Learning Sacred Theology – Part I: Preliminaries, Catechism, Latin, Philosophy and the Magisterium

How should laymen go about learning sacred theology? Should we just read spiritual books, popular apologetics, the Fathers, works by this or that theologian, modern crisis polemics, and papal encyclicals – and hope for the best?

Theology is a science, with its own proper end and methodology. This three-part series is about how laymen can go about learning this science. I have freely gathered together notes, ideas and reading lists from various sources, particularly the Bellarmine Forums.[1] I hope that they will be helpful.

Image: Allegorical statue of Theology, holding the Holy Bible and the work of St Thomas Aquinas, outside the Faculty of Theology, Charles University, Prague. (Source)

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First, we will consider some necessary preliminaries; in the next part we shall move to an introduction to dogmatic and fundamental theology; and in the third, we will address the remaining courses mentioned.

This is just an outline of how one could pursue these studies, and it would not be surprising if one reads texts from certain stages out of order, or if stages run parallel to each other – but there are reasons for the programme suggested. It may also be necessary to read more or less than the suggested reading lists. I have put one or two texts in bold in each list to indicate personal preferences.

The organisation of theology

The 1931 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius XI Deus Scientiarum Dominus set out norms for the study of theology at seminaries and universities.[2] It prescribed three sets of courses, and this article is loosely based on the first set of principal courses, which includes the six headings:

  • Fundamental Theology
  • Dogmatic Theology
  • Moral Theology
  • Holy Scripture – Introduction and Exegesis
  • Ecclesiastical History, Patrology, and Christian Archaeology
  • Canon Law

These and the other courses recommended in the Constitution “[all] cooperate toward enabling the student to acquire the habitus of sacred theology.”[3]

But this programme, usually taking place in a seminary or university, assumes a certain level of education which is often lacking today. For example, it assumes a secure knowledge of:

  1. The Catechism
  2. Latin
  3. Philosophy
  4. The correct approach to the acts of the magisterium

The circumstances in which we find ourselves are far from ideal. One of the first comments that Fr Hogan makes on studying dogmatic theology is this:

“Elementary theology is commonly learned under a master, nor can it be learned otherwise, even by men of superior mind and culture, without much difficulty and many mistakes.”[4]

Where are the masters to teach us? Our priests are unlikely to be able to help and supervise us in this department, stretched as they are. And do we flatter ourselves as being “men of superior mind and culture”? And even before the world changed in the last few years, there were not many institutions – if any – where we could go and develop our intellects along these lines.

And yet there are many laymen who can, and must, develop their minds in certain ways. If we are among such men, then let us do our duty, but walking circumspectly and cautiously.

Preliminaries

It should be a given that Catholics should read the New Testament, and that they should be deeply familiar with the Gospels and the Psalms. There are plenty of places to get these free online, but here are some nice editions. (Reminder: the WM Review earns through purchases made with these links.)

We are all aware of St Jerome’s famous maxim, that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. Christ is, after all, the reason wanting to learn theology: and true theology is nothing more or less than his doctrine expressed in a systematic, scientific way. Frank Sheed expressed the same idea as St Jerome like this:

“We all respond to different elements in Christ, but we have to find them for ourselves. The student, like the teacher, should be soaked in the Gospels. He cannot meet our Lord anywhere else, not as He lived and moved and talked: that is where He is.”[5]

This is one reason why the Church presents so much of the Scriptures to us in the liturgy – which is the next thing with which we should be intimately familiar. The best form of contact is, of course, daily Mass. For many this is difficult, and there are a variety of other means: praying the Psalms or some part of the Divine Office, studying and praying our Missal, or following Dom Prosper Guéranger’s wonderful Liturgical Year (and for UK readers, although you may need to order from the USA).

Those who are able should also read the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas. It is available in the following formats:

Some advocate reading an article of the Summa each day. One may not get through it all in a lifetime, but reading the Summa has some of the qualities of reading Holy Scripture. According to the popes there is an unction in it, which nothing else of that nature possesses. It tends, in itself, to elevate the mind and heart. But even those who have the capacity to read St Thomas directly should certainly not exclude the theological tradition as represented by the texts in this series.

With this established, let us proceed.

1. The Catechism

We should all learn our catechism, properly and fully. The real beginners’ catechisms are things like the Penny Catechism, the Catechism of St Pius X, or the Baltimore Catechisms.

