John L. ALLEN, Jr.  The Catholic Church:  What Everyone Needs to Know. Updated Edition.NY, NY:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  290 pages.  $14.00. ISBN 978-0-19-937980-4. Reviewed by Karen Monique GREGG, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46808

Allen knows a lot about the Catholic religion. This is because he has vast experience reporting on current developments in the Catholic Church for both Catholic publications and for large secular news organizations. What makes his writing about this religion noteworthy is that he carries off his reporting in an unbiased manner – not an easy feat when discussing religion! He discusses historical developments without taking a side and he writes as if he is sitting in your living room talking to you as a friend. In his writing he uses just enough historical background and outside sources to make his point without dwelling on it too long. Because of the Q&A format, the book keeps moving. In his frankness about the debates in the church, Allen keeps his sense of humor and this comes off as refreshing and fun to read.   

In Ch. 1 – the Catholic Church 101 – Allen separates myths about the Catholic Church from reality by discussing the basic structures of the Church and by highlighting a few basic demographics. Ch. 2 is the most historical chapter and lays the foundation for the rest of the book. By Ch. 3, Allen introduces and eases the reader into some of the more difficult and controversial topics in the Catholic Church. Ch. 4 explains the basics of Catholic teachings and moral standing on many issues in society.

Ch. 5 discusses the Catholic mass and what Allen refers to as the “liturgy wars.”  In this chapter he begins to delve into the global nature of Catholicism and the demographic shifts occurring on a global level. Ch. 6 explains many misconceptions about Catholics and their relationship to angels, demons, and saints. 

By Ch. 7 Allen becomes more political, considering how faith and politics come together in this religion. The focus of Ch. 8 is on sexuality and touches on the church’s stance on birth control, AIDS, abortion, homosexuality, and artificial reproduction.  Catholicism and money are discussed in Ch. 9.  He asks such questions as:  Just how rich is the Catholic Church? and  Does the Vatican have its own bank?  Ch. 10 touches on the recent controversies over women in the church, the sexual abuse scandal, and several other internal divisions which have led to what he deems “tribalism” within the Church.  

Allen wraps up this guide by addressing the changing relationship between Rome and America in Ch. 11, and speculating about new frontiers for the Catholic Church in the twenty-first century in Ch. 12. These new frontiers include India, Africa, China, but it also includes what is now known as New Evangelization of the West and perhaps even Latin American countries that continue to lose market share to Pentecostalism.  

Although the book is written as if Pope Benedict the XVI is still in the Holy See, there is a tag on Ch. 13 at the end addressing the new Pope Francis, whom Allen aptly notes comes close to “utter novelty” in the Catholic Church. After explaining the resignation of Pope Benedict, Allen sheds light on who Pope Francis was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and who he is becoming as the “maverick new pontiff.” This chapter is brief, but upbeat and positive, succinctly clarifying the Pope’s stance on many issues and projecting what we can expect in the years to come. 

I normally include a section on praise and criticism in book reviews, but for this book, I have no criticism and only praise. This book is accessible to everyone, from the cradle Catholics to the converts to Catholicism, as well as people who know absolutely nothing about the Catholic Church. Allen considers this a “one-stop shopping guide to the basic structures, teachings, practices, internal tensions, and future prospects of the Catholic Church” (12) and that is what he delivers.  I was born and raised Catholic and therefore felt well-versed on the Catholic Church and what it teaches, but I actually learned quite a bit from reading this guide. This book should be standard issue at Catholic universities (staff, faculty, students), in catechism classes (for the young and the old), and in courses for converts to Catholicism. This is because, as the title suggests, it is “What Everyone Needs to Know.”