THE CATHOLIC GREAT BOOKS SET ™

2,000 Years of Collected Wisdom

There are, of course, various lists of Catholic books, and numerous collections and anthologies of Catholic literature and spirituality, and even three sets of Catholic encyclopedias. There are numerous collections of hagiography – “Lives of the Saints”and the collection par excellance of such, the four contemporary  lives of Christ–the Gospels.  There are various sets of spiritual writings, such as the excellent Paulist Press “Classics of Western Spirituality;” Minge’s extensive collection of Patristic texts and writings of the Church Fathers and Doctors, and numerous multi-volume theology sets and extensive ecclesiastical history sets.

However, to the best of our knowledge, there was no specific set of great, Catholic books, or “Catholic Great Books” – however one wishes to arrange the adjectives (the operative words in this case being first “Catholic” and secondarily “Great”) – similar in organization and arrangement to the “Great Books” sets such as have been published by Britannica, Harvard Press, or the various publishing houses which offered competing, but largely secular, collections.

It seems fair to say that – apart from the obvious commercial considerations – the more significant great-books-set publishers sought to offer readers what the editors believed to be the most significant, influential, enduring and masterful works ever produced, in the major fields of human inquiry and interest.  Most of the sets sought a broad consensus of learned opinion in formulating their lists, both because they wanted a broad appeal and market, and because no one’s list ever entirely agrees with that of anyone else. Inevitably there enters a personal, subjective element in the formulation of a list of “great books” – de gustibus non disputandum est. 

 Catholics, now numbering well over a billion three hundred million human beings, write and have written books in all fields of human activity, inquiry and interest.  So what do we mean when we say “Catholic” great books.  There can, of course, be different answers to this question. The one we prefer is Catholic in several senses of the word: of having a broad and enduring appeal to Catholic readers; containing a Catholic world-view, sense and spirit; being authentically Catholic (hence neither Protestant, Orthodox nor heterodox);  being written either by Catholics, or, in a few cases, by men or women already Catholic in spirit when they wrote, who later converted to Catholicism (such as some of the works of Richard Crashaw, John Henry Newman or Mortimer Adler); being influential in Catholic intellectual or moral life; reflecting truth, goodness and beauty, in the sense understood by Catholics particularly the Transcendant – The Brothers Karamotsov comes to mind here in the fictional genre even though Doestoyevsky was Orthodox (and his Grand Inquisitor can be misunderstood to be an attack on the Roman Church rather than on the Russian Procurator  [Russian: прокурор, prokuror] system created by Czar Peter the Great to bring the Orthodox church in Russia to heel).

Despite all of the above circumscriptive adjectives, we are still left with too broad an area to work within – we need to narrow the field considerably, or no list under several thousand books would emerge.  Such a large list might be good objectively, but too large for practical use, or for one lifetime, given that we all must read plenty of other books and periodicals for a wide variety of reasons.  Here “great” comes to our assistance. “Great” too has different senses or nuances, still, it normally means of surpassing excellence; of considerable influence or import; concerning significant and profound ideas and subjects; masterpieces of form or content; classic.

With those guideposts, we have arranged three tiers of Catholic Great Books, based on their consensus selection (including our own) in numerous compilations and recommendations. The First Tier books (17 in all) were nearly unanimously selected by almost all such compilations. The Second Tier (18 in all) were in notably fewer lists, but were those appearing next most frequently. The Third Tier includes a few books (5) strongly recommended, but in still fewer lists. The 40 books in all three tiers are subsequently divided into four categories for the reader (the tiers separated by a dotted line; those included in Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World set edited by Mortimer J. Adler are followed by an asterisk.), excepting Sacred Scripture:

Categories:

Hagiography (Autobigraphical and Biographical)

Apologetics, Philosophy and Theology

Imaginative Literature

Spirituality

 

FIRST TIER –17 [in order of list consensus selection]

Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments*

St. Augustine — Confessions*
Dante — Divine Comedy*

Miguel de Cervantes — Don Quixote*

St. Thomas Aquinas — Summa Theologiae
Geoffrey Chaucer — The Canterbury Tales*

St. Thomas More — Utopia*

John Henry Cardinal Newman — Apologia Pro Vita Sua

St. Augustine — City of God*

Thomas a Kempis — The Imitation of Christ
St. Teresa of Avila — The Life of Teresa of Jesus*

St. John of the Cross — Dark Night of the Soul

St. Therese of Lisieux — Story of a Soul
Gerard Manley Hopkins — Hopkins: Poetry and Prose

