Theology Manuals – Why are they so important in the post-conciliar crisis?

“Where do we go to learn the Catholic Faith? How do we make sense of the modern ecclesial landscape?”

Learning Sacred Theology

The full reading list in one place.

Part I: Preliminaries, Catechism, Latin, Philosophy and the Magisterium
Part II: Ecclesiology, Apologetics and Dogmatic Theology.
Part III: Holy Scripture, Moral Theology, History, Patristics and Canon Law

Theology Manuals – Why are they so important in the post-conciliar crisis?
What are the duties of laymen in studying and spreading the Faith? – Pope Leo XIII
Theology and History – Part II: Why understanding this relationship is crucial for avoiding shipwreck
Theology and the Interior Life – How do they help each other? Fr R. Garrigou-Lagrange, 1943

This article was originally published at LifeSiteNews (source). Reprinted with permission. All pictures have been added. Cover photo source

Supporting The WM Review through book purchases
As Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases through our Amazon links. Click here for The WM Review Reading List (with direct links for US and UK readers).

In a time of rampant confusion about basic Catholic doctrine – to say nothing of more complicated problems of theology – it’s really important that we base our conclusions on sure principles and authorities

One way or another, we have had the joy of learning to believe that Jesus Christ is God, and that he established the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps we thrilled as we were convinced by the arguments and apologetics, which led us to make the Act of Faith. We attained our grasp of basic doctrine using sources such as the Penny Catechism or maybe even the Roman Catechism.

But, sooner or later, we started to notice problems.

The key problem is that what apparently comes from the Church today often contradicts what was taught before – and as such, are Catholics are even allowed to accept such things? In the aftermath of the Council, both the laity and clergy could (and were obliged to) “stand fast: and hold the traditions, which [they had] learned.” (2 Thess 2.14). 

But later generations in the West have not received that sound formation, and so don’t have the tradition to which we must hold fast. We are left in the state of having to learn for themselves what the Church teaches. This is an abnormal and fraught situation. The questions eventually arise: Where do we go to learn the Catholic Faith? How do we make sense of the modern ecclesial landscape, especially if those who claim to govern us are giving us things that contradict the Faith? What should we do once we are ‘put on notice’ that certain clerics are contradicting parts of revealed doctrine?

We find ourselves repeating the words of St Peter to our Lord, albeit in a different sense:

Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have known that thou art the Christ, the Son of God. (John 6.69-70)

If those appointed to teach and govern us are not being faithful to that deposit, what do we do? Where are we supposed to go for a deeper and more mature understanding of Sacred Doctrine, or indeed of natural morality? How should we understand the modern crisis? How do we establish what is a novelty, or contradicts the received doctrine of the Church? What sources should we use, and which should we avoid? And how do we explain this dire situation?

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe so we can stay in touch:

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Sources of Doctrine

Some turn to modern writers like Michael Davies, or to those who wrote histories of seemingly comparable periods – such as John Henry Newman on the Arian Crisis. Some find great theologians that deal with relevant but very specific questions, and end up arguing about the opinions of Cajetan against Suarez against John of St Thomas against St Robert Bellarmine, and so on. Others go straight into pre-conciliar magisterial documents, and use them to try to make sense of things.

All of these approaches lack context. For instance, leaping straight into particular questions without a thorough grounding in philosophy and theology is not how the Church trained her priests. Why would we think that it’s a good thing for laymen to do? 

Instead, I want to suggest an alternative source: the ‘theology manuals’ (and their equivalents in philosophy) from the early twentieth and late nineteenth century. Why this period? Because to form conclusions and to identify what is and isn’t a post-conciliar innovation, we need to know what was taught and how it was understood before the Council. At this stage, this isn’t itself a rejection of things that have come after Vatican II: it’s a fact-finding exercise.

Debates can and should refer to magisterial pronouncements: but they should also refer to how these pronouncements were understood by the Church, and not be treated as proof-texts existing in a vacuum. To be sure, there are other sources of doctrine, and we shouldn’t crassly mine the manuals for proof-texts either – but the point is maintaining context. In addition, the ‘inter-conciliar’ manuals benefit from Vatican I’s clarity on topics like the extents and limits of infallibility, and yet precede the confusion that came with Vatican II.

What are the manuals, and why are they important?

