Learning Sacred Theology III: Scripture, Moral Theology, History, Fathers, and Canon Law

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 three-part series is about how laymen can go about learning the sacred science of theology, in accordance with its proper methodology and structure. I have freely gathered together notes, ideas and reading lists from various sources, particularly the Bellarmine Forums.[1] 

Up until this point, we have been going through the stages in the order we think should be followed. It makes sense to learn the catechism thoroughly, then to approach philosophy, then to obtain an overview of dogmatic theology, and then to drill deeply into the key areas more necessary to understand our current situation.

But having established this firm foundation, one could perhaps explore different areas as one’s interest leads. Even so, it is still important to do so in a careful way which keeps in view the structure and nature of theology.

With this in view, this part will be based on the remaining principal courses given by in the 1931 Apostolic Constitution Deus Scientiarum Dominus, in the following order:

  • Holy Scripture
  • Moral Theology
    • Also, Ascetic and Spiritual Theology
  • History
    • Also, the Fathers
    • Also, the Doctors
  • Canon Law
  • Appendix: Social Doctrine

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Holy Scripture

As noted in the previous part, Holy Scripture is sometimes included as a part of Fundamental Theology, especially when it is treated under the aspect of the sources of revelation. We have already given several texts relating to the sources of revelation in the last part – and this will focus more on an appreciation of Holy Scripture itself.

Before we start, here are some English versions of the Bible. The course on Holy Scripture would naturally involve critical editions in ancient languages – but this is beyond the scope of what we are seeking to achieve here. (Reminder: we earn through Amazon links)

Holy Bible (Douay-Rheims), Baronius Press. (UK readers)

New Testament and Psalms (Douay Rheims), Baronius Press. (UK readers)

New Testament (Confraternity), Scepter.

Holy Bible (Knox), Baronius Press (UK readers). This mid-twentieth century translation was approved by the English bishops for use in churches prior to Vatican II.

Our own Old and New Testament Scriptural Rosary system is a way of incorporating Holy Scripture into your Rosary.

As suggested above, the course on Holy Scripture seems, in some ways, to be one of the most complex. This is perhaps because it deals with so many important concrete details, like the history of the first century Church, the different stages of the Jewish religion, languages, archaeology and so on. Many such details may seem beyond the layman seeking a greater knowledge of theology.

However, some parts of this course are not beyond us laymen, or irrelevant to us. For example, we certainly can develop a knowledge and appreciation of the content of Scripture, guided by appropriate texts. It is worth our time understanding the nature of inspiration and revelation, so as to be able to defend the inspired word against various modern ideas. It is also worth our time understanding the role of Holy Scripture in the Church’s life and in theology.

Let’s see what Fenton says about the study of, and authority of, Holy Scripture in theology:

“[The Bible] is properly also a source of divine revelation. The teaching which it contains is that which comes from God as His message. It is not merely the divinely guided interpretation of that message. […] The man who begins the study of the sacred doctrine will advance more perfectly in so far as he is aware of this. Thus, for example, the scientific perfection of that portion of the Summa Theologica which deals with the processions and the relations in God can be seen in all of its beauty and in all the perfect profundity of its meaning only when a man realizes that it is meant to explain the significance of the words of our Lord, contained in the Gospel according to St. John. ‘I have come forth from God.’”[2]

This text is a reminder of the raison d’être of theology itself – the systematic and scientific expression of the teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Being soaked in the Psalms

Before considering how an intellectual knowledge of Holy Scripture fits into the study of theology, let us repeat this quote from the first part:

“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.”[3]

We should also be soaked in the Psalms. The Psalms are the divine prayers written by the Holy Ghost, and they frequently express, in typological terms, the very sentiments of Christ himself. They also express every sentiment in words chosen by God himself. Among other things, it will also open up the Mass in a new way, given that so many of the texts are from the Psalms.

They are most perfectly presented to us in the Divine Office or the Breviary. Translations and the ordering of the Psalter are controversial questions: but for the practical purposes of a laymen becoming “soaked in the Psalms,” arguments like those about St Pius X’s Psalter reforms are quite unimportant. For our purposes here, do not get bogged down in such questions: what is important is contact with the Psalms themselves.

