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The Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology, by Lewis Ayres and Medi Ann Volpe, editors

11 December 2020

Edward Dowler enjoys a range of theological reflections on tradition

A TREASURY of insights is provided throughout this capacious one-volume introduction. The first of its two parts, Catholic Teaching, covers the fundamental areas of Christian doctrine, the nature of the sacramental life, and moral theology. The second, Modern Catholic Theology, takes 1870 (the end of the first Vatican Council) as its pivot and examines the sources of Catholic theology up to that date, moving on to explore key themes thereafter.

The list of authors primarily includes eminent American and British academics, but there are contributors from further afield: from Rome, Livio Melina and José Granados; from Nigeria, Anthony Akinwale; and from Sri Lanka, Vimal Tirimanna. There are even a couple of former Anglicans, such as Ian Ker and Lewis Ayres himself, co-editor with his wife, Medi Ann Volpe, both of whom also contribute essays.

Multi-author volumes can be frustrating to read because of an inconsistency of style and approach; but every essay has been skilfully edited to a house style, and a uniform length of about 15 pages. My prediction is that it will probably be the best 15 pages you ever read on each subject. Personal favourites were Thomas Weinandy on the incarnation, Paul McPartlan on the Church, David W. Fagerberg on the sacramental life, and — as a fitting end to the first half, since in Catholic theology, all knowledge ultimately leads to contemplation — Martin Laird on prayer.

The authors confidently situate their contribution within the continuity of Christian teaching back to the very beginning of the Church: Anglicans will be reassured by the depth and seriousness of their reliance on scripture throughout. They write with assurance that their analysis of each subject is founded in a tradition that they do not own and did not discover themselves, but yet are called to articulate in a fresh and engaging way.

Nevertheless, while retaining this sense of the tradition’s weight and authority, the contributions avoid the somewhat over-determined feel that Catholic theology can sometimes have: this is a living tradition. There is room for creativity: a moving passage from Weinandy explores how we might regard Jesus as coming to consciousness of his divine sonship through childhood and adolescence rather than, as Aquinas and Bonaventure taught, knowing that he was the Son of God from the point of conception.

There is also room for uncertainty: Nicholas E. Lombardo concludes that, despite advances in answering both ancient and modern questions about the doctrine of Original Sin, “many urgent questions await resolution,” while, on marriage and sexuality, David Cloutier eschews attempts “to solve neatly what are evidently messy controversies with which the Church will be dealing for some time”.

This Oxford Handbook is beautifully produced and presented. Perhaps a sole criticism would be that, although Catholicism is a multi-sensory experience, this is a very big block of text. Some pictures, photographs and indeed reflection on the contribution of artists would crown this stunningly successful achievement.


The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings and Priest-in-Charge of St John’s, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.


The Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology 
Lewis Ayres and Medi Ann Volpe, editors
OUP £110
Church Times Bookshop £99

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