In his 1963 article The Teaching of the Theological Manuals, Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, described the manuals as:

[The] books actually used in the instruction of candidates for the priesthood. They are written by men who actually teach in the Church’s own approved schools, under the direction of the Catholic hierarchy, and ultimately […] under the direction of the Sovereign Pontiff himself.[1] [My emphases.]

Elsewhere, Fenton notes that when such manuals were “adopted and utilized” by diocesan bishops, particularly for official seminary training, “they may be said to express the teaching of the bishops about the matters they teach. To this extent, the manuals […] may be said to express in some way the ordinary magisterium of the Church.”[2]

Fenton concludes that “the common or morally unanimous teaching of the manuals in this field is definitely a part of Catholic doctrine.”[3] While there are better and less good examples in this genre, and while the opinions of individual writers cannot simply be declared to be such, Fenton nonetheless says, in reference to the common teaching of this genre: “The unanimous teaching of the scholastic theologians has always been recognized as a norm of Catholic doctrine.”[4]

Let’s be clear that an idea appearing in a large number of manuals does not mean that it represents “the unanimous teaching of scholastic theologians.” That is not what this phrase means. Nonetheless, this genre can be helpful, and often in fact tells us when there is a unanimous consensus, and what that consensus is.

These are the sources from which we should be getting a deeper understanding of doctrine. At the very least, they will give us a sounder basis by which we can profit from other sources. Classics of spirituality, the biographies of cloistered saints, popular apologetics books, celebrity clergymen, ecclesiastical history, even podcasts: these sources may make one grow in Faith and in the love of God: and that’s very good if they do so. But they are not substitutes for the scientific, systematic and authoritative exposition of the Faith found texts such as these manuals.

In a sense, manuals might be said to occupy a similar place for the clergy as do catechisms for the laity. Generations were taught from standard catechisms, and so too were the clergy taught from the common fund of the manuals’ teaching. Both catechisms and manuals stand as witnesses to the Faith of the Church, but at differing levels of depth. But the manuals are not beyond the laity: the very fact that many were translated into the vernacular shows that they were intended for us. And just as it would be audacious to dismiss or contradict the Penny Catechism and the body of approved catechisms, so too would it be to dismiss or contradict the manual tradition. 

In short, these authorized manuals are authoritative and safe witnesses to Catholic doctrine, “manifesting in some way the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church”, especially where they are morally unanimous.[5]

Praise for this tradition

Is citing authors in this period in support of this tradition’s authority a circular argument? Well, let’s hear what Scott Hahn, in his foreword to Fenton’s book of apologetics and fundamental theology, has to say on the value of that text (and its tradition), and comparing it with the present:

But in private – late into a long night’s conversation, after a glass of wine or maybe two – many Catholics of my generation and younger will confess to a secret envy. We strongly suspect that we didn’t get the same quality or quantity of intellectual and spiritual formation that Catholics generally received in the middle of the last century.[6]

This should be an encouragement for us to leave aside popular apologetics and turn to the texts he mentions.

In any case, Fenton et al are not just praising themselves: they are enunciating the attitude of the Church, who is “a trustworthy teacher of the Christian religion and of the Christian way of life”.[7] And, as Fenton himself points out: 

If these books all contain common teaching opposed to or even distinct from genuine Catholic doctrine, then the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church has been very much at fault during the course of the twentieth century.[8]

Further, Pope Pius XII himself taught something comparable about scholastic philosophy in his 1950 encyclical Humani generis:

To neglect, or to reject, [things] which in many instances have been conceived, expressed, and perfected after long labour, by men of no ordinary genius and sanctity, under the watchful eye of the holy magisterium, and not without the light and guidance of the Holy Spirit for the expression of the truths of faith ever more accurately, so that in their place conjectural notions may be substituted, as well as certain unstable and vague expressions of a new philosophy, which like a flower of the field exists today and will die tomorrow: not only is the highest imprudence, but also makes dogma itself as a reed shaken by the wind.[9]

Myths: Dry and Ultramontanist?

The manuals are portrayed as dry, reductive and narrow. They were written-off by some in the 1960s because of “the anti-modernist emphasis which penetrated them” – which should speak in their favour for us today.[10]

And while some may be so, the best are not dry or narrow at all. They contain beautiful expressions of the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are clear, systematic expositions of every aspect of theology, from the natural proofs of God’s existence, through to the theology of the Church (ecclesiology), the Holy Trinity, Creation, Grace, the Incarnation, the Sacraments and the Four Last Things. They are serious, yes: but how could serious teaching on these topics be dry or narrow?