So, one method would be to obtain an English Breviary and spend as much time as possible with the Psalter and the hours – not worrying about following the rubrics, calendar, hymns, collects or any other part of the Office. Follow them if you can – just do not stress about them if you cannot. If a full Breviary is not an option, one could consider something like the Monastic Breviary.

This is an immensely rewarding thing to do. Those who put the hours into knowing the Psalms now will realise the worth of it in the future.

Here are some options for texts:

Roman Breviary (and for UK readers), Latin and English (1962) Baronius Press.

My Daily Psalm Book (and for UK readers). Features all of the psalms arranged in the order of the St Pius X Breviary – albeit as a translation from the Cardinal Bea “Pian” Psalter. Nonetheless, a small and handy book and controversies here need not get in the way of laymen at this stage.

Monastic Diurnal (and for UK readers), Latin and English, dated 1963, 8th Edition published in 2020. It is according to the pre-St Pius X monastic psalter ordering. Warning: avoid the oversized 7th Edition!

Divinum Officium Project, Latin and English.

Our own Old Testament Rosary, which is predominantly excerpts from the Psalms allotted for each relevant mystery of the Rosary foretold.

St Robert Bellarmine – Commentary on the Book of Psalms (and for UK readers)

Note that while the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary (here for UK readers) may be a laudable and very indulgenced devotion, its daily round will not achieve the purpose in view here, namely wide contact with the psalms.

Holy Scripture: Introductions and Commentaries

There are various introductions to Holy Scripture, which will nonetheless have a lot of interesting content. The text from Nicolau also provides a good overlap with the study of Tradition and the Sources of Revelation, and deals with the role of Holy Scripture in the Church and theology.

Nicolau – On Holy Scripture, Contained within Sacrae Theologiae Summa Volume IB. Keep the Faith Publications.

Laux – Introduction to the Bible (here for UK readers). For High School students, but 352 pages long. Tan Books.

For commentaries on Holy Scripture itself:

Orchard et al – A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (and for UK readers) Internet Archive or second-hand copies.

Lapide SJ – The Great Commentary (On the Holy Gospels) (and for UK readers). Also available at iPieta.com.

Haydock Bible (and for UK readers). Detailed footnotes on a version of the Douay-Rheims. The commentary takes up about a half to two-thirds of each page. Available online at iPieta.com .

St Thomas Aquinas – Catena Aurea (and for UK readers). 4 vols, line-by-line commentary on the four Gospels from the Fathers of the Church, assembled by St Thomas Aquinas and translated by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Published by Baronius Press.

St Robert Bellarmine – Commentary on the Book of Psalms (and for UK readers)

Knecht – A Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture. Available from Amazon USAmazon UK and Saint Austin Press. More aimed at teachers and parents. We have published a review.

St Thomas Aquinas’s scriptural commentaries are being published by the Aquinas Institute in English and Latin. Here are some of the options below – they are online here, and it is possible to buy single volumes of the commentaries below:

Moral Theology

Moral theology is the branch of the sacred science which considers human acts, conscience, practical judgements, law, sin virtue and vice. Fenton writes:

“After this general consideration, the theologian considers the individual precepts of the moral order. Sometimes the division of these commandments is made according to the decalogue and the chief precepts of the Catholic Church. At other times they are considered with reference to the virtues, to the activity of which they are ordered. Then moral theology considers the particular duties which follow from the acceptance of certain states in life, with special stress being placed upon the duties of clerics and religious. The last, and the most extensive portion of moral theology treats of the liceity of acts which are connected with the sacraments.”[4]

There are a number of manuals of moral theology in English: it can be a good idea to obtain one and study it with the same qualifications mentioned throughout this series. But in first place, we have St Alphonsus de Liguori – the Church’s doctor of moral theology. At present it is being translated into English by Mr Ryan Grant. St Alphonsus holds a unique position in Catholic moral theology:

“In the field of moral theology the Church has given special approval to the writings of St Alphonsus Liguori. This unique approbation has been stated in a negative manner, by the declaration that the Church has never found anything worthy of censure in his writings. In this way St Alphonsus has been pointed out as a worthy guide in a field that offers more than ordinary measure of difficulty.”[5]

St Alphonsus – Moral Theology. Available in an ongoing project from Mediatrix Press.