But having mastered the basics of the faith – which in recent decades were memorised by mere children – it is time to turn to a more developed catechism. Any approved text like this will do, but the more developed the better. The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent is, of course, superlative. The WM Review has published a review of the Baronius Press version, along with some comments on its history and importance.

Here are some examples of some more developed catechisms, or works aimed at laymen at a similar level:

In learning the catechism, we should take note of what is not in there. There are many points of theology that we laymen do not need to know to save our souls. If they were necessary, they would be in these catechisms.

We must avoid, at all costs, putting things in the wrong order. Making sure we start here – rather than at obscure and controversial points of doctrine – will help us avoid this and several dangers. The essential doctrines – there are no “optional” doctrines, just ones that are more fundamental – are what we need to know. All knowledge of sacred doctrine is edifying and useful, but it is not all equally necessary.

Without a proper grasp of necessary doctrine, it is easy to become confused by higher things. This often ends in danger to our souls and the souls of others.


The importance of even basic catechisms to Theology

Even basic catechisms, however, have an importance to theology. Let us consider what Fenton says in The Concept of Sacred Theology:

“Catechisms and other approved books of Christian doctrine, in so far as they are adopted by the ordinaries of the various dioceses for teaching the content of the faith to the people of these dioceses may be said to express the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church. […] The unanimous teaching of these catechisms can rightly be considered by the theologians as an indication of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church. The doctrine that is universally or unanimously proposed in these doctrinal books, in such a way that it is presented to practically all of the Catholics of the world as revealed truth, is certainly a verity taught and exposed infallibly in the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church.”[6]

The Tradivox project is printing a large number of approved catechisms (apparently over 50 are planned in 20 vols.), ranging from the 1200s to the 1950s, along with a searchable database. Some of the texts printed so far are more basic, while others are more developed.

Each subsequent volume is released quarterly.

In any case, this project is interesting for its historical value and for the witness that its texts will provide. The cumulative witness of even the more basic texts could provide interesting data for the student of sacred theology.


2. Latin

This piece is written for the anglophone world and it assumes no knowledge of Latin. But let us consider the words of Pope Pius XI:

“Ignorance of Latin, which may truly be termed the Catholic language, betrays a lukewarm love for the Church in a layman having any claim to education.”[7]

Learning Latin may be a challenge for adult laymen working full-time. It can feel like it is too late: but even making a start at learning Latin can be very rewarding.

One method, which is modern but takes a mature and no-nonsense approach, is Oulton’s So you really want to learn Latin series. Here it is, along with some other aids:

Continues below.

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3. Philosophy

In seminaries, seminarians do not study theology until they have completed at least a year of philosophy, and in fact often more. This is because the Church “couches” her theology in scholastic terms. Her official pronouncements are, therefore, liable to be misunderstood without a proper knowledge of her perennial philosophy – namely, that of St. Thomas Aquinas. Pope St Pius X wrote:

“[T]he capital theses in the philosophy of St. Thomas are not to be placed in the category of opinions capable of being debated one way or another, but are to be considered as the foundations upon which the whole science of natural and divine things is based; if such principles are once removed or in any way impaired, it must necessarily follow that students of the sacred sciences will ultimately fail to perceive so much as the meaning of the words in which the dogmas of divine revelation are proposed by the magistracy of the Church.”[8]

As examples of some good introductions to the various areas of philosophy, Mgr Paul J. Glenn’s various volumes written in the first half of the twentieth century are excellent:

All of these, except Dialectics, are available from Gyan Books, a facsimile publisher based in India. I have had good experience with their quality, having ordered another book from them previously. Their paperbacks are smyth-sewn, which is wonderful, and very rare today.

These are all also available online here for readers based in the US, along with his volumes on Apologetics, Sociology and the History of Philosophy.

It would also be worthwhile reading some of St Thomas Aquinas’s “Opuscula”, or “small works”, on these topics. The following volume contains two with which it would be worth spending some time, perhaps after (or with) Glenn’s Introduction:

There are other pre-conciliar texts available as well. In a modern setting, David Oderberg and Edward Feser are doing important work, and we will mention them again in the context of natural theology and ethics, and there are further titles in the appendix. For this stage, however, the below is a straightforward and modern (if a little dense) introduction to Thomistic philosophy:

These titles will suffice for an article about starting to learn theology. But the “philosophy stage” should not be rushed – nor will it ever end, really. Philosophy – like theology – is different from every other subject, in that we must meditate on the principles. We should not be just learning them, but rather understanding them, spending time with particular principles or arguments in mind, turning them over, and looking at them from different angles. We should savour them. This is because the ideas are so fundamental and universal: while they may be simple, their implications are profound. They are, further, all pure abstractions – and abstraction is hard work.