Some sections are very beautiful – such as Nicolau’s description of the human personality of our Lord in the Sacrae Theologiae Summa. How can someone who has read these books could say such a thing?

But isn’t it better to read the great theologians? Why read dry manuals when we could read the theologians directly?

Well, we’re not conceding that the theology manuals are dry, at least not the many good ones that are available – although perhaps the same cannot be said for manuals of moral theology.

But anyway, it’s not that we shouldn’t be reading St Thomas or St Augustine – but again, their texts also don’t exist in a vacuum. The Doctors of the Church are part of a tradition which we must imbibe properly. Yes, the Doctors are to teach us – but within that tradition, and not by providing us with half-understood proof-texts.

Even with context, we could mean different things. One context is the Doctor’s own period, but another is the state of the question ‘today’ (by which I mean, just before the Council and the ensuing doctrinal chaos). Questions that were open then, may no longer be. If we want to judge and act correctly today, we need to understand what was believed until yesterday. These texts are a part of a received tradition which must impose itself on our understanding. 

There is another popular idea that, around the time of the definition of papal infallibility, there was a terrible period of ‘ultramontanism’, or an exaggeration of papal prerogatives – and presumably that this coloured the theses of the manuals.

In parish life, there does indeed appear to have been a distortion of the virtue of obedience, which aided the rapid collapse of Catholic life in the West. But this is just a grotesque caricature of the teaching of the Church at the time. The manuals from this period are far from such exaggerations. 

In fact, they are a gold standard for the papacy, ecclesiology and related issues. Ecclesiology flourished, and they not only enjoyed the clarity of Vatican I whilst preceding the triumph of modernism, but also benefit from the naming of St Robert Bellarmine as a Doctor of the Church, and encyclicals like Mystici Corporis Christi and Mortalium animos. Contrary to popular misconceptions, they do not portray the Pope as if he were a god, or treat him like a divine oracle. They are not pope-centric, at least not in the sense meant today. Their understanding of ecclesial infallibility is rooted in the Church, not the Pope. And even if such distortions of obedience did exist in parish life or in works of spirituality, that would only strengthen the witness of the sober theology of the manuals.

A response to this might be: If the manuals are so good, then why did those formed by them carry out the demolition of Catholic life that we saw after the Council? Didn’t all the early Modernists and later ‘New Theologians’ study these texts, and yet reject them? Why didn’t more rank-and-file clergy rebel against the tyranny, citing the manuals as their authority?[11]

This is an understandable response, and is like asking, as some do: ‘If the Old Mass was so good, why did so many accept the New?’

But all these questions have about as much force as asking: ‘If the Catholic Faith is so good, why did the Arians/Orthodox/Protestants break away?’ In all cases: we can speculate about all sorts of reasons for clerical actions after Vatican II, from fear of the tyrannical and extra-judicial enforcement by bishops, to infiltration by Communists and Freemasons, and who knows what else. There may even be some relationship between these texts and the collapse – but it will not do to use this to denigrate the manuals. The balance of causes is uncertain, but the nature of the manual tradition is not. Such an objection can only arise from an ignorance of their actual content, which just is the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Finally, it’s true that manuals are a more challenging exposition of the Faith than a standard catechism or a podcast. But the stark reality is this: if the various lay influencers of YouTube and elsewhere cannot make the effort, or do not have the ability to study the Church’s pre-conciliar doctrine in readily available sources like these translations of standard seminary textbooks, then be aware of what that says about their positions. Any reaction to the modern crisis should be supported by the principles of Catholic doctrine, which are found in these books. A position or theory that cannot be demonstrated from such foundations (or even worse, that contradicts them) is, on the face of it, suspect.

So in general: Beware those that sneer at the manuals: beware them, because who knows what they want to put in their place.

With reference to the crisis in the Church

We cannot hope to make sense of this unprecedented sixty-year crisis without reference to this tradition. 

Rather than trying to deduce theories from the lives of saints, works of history, internet personalities, or the priest that we think is ‘quite’ orthodox, let’s turn to these books and learn what they seek to teach us. They address many issues that we face today: What does it mean for the Church to be visible? What are the extents of infallibility? Who is and isn’t a member of the Catholic Church? What does it mean for the Church to be united, to be one? What moral principles are safe to follow? 

Many of these questions have matured over centuries – and many enjoy settled, consensus answers. We cannot ignore this. While living at this painful time is a privilege, we must be faithful to what has been handed down to us. 

