What Do Catholics Believe?

by Leonie Caldecott, Granta Books, 110pp, £6.95 


Dr Francesca Murphy for The Tablet

This book is part of a series which includes ‘What do Greens Believe?’,  ‘What do Druids Believe?’ and ‘What do Muslims Believe?’ The author keeps in view the readers for which such a series is marketed. Caldecott is clearly aware she’s writing for a decent person who ‘knows’ that Catholics believe in the Inquisition, banning contraception, and turning a blind eye to clerical sex abuse. People know from movies not only that clerics are dastardly fellows but that Catholics have rituals, saints and statues. The author offers them a mixture of autobiography, theology and a mature woman’s common sense. The autobiographical element focuses on memories of Catholic corporate devotion. This makes What Catholics Believe concrete and a bit of a page turner.… By making eucharistic devotion and the ‘incarnational’ quality of Catholic life the framework for Catholic doctrines, the book avoids giving the impression that Catholics believe in ideas that are best discussed and debated in an abstract way. It uses the descriptive parameters of the series to show how Catholic practices are pervaded by a unique spirituality.… This is an excellent book, in my opinion, profound but accessible, and something one could give to a non-Catholic without making them feel proselytized.With an tacit nod to the Da Vinci Code, the book concludes, “Blood is what he shares with the woman who bore him into the world and that blood will be shed by a world that does not recognize him.… There is such a thing as the bloodline of Christ, but it has not been perpetuated through some elite family tree. It has been made available to all, under the guise of the simplest things possible: bread and wine, becoming the Real Presence of God in the Eucharistic feast.”  This is the heart of the Church.


Joanna Bogle  for Faith Magazine

This is a persuasive, gently written, thoughtful paperback aimed at the non-Christian reader and is part of a series. Others in the series include ‘What do Druids Believe?’ ‘What do Greens Believe?’ and ‘What do Astrologers Believe?’ as well as more conventional offerings from Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim writers.

Leonie Caldecott writes in a style and with assumptions that make her offerings interesting and acceptable to people who have been brought up to believe in a market-place idea of religion, that it’s ‘all about choice’ and that we need to evaluate belief-systems in the light of our own knowledge and skills, or what we imagine to be our own knowledge and skills. She succeeds because she does not take anything for granted by way of goodwill or sympathy in her audience – she assumes, in a very realistic way, that there will be assumptions made about a Church which most people will know only through the prism of today’s TV cameras and commentaries.

I use the expression ‘gently written’ because that is what emerges from the book – here are no forceful debating-points, brilliantly scored, written with glee, and supported by footnotes. Rather, there is a systematic tackling of Church doctrine and history, with a good glossary (everything from “altar” and “Assumption” through “Liberation theology” to “Ressourcement” “Transubstantiation” and “theology of the body”), useful recommendations for further reading, and an excellent index. The tone throughout is not argumentative or even particularly emphatic. It is courteous and explanatory, rather as if the author is talking to a good friend whom she has known for years and is aware carries certain anti-Catholic prejudices and considerable ignorance but also goodwill and genuine interest in the subject of the Church.

Certain topics are tackled early on, including the hideous subject of priests’ sexual abuse of minors, and this gives the reader a sense of being present at a conversation which is real and open, not a rant or a monologue.

Specific doctrines are tackled well – the section on the Mass is excellent, with a quote from Justin in the second century chiming in well with the author’s words on the reality of Christ’s presence and the practice of Eucharistic adoration. I like the section on saints. It starts in an almost New Age-ish sort of way: “The saints are the ecosystem of the Church, all interconnected in their marvellous diversity…” and goes on to explain the process of canonisation and the way in which Catholics understand Heaven and earth to be deeply interconnected “…Catholics believe that good people who have died are never completely cut off from the rest of us. Being in God, they are still aware of us and our needs. They are in Christ and in him we can touch each other…Saints are not VIPs on a red carpet: they are a working body of souls with special responsibilities for those who come after them. They are the most mysterious and glorious way that God shares his very being with his own creatures.”

If I were a University chaplain, or a priest giving talks to schools about the Faith, I would use this book and pass it on to enquirers. It is an honest introduction to the huge reality of God and his Church, and speaks in a way that is likely appeal to today’s generation. Its cover, showing a chalice with a rosary lying alongside, speaks of Catholicism and invites the reader to open the book and learn more. I hope many do.


Joseph T. Stuart for The Catholic Herald

This book is a wonderful addition to the new series What Do We Believe? that explores contemporary belief systems as different loci of personal identity. Caldecott’s book is about belief, and so it appropriately begins with a personal narration of her experience in a cathedral both before and after her conversion to Catholicism. Only in chapter three does Caldecott discuss the Church as an institution. She begins with what she considers the most important aspects of the faith by reflecting on the nature of religion, the sacraments, the saints, and the Virgin Mary. What Do Catholics Believe? is engaging and concise (110 pages), and includes a helpful index, a glossary of “Catholic” words, a summary of key points in Catholic social teaching, a guide to further reading, and delightful literary references throughout to writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis to help explain various points (such as the power of evil as presented in Lewis’s Screwtape Letters).

