, Michael Maher, S.J.
    • A Companion to the Summa, Walter Farrell, O.P. (Vols. II and III)
    • In Defense of Purity, Dietrich von Hildebrand
    • Life Together, Wingfield Hope
    • The Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno
    • Society and Sanity, F. J. Sheed

    7. The Saints:

    • St. John Bosco, Henri Ghéon (in Secrets of the Saints, Henri Ghéon)
    • The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
    • St. Francis of Assisi, G. K. Chesterton
    • Saints for Now edited by Clare Boothe Luce

    8. The Great Dogmas:

    • Theology and Sanity, F. J. Sheed (Chs. V-IX)
    • The Holy Ghost, Edward Leen, C.S.Sp.
    • The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander
    • The Mystery of Faith, M. de la Taille, S.J. (Vol. I)
    • Pardon and Peace, Alfred Wilson, C.P.
    • What Becomes of the Dead? J. P. Arendzen, D.D.
    • An Essay on Development, John Henry Newman

    9. Summary:

    • A Map of Life, F. J. Sheed


    1. Philosophy:

    • St. Thomas Aquinas, G. K. Chesterton
    • Introduction to Philosophy, Jacques Maritain
    • Natural Theology, G. H. Joyce, S.J.
    • Modern Thomistic Philosophy, R. P. Phillips, 2 vols.

    2. Psychology:

    • General Psychology, R. E. Brennan, O.P.
    • Psychology of Character, Rudolf Allers

    3. History:

    • An Outline History of the Church, Joseph McSorley, C.S.P.
    • A History of the Church, Philip Hughes, (Vols. I, II, and III)
    • Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Christopher Dawson
    • How the Reformation Happened, Hilaire Belloc
    • Life of Newman, Wilfrid Ward

    4. Comparative Religion:

    • The Bone and the Star, Dorothy Donnelly
    • The Religions of Mankind, Otto Karrer

    5. Scripture:

    • The Holy Bible, Edited by Ronald Knox

    6. Spirituality:

    • The Mystical Doctrine of St. John of the Cross, R. H. J. Steuart, S.J.
    • Christ the Life of the Soul, Abbot Marmion, O.S.B.
    • In the Likeness of Christ, Edward Leen, C.S.Sp.
    • The Divine Pity, Gerald Vann, O.P.

    7. General Catholic Reading:

    • The Confessions of St. Augustine
    • The City of God, St. Augustine
    • Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales
    • Apologia, John Henry Newman
    • Idea of a University, John Henry Newman
    • The Satin Slipper, Paul Claudel
    • Hymns to the Church, Gertrud von le Fort

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