Rather than delving through Cajetan and others on a certain question, wouldn’t it be better to know what a broad range of theologians wrote on the matter, and whether there is a consensus today? Familiarity with these manuals reveals how little relevance the opinions of even some great theologians have to our situation. And if we need to apply lessons from history, shouldn’t we learn the doctrine first – otherwise how will we judge the accuracy of an historical account? 

No theories – be they about ‘splitting the papacy’, membership of the Church, new situations dispensing with established ethical principles, or anything else at all – none of these should be accepted without references to things like this body of teaching, and certainly not against a moral unanimity of their authors. We do not love or serve the Church by ignoring her doctrine.

Anyone who wishes to have a developed opinion on the crisis needs to be familiar with at least the theses of these works, and cannot glibly dismiss them as dry or ultramontanist. 

So let us turn to the books with joyful docility: let us believe the theses they teach us, and apply them, and not our own ideas, to the facts. 

Learning Sacred Theology

The full reading list in one place.

Part I: Preliminaries, Catechism, Latin, Philosophy and the Magisterium
Part II: Ecclesiology, Apologetics and Dogmatic Theology.
Part III: Holy Scripture, Moral Theology, History, Patristics and Canon Law

Theology Manuals – Why are they so important in the post-conciliar crisis?
What are the duties of laymen in studying and spreading the Faith? – Pope Leo XIII
Theology and History – Part II: Why understanding this relationship is crucial for avoiding shipwreck
Theology and the Interior Life – How do they help each other? Fr R. Garrigou-Lagrange, 1943


In general, manuals were published in Latin. Nonetheless, there are many editions that have been translated into (or were written in) the vernacular. Coming from a time when all priests had Latin, this is an indication that they were intended for an educated laity. Many are available for free online, and many are available as print-on-demand, reprints or second-hand.

Overviews of Dogmatic Theology

Wilhelm & Scannell – Manual of Catholic Theology (2 vols.) Vol. I (and for UK readers) and Vol. II (and for UK readers). This is a nineteenth century Englishing of Matthias Scheeben’s Dogmatik, with a foreword from Cardinal Manning. Also online at the Bellarmine Forums.

Hunter, S.J – Outlines of Dogmatic Theology (3 vols.) Vol. I (UK readers), Vol. II (UK readers) and Vol. III (UK readers) Vol. I deals with the Church and fundamental theology. Please note that some versions are missing about twenty pages, which deal with membership. These pages are available here. There is a cheaper one-volume compendium, without footnotes (and for UK readers), and the three volumes are online here: Vol. I, Vol. II and Vol. III

Tanquerey – Manual of Dogmatic Theology. (2 vols.) Available here for UK readers Very good, but quite compressed. And online here: Vol. I and Vol. II.

Murphy, Donlan, Cunningham, et al. – College Texts in Theology (3 or 4 vols.) This is an excellent and very clear “trilogy of four” (in that it has an extra fourth volume on Christian marriage). Volumes I and III are available as second-hand books. Volume II and IV are extremely rare second hand, and Vol. II is available as a new paperback from Wipf and Stock.

Wilmers – Handbook of the Christian Religion (1 vol.) (and for UK readers). More aimed at college students. Available at Internet Archive.

Parente – Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology (and for UK readers). Brief and brilliant. This is not an overview of dogmatic theology, but is a useful resource at this stage. Available from the Internet Archive.

Garrigou-Lagrange – Reality. An excellent work for understanding how the Thomistic synthesis interacts with the whole of revealed doctrine – but while it is certainly very worth having and reading, at least one text from the above list should be mastered too. This book is soon to be republished by Baronius Press

Sacrae Theologia Summa (Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos Series – 8 vols.) Keep the Faith Publications. This series has much to commend it, and various volumes are mentioned below. However, while it may suit certain readers, it is more advanced than an accessible 2- or 3-volume overview necessary for this stage. For the sake of completeness, however, are the texts:

  • Vol. IA: Introduction to Theology, and On Christian Revelation
  • Vol. IB: On the Church of Christ, and On Holy Scripture
  • Vol. IIA: On the One and Triune God
  • Vol. IIB: On God, the Creator and Sanctifier, and On Sins
  • Vol. IIIA: On the Incarnate Word, and On the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • Vol. IIIB: On Grace, and On the Infused Virtues
  • Vol. IVA: On the Sacraments in General and On Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance and Anointing
  • Vol. IVB: On Holy Orders and Matrimony, and On the Last Things

Pohle-Preuss – Dogmatic Theology (12 books in 6 volumes). Here for UK readers, although may need to order through the American link. Despite being such a large work, there is no concrete section on ecclesiology – which will make it a disappointment for many of our readers. Online at Internet Archive.