At its bottom, philosophy just is reality – and this is why we have to ponder its truths, and not merely read them or learn them by rote.


The importance of natural theology as a branch of philosophy

All these areas of philosophy are important. However, in our age, it is especially important that laymen have a firm grasp of natural theology – i.e., what we can know about God from reason alone.

The current crisis can make it extremely difficult to reconcile what we see around us with the Church’s teaching about herself. As such, many of those who come to see the gravity of the crisis are scandalised and can face a bitter temptation against the virtue of faith.

Those who have not seen and understood the natural proofs for the existence of God can lack a sufficient motive to make an act of faith in such a trial. Some have, even very publicly, come to doubt not only the Catholic religion, but also the existence of God himself.

On the other hand, those who have understood natural theology will know how it is that, as Vatican I infallibly taught, “the one, true God, our creator and Lord, [can] be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason.”[9] This understanding will protect them in this trial, and prompt them to make an act of faith – in which they will either rest in hope, or seek further understanding.

This topic is dealt with in most manuals, which we will discuss in the second part. Nonetheless we can recommend the following books, including two by Feser and Glenn respectively.

For the same reasons, it is important to have a secure grasp of fundamental theology – which we will discuss in the next part.


4. How we should approach magisterial texts

Throughout the study of theology – with important caveats – it is good to read the documents and acts of the magisterium. Nicolau states a commonplace truth:

“[T]he proximate, immediate and supreme norm or rule of faith for a Catholic is the teaching of the living Magisterium of the Church, which is authentic [authoritative] and traditional.”[10]

He concludes:

“[A theologian’s] first task will be to know or to establish the doctrine itself of faith as proposed by the proximate norm of faith, the magisterium of the Church, or to investigate what the magisterium of the Church says about each thing.”[11]

Reading the acts of the magisterium is beneficial, whether we are discussing papal encyclicals or letters, or conciliar documents. But we should not – I repeat, should not – treat such texts as our primary learning sources. This inverts everything and entails significant dangers.

Authoritative magisterial texts are not promulgated in a vacuum, to be understood according to one’s own private interpretations: especially in our day, we must respect that they are a part of a tradition of theology and thought.

We need to remember that these texts were not usually written for laymen, and they can contain a lot of technical language. The difficulty of each text will vary according to its purpose. Some are relatively simple and aim at promoting the veneration of a saint or promoting the Rosary, for example. Others are highly technical and are intended to deal with problems amongst theologians. If we do not have any philosophy, we may misunderstand them, as we saw Pope St. Pius X say.[12] There have been many persons since the Council who have indeed entangled themselves in error.

With that in mind, the main resources are:

Denzinger is a necessary part of any moderately serious library. However, the Deferrari translation into English is far from perfect: it is sometimes jarringly different from other official versions of well-known magisterial documents. The text of the Vatican Council on what must be believed with divine and Catholic faith is quite unclear, even erroneous.[13]

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Specific Papal Encyclicals

Read the papal encyclicals and other documents widely – but of particular interest to the modern state of theology and how to approach it as a science:

  • Leo XIII – Aeterni Patris. On the importance of the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas in the study of theology.
  • Pius X – Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Systematising and condemning the errors of modernism.
  • Pius XII – Humani Generis. On the “new theology,” including many important observations on ecclesiology.

There are many other texts relevant for our current situation. The following are of particular interest in relation to ecclesiology, a recurring focus for this website:

Novus Ordo Watch have also gathered a collection of magisterial texts on the Church, some of which are their own exclusive translations. They are available here.

Conciliar Documents

The volume of this body of texts is not too great – excepting Trent.

  • The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent will be available in a new and high quality edition in March 2022 from St Austin Press.

Those particularly interested in the Church and Ecclesiology are, of course, advised to read the entirety of Vatican I, namely the two documents:

  • Dei Filius. On Faith.
  • Pastor Aeternus. On the Roman Pontiff.

Both are available here.

