The Catholic Church: What Everyone Needs to Know by John Allen Jr

Summary: A well written succinct account of the Catholic church.  Primarily concerned with the workings and practice of the church. Written in a question and answer format, which is wearing after awhile.

Over the past year or so I have been reading to understand more about the Catholic church.  I have read several accounts of conversion from Protestant to Catholic. I have read Robert Barron’s Introduction to Catholicism and Scott Hahn’s 40 Catholic Customs and their Biblical Roots and Richard Rohr’s Why Be Catholic.  I have read Mark Noll’s evaluation of the state of the Catholic church and Evangelical/Catholic Relations.  I even have read (but not yet reviewed) the first of the Pope’s books on Jesus.

But all of these books have been either primarily theological or primarily personal accounts of the Catholic church.  John Allen is the senior Vatican correspondant for the National Catholic Reporter and Vatican analyst for CNN.  This new introduction to the Catholic church (very conveniently released just as the conclave gets under way to elect a new Pope), is clearly the work of a journalist.

The writing is clear and punchy.  It gets straight to the point and it covers a wide swath of material.

The format gets a little old.  There are 12 chapters on different areas of the church, Basics, History, Outreach, Worship, Sex, Politics, Scandal, Vatican, Future, etc.  In each of these areas, Allen starts with a question and then answers that question, then asks what is probably the next question that comes up.

So when he asks “What do Catholics Think of the Bible”, he gives a brief answer in less than 2 pages, and then asks additional related questions like “How are Catholic Biblical Studies Organized?” or “What sorts of arguments do Catholics have about the bible [with Protestants]?  But in all he only spends about 6-7 pages talking directly about the bible.

This question and answer format is both a strength and weakness of the book.  If you want a good summary of an answer to a particular question, then Allen probably has both the question and answer in about 2 pages.  But if you want a deeper answer this is not the book you are looking for.  I really enjoyed about the first 150 pages.  But by the last 100 pages I was tired of the format.

The format makes sense as a introduction. But in later chapters when he is speaking issues around scandals of the church or areas of future challenge and growth, it would make sense to have longer narrative sections without the question and answer format.

This feels like it would make a good series of blog posts or answers to a searchable database of questions about Catholicism.

On the whole I am glad I read it and it had lots of good information.  But I am not sure if it really going to gain a wide following because pretty much everyone will probably get bored of the format before they finish the book.

The Catholic Church: What Everyone Needs to Know Purchase Links: Kindle Edition (Released March 14), Paperback (Released April 17)

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The publisher provided a free digital copy of the book for purposes of review through Netgalley.com

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