Bellarmine – On the Church (and for UK readers). Translated by Mr Ryan Grant, Mediatrix Press. Other versions available too. Bellarmine is essential.

Salaverri – On the Church of Christ. Contained within Sacrae Theologiae Summa Volume IB. Keep the Faith Publications

Van Noort – Christ’s Church (and for UK readers). Vol. II of the series discussed above. Internet Archive.

Berry – The Church of Christ (and for UK readers). Excellent single volume manual of ecclesiology. Wipf and Stock.

Anger – The Doctrine of the Mystical Body According to the Principles of St Thomas Aquinas (and for UK readers). Internet Archive.

Billot – Warning: in French! On the Church of Christ. (Vol. I, Vol. II and Vol. III) Billot is one of the most significant theologians of recent times, and was praise by Pius XII in a 1953 allocution to the Gregorian University.[7] The French has been translated from Latin by Fr Gleize SSPX, and is available from Livres en Famille, France. We have included these volumes (and also Gréa’s, below) because of their significance, despite them not being in English. If they were in English, both Billot and Gréa’s texts would be in bold.

Gréa – Warning: in French! The Church and Her Divine Constitution (and for UK readers). NB: this edition says “Vol. I” but it contains both volumes. Available in French from Internet Archive

Fenton – The Church of Christ (and for UK readers). Not a systematic work, but rather contains articles from the American Ecclesiastical Review. Others articles are available as scans from the Bellarmine Forums and The Catholic Archive. Some may also be interested in Fenton’s The Diocesan Priest in the Church of Christ (and for UK readers).

MacLaughlin – The Divine Plan of the Church (and for UK readers). Single-volume apologetics work on the Church, but precise and detailed. Online at Internet Archive.

Finlay – The Church of Christ (and for UK readers). Online at Internet Archive.

St Robert Bellarmine – Controversies of the Christian Faith. On the Holy Scriptures, Christ and the Roman Pontiff. Translated by Fr Kenneth Baker. (Sometimes available for UK readers). Essential reading for the topic.

St Robert Bellarmine – On the Roman Pontiff (and for UK readers). Again translated by Mr Ryan Grant and published by Mediatrix Press.

Guéranger – The Papal Monarchy (and for UK readers). This text, by the author of the much-loved Liturgical Year, was explicitly approved by Pope Pius IX.

Kenrick – Primacy of the Apostolic See Vindicated (and for UK readers). Fenton describes Archbishop Kenrick as using “a more popular literary style to bring out the same exactness in presentation of Christian doctrine” as scholastic theologians.[8] Online at Internet Archive.

Hergenröther – Anti-Janus (and for UK readers). The response by (later Cardinal) Hergenröther to Dr Döllinger’s historical-theology tract against the papacy. Internet Archive.

This article was originally published at LifeSiteNews (source). Reprinted with permission. All pictures have been added. Cover photo source.


As we expand The WM Review we would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content please do consider supporting us financially.

A small monthly donation, or a one-time donation, helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!

Monthly Gifts

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow on Twitter and Telegram:

Also on Gab!

[1] Joseph Clifford Fenton, ‘The Teaching of the Theological Manuals’, American Ecclesiastical Review, April 1963, pp. 254-270.

[2] Joseph Clifford Fenton, What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, 2018. pp. 118-9.

[3] Fenton, 1963.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fenton 2018, p 119.

[6] Hahn, Scott. ‘Foreword’, in Fenton, Joseph Clifford, Laying the Foundation: A Handbook of Catholic Apologetics and Fundamental Theology, Emmaus Road 2016, vii.

[7] G. Van Noort, ‘Christ’s Church’, Dogmatic Theology II, Newman Press, Maryland 1957. 118.

[8] Fenton, 1963.

[9] D 2312f., 34th edition

[10] Fr Gregory Baum, quoted in Ibid.

[11] In fact many did, particularly after the imposition of the New Mass and what Benedict XVI confirmed was an illegal ‘banning’ of the Old Mass. They and the laity that gathered around them were the beginning of the ‘traditional movement’. 

Leave a Reply