Flannery O’Connor — Flannery O’Connor: Complete Stories
Sigrid Undset — Kristin Lavransdatter
Alessandro Manzoni — The Betrothed

 

SECOND TIER-18 in alphabetical order

St. Anselm — Proslogium

St. Benedict — The Rule of St. Benedict

Boethius — The Consolation of Philosophy

G.K. Chesterton — Orthodoxy
St. Francis de Sales — Introduction to the Devout Life
Graham Greene — The Power and the Glory
Graham Greene — The Heart of the Matter
Romano Guardini — The Lord

St. Ignatius of Loyola – Spiritual Exercises
Ronald Knox — Enthusiasm

Thomas Merton — Seven Storey Mountain
John Henry Cardinal Newman — Idea of a University

Blaise Pascal – Pensees*
St. Teresa of Avila — Interior Castle
St. Teresa of Avila — Way of Perfection
Francis Thompson — Poems
Francis Trochu — Cure of Ars
Evelyn Waugh — Brideshead Revisited

 

THIRD TIER– 5

Anonymous English Author – The Cloud of Unknowing

St. Bernard of Clairvaux – Sermons on the Song of Songs

St. Bonaventure – The Life of St. Francis of Assisi

St. Athanasius – The Life of St. Antony

 

By Category……………………………………………………

Hagiography -6  (Autobiographical and Biographical)

St. Augustine — Confessions

St. Teresa of Avila — The Life of St. Teresa

John Henry Cardinal Newman — Apologia Pro Vita Sua

St. Therese of Lisieux — Story of a Soul

……………………………………………………

Romano Guardini — The Lord

Francis Trochu — Cure of Ars

……………………………………….

St. Bonaventure – The Life of St. Francis of Assisi

St. Athanasius – The Life of St. Antony

.

Apologetics, Philosophy and Theology-8

St. Augustine — City of God

St. Thomas Aquinas — Summa Theologiae

……………………………………………

St. Anselm — Proslogium

Boethius — The Consolation of Philosophy

G.K. Chesterton — Orthodoxy

Ronald Knox — Enthusiasm

Blaise Pascal – Pensees

John Henry Cardinal Newman — Idea of a University

.

Imaginative Literature-12

Dante — Divine Comedy

Miguel de Cervantes — Don Quixote

Geoffrey Chaucer — The Canterbury Tales

St. Thomas More — Utopia

Gerard Manley Hopkins — Hopkins: Poetry and Prose

Flannery O’Connor — Flannery O’Connor: Complete Stories

Sigrid Undset — Kristin Lavransdatter
Alessandro Manzoni — The Betrothed

………………………………………….

Graham Greene — The Power and the Glory
Graham Greene — The Heart of the Matter

Francis Thompson — Poems

Evelyn Waugh — Brideshead Revisited

.

Spirituality-8

Thomas a Kempis — The Imitation of Christ

St. John of the Cross-Ascent of Mount Carmel/Dark Night of the Soul

………………………………………….

St. Benedict — The Rule of St. Benedict

St. Francis de Sales — Introduction to the Devout Life

St. Ignatius of Loyola – Spiritual Exercises

St. Teresa of Avila — Interior Castle
St. Teresa of Avila — Way of Perfection

Thomas Merton — Seven Story Mountain

………………………………………………….

Anonymous English Author – The Cloud of Unknowing

St. Bernard of Clairvaux – Sermons on the Song of Songs

 

Listing the Top 5 for Personal Enrichment, in each Category…………………………

 

Hagiography -5  (Autobiographical and Biographical)

St. Augustine — Confessions

St. Teresa of Avila — The Life of Teresa of Jesus

John Henry Cardinal Newman — Apologia Pro Vita Sua

St. Therese of Lisieux — Story of a Soul

……………………………………………………

Romano Guardini — The Lord

 

Imaginative Literature-5

Dante — Divine Comedy

Miguel de Cervantes — Don Quixote

Geoffrey Chaucer — The Canterbury Tales

St. Thomas More — Utopia

Gerard Manley Hopkins — Hopkins: Poetry and Prose

 

Spirituality Theology-5

Thomas a Kempis — The Imitation of Christ

St. John of the Cross-Ascent of Mount Carmel/Dark Night of the Soul

St. Francis de Sales — Introduction to the Devout Life

St. Teresa of Avila — Interior Castle

Anonymous (14th Century, English) The Cloud of Unknowing

 

Apologetics, Philosophy and Theology-8

St. Augustine — City of God

St. Thomas Aquinas — Summa Theologiae

St. Anselm — Proslogium

Boethius — The Consolation of Philosophy

G.K. Chesterton — Orthodoxy

 

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