McHugh & Callan – Moral Theology – A Complete Course Based on St. Thomas Aquinas and the Best Modern Authorities (and for UK readers) Two volumes – superb, very clear and very comprehensive. Online at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive here and here.

Prümmer – Handbook of Moral Theology (and for UK readers). One good and concise volume. Internet Archive.

Slater – Manual of Moral Theology for English-Speaking Countries. Vol. I and Vol. II (and for UK readers, Vol. I and Vol II. Online at Internet Archive.

Jone-Adelman – Moral Theology (and for UK readers). One good and concise volume.

Sagües – On Sins. In Sacrae Theologiae Summa IIB. Not a moral manual, but rather a detailed account of the concept of sin.

Connell – Outlines of Moral Theology (and for UK readers) Less detailed and systematic.

Fagothey – Right and Reason (and for UK readers). A college text.

Laux – Catholic Morality (and for UK readers). A high school text.

It could be very worthwhile reading Aristotle’s foundational text:

Aristotle – Nichomachean Ethics (and for UK readers)

We could also list David Oderberg’s three relevant books:

Oderberg – Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach (and for UK readers)

Oderberg – Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist approach (and for UK readers)

Oderberg – Metaphysics of Good and Evil. (and for UK readers)

Casuistry: a Defence

The shorter, more recent texts above were written to assist priests in hearing confessions. Today, some object to this genre as being “casuistic” and reductive. We are told that casuistry is reductive because it deals with categorising sins rather than inculcating virtue.

Fenton writes:

“Moral theology deals with the liceity and the illicit character of human acts. Because of its very nature the use of examples or cases constitutes an excellent pedagogical means for learning and explaining this discipline. For this reason the subject itself is sometimes known as casuistic moral theology. The term must never be used in a pejorative sense, since that teaching which is set forth in the traditional moral textbooks has often been approved by the Church herself. There is always unfortunately a tendency among those who have never taken the trouble to master the field of moral theology to find fault with it because it ‘does not offer a high enough ideal.’”[6] [My emphasis]

In other words, criticism of casuistry for doing what it sets out to do, rather than something else, is not legitimate. Fenton continues, and defends this genre and its place in Theology:

“As a matter of fact the moralist fulfils one of the most important functions in the explanation of Catholic teaching. Were he to confuse the counsels and the commandments he would be guilty of making a fatal misstatement of that teaching which God revealed to men through Jesus Christ. It is his immediate business to point out what God has taught us as demanded by that life of grace which He has conceded to us in this world. In order to teach this properly, he must point out those acts which are not in accord with the life of grace, and those which are so opposed to that life as to be incompatible with it.”[7]

There is no need to defend casuistry any further: it is a “genre” approved by the Church, and evidently necessary. The criticism that it does not focus on the virtues is not valid, because this genre has a different end altogether.

Nonetheless, while the criticism may be bankrupt as a criticism, the point that it focuses on sins and cases could be conceded (to some degree) as an observation of facts. What branches of theology, then, do deal with the inculcation of virtue?

Spiritual Theology

Spiritual theology can be defined as the study of human acts insofar as they are directed towards Christian perfection. Fenton gives his overview of this branch and its subdivisions:

“In this course we look at the nature and the necessity of Christian perfection itself, and then at the manner in which God brings the soul to it. Ascetical theology tells about that portion of the soul’s advance toward God in which the prayerful activity of that soul is conducted in the manner which is natural to man. Mystical theology, on the other hand, tells of that stage in the advance of the soul in which it acts in a manner at once distinct from and superior to the natural way in which man operates for the attainment of an end. Both of these disciplines treat of activity which is essentially and intrinsically supernatural.”[8]

This article is about how to go about studying theology – it is not about how to attain perfection. Rather than listing texts on growth in virtue itself, here are some that give a scholarly overview of the trajectory of perfection, and the Church’s theology in this area.

St Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologica IIa IIae Vol. I and Vol. II (and for UK readers here and here). This second part of the second part is focused on the virtues and on sin. Also available at Aquinas.cc, New Advent and on iPieta.com

Garrigou Lagrange – Three Ages of the Interior Life (and for UK readers here and here). Two volumes, soon to be available from Baronius Press.

Garrigou-Lagrange – Christian Perfection and Contemplation (and for UK readers). Soon to be available from Baronius Press.

Tanquerey – The Spiritual Life (and for UK readers). Soon to be available from St Austin Press.

Cunningham et al, College Theology Vol. II, The Christian Life (and for UK readers and online at Internet Archive) As the name suggests, this is more of a college text.

Spiritual works with some focus on the Church

There are many texts about the development of the spiritual life, whether in terms of the purification of the soul, growth in virtue or ultimately union in God. A classic text of this genre for laymen is St Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life and, amongst more modern texts, This Tremendous Lover by Dom Eugene Boylan.

As we said, this is outside of the scope of this article. Nonetheless, here are a few texts for “spiritual reading” that may appeal to those interested in ecclesiology and the Church:

Guéranger – The Liturgical Year, 15 vols. See here for UK readers – although you may need to just order from the US link. A great edition was from St Bonaventure Press, (check here for availability) but this is currently out of print. It is still available from Loreto Publications in hardback and paperback editions. Available on the iPieta app and currently being posted daily online.

Boylan – This Tremendous Lover (and for UK readers). Baronius Press

Clérissac – The Mystery of the Church (and for UK readers). Online at the Bellarmine Forums.

Benson – Christ in the Church (and for UK readers). Online at Internet Archive.

Leen – The True Vine (and for UK readers). Online at Internet Archive.

Marmion – Christ the Life of the Soul (and for UK readers). Online at the Internet Archive.

Guéranger’s work is the ultimate synthesis of ecclesiology and spiritual reading; it takes on whole new meanings and beauty after certain obscured truths about the Church are accepted.

Church History

Studying ecclesiastical history can be a very rewarding pursuit. In a sense, the study of history serves theology, by establishing things like the credibility of the Gospels as historical documents. For the purposes of this article, it gives us a sense of the Church’s life since the Ascension.

However, we must be on our guard against certain tendencies around us today. In Humani Generis, Pius XII warned us about historians who “boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church.”[9]

We have already written much about Döllingerist “historical theology” and the ways in which post-conciliar history is politicised at the expense of theology. This has been the topic of our long study Theology and History, where we have pointed out that history is in fact a mere adjunct source of theology.

In that study, we considered the tendency of many today to redefine theology on the basis of historical narratives, in order to justify a priori theories about the current crisis. Against this, the manualist Hunter explains:

“[The historian] must have before his eyes the teachings of Theology, as the norm to which his expositions must confirm. This rule results from the certainty which Theology attains, which is higher than the certainty that can be ascribed to any interpretation of a text or historical view.”[10]

For this reason, all of the suggested texts – generally at least of three or four volumes – are from before Vatican II. This is not to say that post-conciliar histories are all worthless, or that pre-conciliar histories attain some fantastical notion of impartiality. However, these pre-conciliar texts give us a more accurate witness as to how the Church viewed her history before the council – uninfluenced by those who wish to justify or attack Vatican II.

Darras – General History of The Catholic Church From The Commencement Of The Christian Era Until The Present Time, 4 vols. Online at Internet Archive, and available here:

Parsons – Studies in Church History. 6 vols. Online at Internet Archive.

Mourret-Thompson – A History of the Catholic Church. 8 vols. Online at Internet Archive. It is difficult to find, especially for UK readers.

  • Vol. I – Period of Early Expansion
  • Vol. II – Period of the Church Fathers
  • Vol. III – Period of the Early Middle Ages
  • Vol. IV – Period of the Later Middle Ages
  • Vol. V – Period of the Renaissance and Reformation
  • Vol. VI – Period of the Ancient Regime
  • Vol. VII – Period of the French Revolution (and for UK readers)
  • Vol. VIII – Period of the Early Nineteenth Century (1823-1878)

Poulet – A History of the Catholic Church (2 vols.) Online at Internet Archive and:

  • Vol. I – The Ancient Church, The Middle Ages, The Beginnings of the Modern Period (and for UK readers)
  • Vol. II – The Modern Period, Contemporary Church History (and for UK readers)

Some more particular works of interest could include:

St Alphonsus – The History of Heresies (and for UK readers). Rich in detail and gives a great overview up to its time of writing. Internet Archive and Forgotten Books.