One feels while reading this book that it was written by a woman with deep understanding of the nature of femininity and its place in the Church. What Do Catholics Believe? stresses the role of Mary and of women in general in the Church through its history and today. Though some might not agree with the author (or the Church), everyone who reads this book will only be able to respect Caldecott’s deeply felt and sensitively expressed account of the gender symbolism behind the male-only Catholic priesthood.

There is also a freshness about Caldecott’s writing, as when she describes the saints as the “ecosystem of the Church” in her discussion of the centrality of community (composed of the living and the dead) to Catholic Christian life. This freshness of expression also reveals itself in Caldecott’s historical sensitivity, as in her account of heresy in the chapter sketching Church history: “Heresies are interesting, because they highlight the struggle of human minds to grasp and converse about a faith in its entirety. …In the early centuries the struggle to define and exclude…heresies was often the impelling force behind the formulation of the actual faith and the development of theology” (55-56). This fundamentally hopeful approach to the whole historical question of heresies as stages on the progressive Christian journey is a welcome perspective indeed.

Unfortunately, in her sketch of history, Caldecott gives the impression that the varieties of Inquisition present in Western history only began after the end of the fifteenth century (their roots actually reached back to the twelfth). However, the very fact that she includes a discussion of history in this short book, essentially about belief, is significant. For too long, people (including Catholics), have thought of history as self-evident, almost an “objective” field of knowledge. It is partly so. But history is also a matter of perspective, and a Christian perspective on history sub specie æternitatis is something unique and different than—for example—a rationalist perspective on history. By bringing history into her discussion of belief, Caldecott has opened up important questions about the relationship between Christian belief and the historical narratives we tell to ourselves about ourselves as Catholics.

The most important contribution of this book is its attempt to explain Catholic belief to those completely outside of it. Caldecott does this by trying to explain what religion is in its essence. “Religion is a way of seeing, of being, of perceiving reality,” Caldecott writes (xiii). Religion is a perspective on the meaning of our lives and our relationships, a perspective that is a given, if we are open and attentive. This perspective is not simply a “choice” to be reasoned to from “facts”. Caldecott does not mean to suggest that reason and religion are divorced. Rather, they are married: each retains a separate identity while working toward the common end of truth. “For Catholics, reason is essential in unpacking faith. But without the content of faith, the lived encounter with that Other, which lies at the heart of our religious practice, reason would be redundant, a machine snapping at empty air” (xiv). In other words, the Christian religion is not a “rationally” grounded ideology. It rests upon more than reason. Christian faith is a gifted perspective that we can be opened up to through prayer, study, and sharing our lives with others.

This book is an inspiration. Everyone should read it, even those Catholics who think they know a lot about their own faith. Caldecott’s book is immensely practical because of its size and affordable price, as it can be given out to friends and relatives and anyone wondering What Do Catholics Believe?


Kairos: Volume 20, Issue 06

Do you know anyone who wants to understand what Catholicism is all about? This book is the perfect concise introduction to the Catholic Faith in the 21st century.

Many good faith education texts are available, but this book is unique. Rather than focusing only on doctrine, like a catechism, it is a much broader look at the key elements of Catholic belief, and the effects of these beliefs on various contemporary issues.

The author, Leonie Caldecott, is a convert to Catholicism, and she is more interested in giving readers an authentic taste of the religion than covering the minutiae of Catholic theology. In the first part of the book she covers what she sees as the core and distinctive elements of Catholicism: the sacraments (with a special focus on the Mass), saints and the Virgin Mary. In covering these topics she draws out those aspects that are often misunderstood by non-Catholics, or seen as controversial.

Her explanations of complex subjects, such as the nature of the priesthood and the meaning of the Mass, are models of clarity, and yet they are fleshed out by the beautiful imagery she uses to highlight their mystical nature. It is difficult to demonstrate these qualities by quoting from the book out of context, but an example of the elegance and directness of her prose is one sentence about the Mass: “Baptism and Confirmation open the door to it, Reconciliation prepares us for it, but the Mass is the nearest we come to heaven on earth; our final initiation into the Body of Christ.”(p 22)

The rest of the book contains a chapter on the four last things, a brief look at the history of the papacy (including its origins and papal infallibility), and a gallop through Church history, not forgetting the crusades and the inquisition. There is also a chapter that looks at the Church in the modern world, and at Vatican II and its aftermath, with a particular focus on the work of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and their influence on the contemporary Church in the areas of morality and social issues.

This chapter includes a useful overview of the theology of the body, and a summary of key points of Catholic social teaching. The author provides a short list of further reading, a glossary of Catholic words, and an index, all of which make the book a practical reference source.

This book would be ideal as an introduction to Catholicism for RCIA candidates, or as a re-introduction for adult Catholics returning to the practice of the Faith. The author paints such a vivid picture of the richness and sanity and beauty of the Catholic Faith that readers of her book will be inspired to seek out further information about the Church.

(From here)