I got this book about 4 years ago and it does give great information and pictures that help in the understanding of catholicism, but is written on the point of view on the liberal side. Richard McBrien, the author, tends to bring opinions from somewhere other than the Magisterium of the Church on issues that bring heated debate within the people of the Church. If a non-catholic picks this book up and looks up information on issues such as sexuality, they will get the wrong idea on what the church really teaches. But for the most part though, the book is very thorough on most items such as people of the Church. A whole section on St. Augustine will give you everything you need to know about this popular saint. I recommend this book only to find historical facts, not for facts on morality.
Since I received this book from Amazon last week, I have had real trouble setting it aside. Not only does it contain a staggering amount of information; it also is beautifully produced and intelligently written.
First, it is huge, a good thing for any encyclopedia -- 1300 pages and over 4,000 entries. It is full of pictures: photos of important individuals and sites, reproductions of famous artwork, and explanatory drawings. Major topics, such as each of the sacraments, are covered in long, well-organized essays. And all the details indicate that this project was undertaken with the seriousness and dedication it deserves: the entries are cross-referenced, helpful bibliographies follow many entries, boldface subheads break up and organize the longer entries, bylines are provided after the more analytical entries, a complete list of contributors with their affiliations is provided, pronunciations are given for unfamiliar terms -- I could go on and on.
But most impressive to me is the care with which the entries are written. The writing is aimed at the intelligent non-specialist, someone who has the curiosity and mental vigor to want to hear the various sides of difficult issues. Clearly, some Amazon reviewers were distressed that the book does not simply say, "The Church teaches X," and leave it at that. The book *does* say where the Church stands on various issues (insofar as it has taken a stance), AND the book *also* tells us what other opinions have been and are held by important thinkers and in repsected circles.
Take for example the entry on homosexuality, which other reviewers here have singled out. It was written by Michael Place, Research Theologian to the Curia, Archdiocese of Chicago. The entry expressly tells us that "Traditionally Catholic teaching has grounded its understanding of human sexuality in the Genesis vision of man and woman," and that "On several occasions the Church's hierarchical magisterium has rejected" liberal doctrines in this area. And, for those who want to know more than what the "blackletter law" is, the entry also discusses those liberal doctrines and how attitudes about, and scientific understanding of, homosexuality have developed.
Some Catholic readers apparently do not want the added information; they would prefer a series of cut-and-dried pronouncements without a dangerous idea in sight. Perhaps some Catholic readers also would prefer that a Catholic encyclopedia proclaim in no uncertain terms why their priest or their co-parishioners are heretical corner-cutters. To its credit, that is not what this book provides.
If you want to *understand* Catholicism rather than put your God-given reason on autopilot, this book is for you. Buy it. It is well worth every penny.