Eusebius of Caesarea – Church History (and for UK readers). Online at New Advent.

St Bede the Venerable – Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and for UK readers). A glorious work.

Laux – Church History (and for UK readers) This is a high school or college text, but could be a good simple introduction.

The Fathers and Doctors

We should also read the Fathers and Doctors, particularly St. Augustine. Returning to Fenton:

“The Fathers of the Church were those early ecclesiastical writers who were conspicuous both for the sanctity of their lives and for the orthodoxy of their teachings. As such they are cited in the science of sacred theology as authentic witnesses of the faith and of the practice in the ancient Church. On certain points of doctrine the Church has given special approval to the teachings of individual fathers. […]

“The Fathers of the Church can, of course, be studied and considered as private theologians. Looked at in this way, the value of the testimony offered by each writer is proportionate to the weight of the theological reasons he adduces. […] When one Father, or a group of them, actually stated that some doctrine had been revealed by God and taught by Jesus Christ, this testimony has naturally a tremendous weight and significance. But when the Fathers unanimously profess that some doctrine is a part of the divine public revelation, then their testimony is absolutely irrefutable.”[11]

A great starting point for various points of Catholic doctrine is:

The Faith of Catholics, by Berington, Kirk and Waterworth. Three-vol. collection of patristic texts on various subjects. Vol. I and the start of Vol. II deal particularly with the Church and the Papacy. Available here: 

For some examples of complete texts, particularly those dealing with the Church:

St Augustine. Most of his works are available online at New Advent. One could consult in particular:

St Cyprian – On the Unity of the Church (and for UK readers). Available in The Lapsed / The Unity of the Catholic Church, (Ancient Christian Writers series) trans. by Maurice Bevenot and published by Paulist Press, or online (NB: this online version is a transcription of an old translation, and we are not clear of the provenance of the website itself.)

St Vincent of Lerins – Commonitorium Against Heresies (and for UK readers). Published by Tradibooks, and online at New Advent.

For more interesting texts, which are more or less relevant to our current problems:

Tertullian – The Apology (and for UK readers). Tertullian ended as a heretic and his excessive choler may have been a reason. Nonetheless, his Apology is a joy to read. When I read it at as a young man, the only way I could describe it was “like reading fire.” Online here.

St Justin Martyr – The First and Second Apologies (and for UK readers). A very early account of the Christian faith and practice. Very readable and indeed a pleasure to read. Online at New Advent.

St Irenaeus of Lyon – Against Heresies (and for UK readers). Online at New Advent.

St Jerome – Letters (and for UK readers), or anything at all. The fierceness with which he writes is very exciting, and some would find it scandalous today. His letters to St Augustine reveal an interesting side to him.

St John Damascene – On the Orthodox Faith (and for UK readers) Online at New Advent.

Then, the Doctors of the Church, with whom the Fathers have some obvious overlap. The Doctors are appointed by the Church as our teachers, and we should learn from them. Fenton writes:

“Doctrinally the naming of a Doctor constitutes a declaration by the Church that this eminent servant of God was remarkable alike for the holiness of his life and the effective orthodoxy of his teaching. Naturally this effective orthodoxy is incompatible with the presence of any substantial error about faith or morals in the books which he gave to the Church. There is also a positive connotation. Not only does the Church declare that there is no serious error in any of his work, but by the very fact that he is constituted as a Doctor, she commends that portion of his writing on which he may be said to have specialized and because of which he is entered upon the list of Doctors.”[12]

For those interested in ecclesiology and other relevant issues, the following relevant texts by non-patristic Doctors are readily available:

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

St Robert Bellarmine – On the Roman Pontiff (and for UK readers). Again translated by Mr Ryan Grant and published by Mediatrix Press. Another version here, translated by Fr Kenneth Baker, including also the Controversies on Holy Scripture and Christ our Lord. Essential reading for the topic.