Conclusion to Part I

In the next part we will consider how to study theology itself, focusing on how to obtain an overview of the body of dogmatic theology, and how to study fundamental theology in a more detailed way. The third part will consider the remaining courses in Pius XI’s list.

To repeat what others have expressed better elsewhere: our Lord Jesus Christ instituted a visible Church, and gave it the authority to teach, rule and sanctify in his name. He requires us to believe all of the things which he has revealed: not in the way that seems best to us from reading in a vacuum, but in the sense in which they have been taught by the Church.

But we face grave problems today, in that Christ’s Church is to a great degree eclipsed, and those of us in the West are all but unable to hear the voice of her authoritative magisterium. Some sneer at the idea of autodidacts: but who, precisely, is going to teach us? Secular universities? The universities where we might have studied, even as laymen, are hostile to the traditional Catholic religion. Are the programmes at modern “Catholic” universities going to deliver what is needed?

Perhaps those who sneer think we should either go to such institutions for their “formal training and qualifications”, or perhaps that we should all bury our talents in the ground and get our doctrine from bloggers and YouTubers instead.

No, we are essentially forced to teach ourselves, seeking what guidance we may. We must carefully work out the right meaning of doctrine using authoritative sources and our reason. To this end, we need 1) the authoritative texts in which the Church has taught us, and 2) the correct interpretation of those texts.

This is why this and subsequent parts will suggest those books written by theologians over the last few hundred years. These are reliable sources because their authors have read all the great theologians, and are therefore able to tell us what is “agreed” by all and what remains unclear (“disputed”).

To learn sacred theology safely, we must consult such approved writers. Their qualifications, their standing, the approval of their works, are all evidence of the extent to which the Church trusts them to represent her. Just as we cannot base our knowledge of the faith and theology on modern crisis polemics, so also can we not simply rely on things like an English translation of Denzinger in a vacuum, even if it were to be translated well. This, according to an image used elsewhere, is equivalent to imagining that one has a living body, when in fact one has a mere part of a skeleton, whose bones are broken and in disarray.[14]


Appendix: Higher-level modern philosophy texts

Regarding Feser and Oderberg: some of their texts may not be so suitable for students at this stage – and it may be helpful to read a brief introduction to analytic philosophy for context. However, here are some titles for those interested:

For some context on the “analytic philosophy” with which these writers are engaging, one could look at something like this:

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[1] We have compiled such notes from the Bellarmine Forums with the permission of the owner.

[2] Apostolic Constitution Deus Scientiarum Dominus 1931. Available at https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/la/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-xi_apc_19310524_deus-scientiarum-dominus.html

[3] Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Concept of Sacred Theology, published as What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, Providence RI, 2018. (UK readers) p 214 n. 4

[4] J.B. Hogan, How to Study Dogmatic Theology, in Clerical Studies, Marlier, Callanan & Co, Boston1898, p 180. (UK readers). Available at https://tradcath.proboards.com/thread/1672/study-dogmatic-theology-hogan-1898

[5] Frank Sheed, Are we really teaching religion? 1953. Available at EWTN at https://web.archive.org/web/20220109233505/https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/are-we-really-teaching-religion-4068

[6] Fenton 118

[7] Pius XI, Apostolic letter Officiorum et munerum. Available at https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/la/apost_letters/documents/hf_p-xi_apl_19220801_officiorum-omnium.html

[8] Pope St Pius X, Motu Proprio Doctoris angelici. SSPX.

[9] Vatican I, available here: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum20.htm

[10] Fr Michaele Nicolau SJ, Introduction to Theology, in Sacrae Theologia Summa IA trans. by Kenneth Baker SJ, Keep the Faith 2015. No. 6

[11] Ibid.

[12] See above, Pope St Pius X, Motu Proprio Doctoris angelici. SSPX.

[13] The section in the Loreto edition reads: “Further, by divine and Catholic faith, all those things must be believed which are contained in the written word of God and in tradition, and those which are proposed by the Church, either in a solemn pronouncement or in her ordinary and universal teaching power, to be believed as divinely revealed.” (Dei Filius, Ch. 3, “Concerning Faith”, Dz 1792.) This text is somewhat unclear. The following translation by John Daly is clearer: “All those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and are proposed by the Church either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal magisterium to be believed as divinely revealed.”

[14] This section of the text is adapted from the open letter Twisted Quotations, available here: https://web.archive.org/web/20060820033017/http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/twisted.html

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