A Catholic can walk into his local Catholic bookstore and find a variety of new books on Catholic life, apologetics, social issues, and more. Modern classics like Rome Sweet Home by Scott and Kimberly Hahn or Surprised by Truth edited by Patrick Madrid would likely also be available. But there is one book that for me is a masterpiece of apologetics, a book that Catholics must have in their libraries. It’s a book that predates modern apologetics altogether.
The book is Cardinal James Gibbons’s masterwork, The Faith of Our Fathers: A Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ. It has been reprinted more than 110 times and has been a constant go-to for my personal questions as well as those of my friends and separated opponents who are persuaded by Protestant doctrine. The book was written in 1876 by the archbishop of Baltimore.
Gibbons was a native pf Baltimore, and after a series of moves between America and Europe, he made his permanent home in America. He became a priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and, at age 34, Pope Pius IX made him apostolic vicar of North Carolina and titular bishop of Adramyttium. Because of his young age, he was known as “the boy bishop.” He later became archbishop of Baltimore and a cardinal in the sacred college.
In the beginning of his ministry, as he tended to the few and dispersed Catholics in his vicariate but had little to no literature about the Faith to hand out. What did he do when material for catechesis was in short supply? He borrowed from the playbook of St. Francis de Sales and wrote his own. The Faith of Our Fathers found great success.
In the 1917 preface for the 83rd edition, Cardinal Gibbons wrote, “Since the first edition appeared, in 1876 up to the present time, fourteen hundred thousand copies have been published, and the circulation of the book is constantly increasing.” (You can find old copies from collectors on eBay.com from time to time, and the edition goes for about $20 on the shelf, used or not. It still considered the most popular of all American Catholic apologetic works.
This book is apologetic gold to me. How did I hear about it? In my own conversion someone gave me a copy of Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home, and in the story he comes to a large collection of old Catholic books and mentioned a couple titles that were important to him. One of them was the Gibbons book, and I thought, “If it worked for Hahn, I have to give it a try.”
A comprehensive look at the Faith
It showed up in the mail looking a little tattered and unexciting, but I was anticipating something special. I was not let down—I was amazed! The read is gripping and progresses quickly. Back then I was on the fence about my decision to convert, but after reading just the first seven chapters my decision was made. Though there was more learning ahead of me and not all my objections were resolved, I was decided. I was to be a Catholic.
So what is in the book? The contents are comprehensive. It starts with God and the Trinity then moves, like the Creed, through the unity, holiness, catholicity, and the apostolicity of the Church, one chapter each. Next it addresses the perpetuity of the Church and its infallible authority. These are the first seven chapters, and now you might see why my decision was complete. From there on the book reveals the teachings of individual Traditions such as the priesthood, celibacy, Peter’s primacy, Scripture, the pope, Mary, the invocation of saints, the Eucharist, and the like. It even covers social issues like the Church’s discipline on divorce and annulment and problematic topics like the Spanish Inquisition and indulgences.
You might think we are talking about a 500-page book, but we aren’t, and that is the mark of its great achievement. The completeness of this work is a testament unto itself, and the fact that Gibbons was able to keep the vindication within about 270 pages is something to respect. There were other books I used to supplement my learning, of course, but this one put the plane on the ground. I was no longer searching my cockpit for one checklist among many; it was all in this one book, laid out in a simple way.
Not just convincing but convicting
His arguments and presentation of the facts are deeply convincing. What has attracted the numbers of people to this book to warrant more than 110 printings is not the numerous topics covered but the simple and convincing way they are presented. If there were a textbook on a straightforward way to communicate the Faith, this is it.
Gibbons does not go to strenuous length to discuss the Protestant view of a given topic but instead provides a logical case for the Catholic teaching. The given teaching is stated with clarity, as are the supporting reasons for the teaching. Gibbons provides the biblical provision for the doctrine then one or several quotes from Church Fathers and a plain explanation further. Gibbons’s flow of words and their organization is genius. The explanations given are not just convincing but are convicting.
The reasons to rave about this book are many, but what I value especially is the constant use of references. The cardinal was not writing his words alone; more often than not he is using support from the great number of available quotes from the Fathers of the Church. Also used in great amount are quotes from various saints from all moments of Church history. More than fifty Fathers and saints are quoted with detailed citation for further research and reference.
This was important to me because I was a suspicious Protestant on my way to conversion, and I wanted to trust the sources he was quoting, so I was able to hold a trustworthy and unbiased reference or encyclopedia in one hand and the text of Gibbons in the other. The references don’t stop there. Major decisions in Church council and synod documents are frequently cited. Obviously, in addition to and exceeding these in number are biblical references. He goes through great effort to show that what is taught in Catholicism agrees with the teachings found in the Bible.
Family tree of beliefs
As a convert I had a limited knowledge of Church history in the time before the Reformation. Gibbons acknowledges the schismatic churches and proceeds to detail where the different schisms’ doctrines agree with that of Rome. Again, this is where the book wins.
For example, he points out that the Nestorians and Eutychians agreed about the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Seeing the family tree of beliefs (so to speak) was an invaluable part of this book to prove to me that Catholics, even among their opposing bodies, contain the earliest teachings of Christianity. That is a point that will move thoughtful non-Catholics, because none of them wish to betray the beliefs of the primitive Church.
This book will rise as a resource for lay Catholics (including those of us amateur apologists) and non-Catholics alike. The lay Catholic will find this book useful as a go-to for good examples of what apologetics is all about: how to communicate the teachings of this Church with clarity, honesty, and charity. The non-Catholic with little to no knowledge about Church teachings and Church history will come away with an appreciation for the Church, regardless of his decision to convert.
With this synopsis and recommendation, I want to let you know that Catholic Answers has reprinted this book in a special hardcover edition as part of its Classics series. This edition is far and away the best copy of the book I have (I own eight antique and modern versions). The book is a pleasure to hold and comes with a ribbon bookmark.
But it’s what’s on the inside that counts. There are so many books to choose from, and I’m constantly asked the same question by family, friends, and readers: What book should I get for [this person] who wants to know more about the Catholic Faith? Tell them to look no further than James Cardinal Gibbons’s The Faith of Our Fathers. And if you’re wanting to find the best resource for a budding apologist, this book has you covered on all fronts.This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.