St Francis de Sales – The Catholic Controversy (and for UK readers). Online at Internet Archive.

St Alphonsus – The History of Heresies (and for UK readers). Online at Internet Archive.

St Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologica, trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, (5 vols.) Ave Maria Press, Hardback (and UK readers) and Paperback (and UK readers). Also online at New Advent and iPieta.

St Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologiae, published by Aquinas Institute (8 vols.) Latin-English, based on the English Fathers’ translation, without the Supplementum parts. (And for UK readersSupplementum I-68 (and UK readersSupplementum 69-99 (and UK readers)

St Thomas Aquinas – Summa Contra Gentiles. Aquinas Institute in 2 vols: Vol. I (Books I-II) and Vol. 2 (Books III-IV) and for UK readers here and here. Budget single-volume from Aeterna Press (and for UK readers) and online at iPieta or Aquinas.cc

In addition to St Thomas’s own works, let’s mention again:

Abbé Anger’s The Doctrine of the Mystical Body According to the Principles of St Thomas Aquinas (for UK readers and Internet Archive). This is a useful compendium of a subject which does not appear in a discrete section of the Summa Theologica, and so is often presumed not to exist.

Glenn – A Tour of the SummaA compressed one-volume account of the Summa. (UK readers)

Canon Law

Studying Canon Law and associated works can be rewarding. The 1917 Code of Canon Law is available in English translation – and there are various commentaries available. It was stated in one of the Bellarmine Forums posts on which this series is based:

“[T]o understand the Church you need to have read her laws. You don’t need to be an expert, but it is immeasurably helpful just to read them through. You’ll be amazed and edified, as well as instructed, by her wisdom and charity.”

Why might this be? Well, in Melchior Cano’s list of the sources of theology, he adds the authority of canonists to that of the scholastic theologians. Let us see what Fenton says:

“The law is an ordinance of reason promulgated for the common good, by the one who has charge of a community. The law of the Church, then, looks to that good which is the possession of God in the beatific vision by those who, through their union with the Church, obtain the gift of eternal salvation. Its purpose is the glory of God, to be procured in the fullness of Christ in the sanctification and salvation of those for whom Christ shed His blood. Canon law is formulated by the Holy Father as the Vicar of Christ on earth, and by the ecumenical council which is subject to and in communion with him. It is thus the work of the hierarchy responsible for the direction and the instruction of the people of God.

“[In the 1917 Code of Canon Law] we find several dogmatic pronouncements. These naturally enjoy tremendous authority, even though it is quite certain that Pope Benedict XV never intended that these declarations of the Code should be received as definitions.

“But the very law of the Church is an expression of that directive force which orders Christians toward the attainment of their final end. The men who have been charged with the function of teaching that law are able authoritatively and competently to show how the precepts and the counsels of our Lord are made manifest in the society which He founded. Thus their teachings are indicative of the actual content and meaning of the message which God gave to the human race through Jesus Christ. The teacher of canon law is able to indicate the actual direction given by the living and infallible Church.”[13]

Note that in the 1931 list of courses, Canon Law comes last. There are many who invert things, and think that they can start here, and use a few canons to understand theology and our current crisis. But it would be a mistake to view theology through the lens of Canon Law.

Aside from anything else, this sort of back-to-front approach has often bred a reductive, legalistic way of thinking. For a start – and relevant to contemporary matters such as membership in the Church – many matters of divine or natural law are managed by the Code, without being dependent on it. I have written elsewhere on the strange and absurd ideas that arise from this back-to-front approach. It is foolish, and St Thomas even says that it is “ridiculous” for theology to be based on the glosses of canonists.

We should be on our guard against thinking that we should determine theological points with canonical literature rather than theological literature – particularly when these determinations are based on isolated examples from lightweight, single-volume introductions.

Here are a few interesting texts. Note that they sometimes refer to the “new code.” This is because, at some point in time, the 1917 Code was new as well. For obvious reasons, we are only listing texts referring to this code, not the text of 1983.

The 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, ed. Edward N. Peters (and for UK readers). Ignatius Press.

Bouscaren & Ellis – Canon Law, a Text and Commentary (and for UK readers) (1 vol.) Internet Archive.

Woywod – A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law in one volume, also as Vol. I and Vol. II. Here for UK readers in one volume, or as Vol. I and Vol. II (2 vols). Also available online: Vol. I and Vol. II

Augustine – Commentary on Canon Law (8 volumes) Internet Archive.

There are many interesting monographs published before the Council, some of which were doctoral dissertations on specialised areas. Many from the Catholic University of America are available for free online. Some subjects include canonical studies of the delict of heresy and supplied jurisdiction. Nonetheless, it could be misleading to read such things without a more general grounding in canon law and of theology, for the reasons given above.

And so we come to the end of the principal courses.


This series has been drawing together the sort of order that one should follow in studying theology. As we have mentioned, note both the order and the absences in these principal courses, as well as the types of resources suggested. We have not included podcasts, videos, or contemporary polemics. This is because such sources, however useful or edifying they may be, are at least hardly ever ordered towards the end of learning theology, and perhaps even clutter the mind with unnecessary concerns.

Learning Sacred Theology is a demanding pursuit, and we must do so cautiously and in the proper order. These studies require time and concentration, not least for reflection on the different topics being studied.

Much more could be written on other neglected works and the auxiliary and special courses that follow these principal ones. Likewise, there are many other things that we laymen should be reading. For example:

The lives of the Saints (perhaps Butler – or again, the great Guéranger) are good to read, as they show us the different ways in which Christian perfection has manifested itself in the world.

Similarly, while it does not really touch on the matter of learning theology, laymen do indeed have a special duty to know about the Church’s social doctrine. There are many strange ideas abroad amongst Catholics who wish to return to the idea of Christendom, but want to neglect (again) the received tradition on this subject. I have included a few key texts in the appendix.

But whatever we study should be subject to the sort of development suggested here, and done in a spirit of prayer – asking God for the graces necessary, and that he enlighten us only as far as he deigns, and is good for our souls.


Catholic social doctrine and the Social Reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ

As mentioned above, laymen have a special duty to study Catholic social doctrine and to work for the Christianisation and right ordering of society. The received tradition revolves around the idea of the Social Kingship of Christ.

In this appendix we give some of the key texts in this area that Catholics may wish to familiarise themselves with.

Some recent papal documents on Catholic social doctrine:

Leo XIII – Rerum Novarum

Leo XIII – Libertas

Pius XI – Quadragesimo Anno

Pius XI – Quas Primas

Pius XII – Guiding Principles of the Lay Apostolate

Papal Teachings – The Lay Apostolate (and for UK readers)

And some more systematic texts:

Cahill – Framework of a Christian State (and for UK readers and online)

Glenn – Sociology

Also for reference and interest:

Aristotle – Politics (and for UK readers and online)

Aquinas – On Kingship. Despite the title, this is about more than just Kingship: it also deals with the purpose of civil authority in itself. In Opuscula I, from the Aquinas Institute (UK readers) and online at Aquinas.cc

And more popular treatments of relevant issues:

Belloc – The Servile State (and for UK readers and online)

Chesterton – Outline of Sanity (and for UK readers)

Civardi – Manual of Catholic Action (and for UK readers and online)

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


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[1] We have compiled such notes from the Bellarmine Forums with the permission of the owner. Here are the three main inspirations: Learning Sacred DoctrineTheology Manuals in English; and How to Form a Catholic Mind.

[2] Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, The Concept of Sacred Theology, published as What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, Providence RI, 2018. (UK readers) p 106

[3] 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

[4] Fenton 226-7

[5] Fenton 157

[6] Fenton 227

[7] Fenton 227-8

[8] Fenton 228-9

[9] Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis 38.

[10] Sylvester Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology Vol I 3rd edition, Benzinger Bros 1894. 5

[11] Fenton 143, 145.

[12] Fenton 155

[13] Fenton 158

[14] G.K. Chesterton, The Thing, Sheed and Ward, London, 1946, p 29.

[15] Ibid.

[16] St Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence, in Opuscula I, Aquinas Institute. Available here: https://aquinas.cc/la/en/~DeEnte

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