Unreconstructed Ossified Manualists unite!

Adolphe TanquerayI was recently chatting with a priest friend and the issue of “manual theology” came up.

For a long time much of the theological formation of priests came from “manuals” for dogmatic theology and moral theology.  Among the famous manual compilers were Fr. Hieronymus Noldin, SJ (+1922), a professor at the University of Innsbruck, and Adolphe Tanqueray, SS (+1932), who taught at St. Mary’s in Baltimore.  In addition to his famous manuals, which influenced generations of American priests, Fr. Tanqueray wrote the classic The Spiritual Life: a treatise on ascetical and mystical theology.

These old theological manuals are mostly in Latin.  I know that Tanqueray’s Dogmatic Theology was translated into English.  The Latin, however, meant to be understood by seminarians and taught in classrooms, is easy and clear, presenting no special challenges.

Manuals are still useful for priests or lay people, who can make a thorough review of questions they have about points of dogma or about moral issues.  Every priest of the Latin Church ought to know Latin, and he ought to scrounge up a set of some manuals as references, always keeping in mind subsequent clarifications and definitive teachings of the Church’s magisterium.  For example, these old manuals would not cover some precise questions arising in bio-ethics.  But, if you dig, you can find the correct principles are right there in those old books.

VOTE FOR WDTPRSThe manual approach to theology came to be sneered at by liberals and it went out of style, effectively banned from any seminary training after the Second Vatican Council.  Study from manuals came to be associated with “rigidity” or perhaps “not being open to the spirit”.   The old books were exacting and precise when we should be free and unrepressed.

Some of the best priests I know made good use of their old manual education.  Older priests, some of them now passed to their reward, who would have had to study these volumes, were solid and clear preachers and good confessors.  Of course some of the older guys were nuts too.  They probably didn’t study very hard in school, I guess.  Younger priests of my acquaintance will also refer to manuals as well as other sources.  They are great tools and no one need apologize for using them.

To that end, I hereby unveil the newest WDTPRS coffee mug into which you can pour your piping hot Mystic Monk Coffee!

Behold the “Unreconstructed Ossified Manualist” mug, sure to bolster solid priests and annoy liberals everywhere.

Unreconstructed Ossified Manualists are sure that answers in keeping with the Church’s teaching can be found and our forbearers probably did the heavy lifting for us a long time ago.

Two views of the large coffee mug.

The other side has a spiffy shot of some books from my shelf, fancy bound volumes, slightly worn – but in a good way –  of the aforementioned Fr. Tanqueray’s volumes of moral theology.

The color of that red isn’t quite right on my screen.  It is more vibrant than that.

Unreconstructed Ossified Manualist

Just a little homage to those who don’t think we should jettison our useful tools of the past.


To buy them CLICK HERE.

There are also magnets.

I may add more things later.


His Hermeneuticalness has a post about this mug, and the Newman “Deep In History” mug
(may he and his tribe thrive) and he makes some great comments about theology manuals.

Be sure to admire the new look of his blog!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Our Catholic Identity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. GregH says:

    Father Zuhlsdorf,

    What would Monsignor Schuler read?


    Greg Hessel in Arlington Diocese

  2. Flambeaux says:

    As much as I’d love a set of the manuals, I’ll start with the UOM mug. Thank you, Father.

  3. Bornacatholic says:

    LOL WOW !!!! Fr. Z. You have been on one heck of a roll lately.

    KUDOS to the nth degree.

  4. Legisperitus says:

    I have an old copy of Noldin! The covers aren’t as nice, though. They’re a sort of yellow-orange and a bit dingy.

  5. Tim Ferguson says:

    If only there were a way of having Fr. Tanqueray’s signature etched onto the base of a martini glass…

  6. So ossified manualists have plenty of spines. And from the manuals, you can get an outpouring of Tanqueray gen. :)

    Beautiful book photo on the mug, Fr. Z. I may get it just to look at the attractive bindings.

  7. Tim: That would indeed be a great tonic for the soul. I bet we could gin something up.

  8. jbas says:

    We’re going to have to add more kitchen cabinets in the rectory if you keep introducing exciting new mugs.

  9. SimonDodd says:

    I was thinking of the manuals recently, in a different context. I was thinking of Richard McBrien’s flawed but ubiquitous treatise “Catholicism”; visiting an acquaintance’s house, I noticed she, too, had the McBrien treatise. And I was going to say something about it, but the thought occurred to me that the natural response would be “well, what should I get instead?” And I don’t have a good answer to that, so I kept quiet. I don’t know of a similar treatise in direct competition with McBrien’s, one with essentially the same scope and depth, only, well, orthodox. I thought about Ludwig Ott, which I had thought was a manual, but that wouldn’t quite do it, not least because it predates Vatican II, which (like it or not) no serious descriptive exposition of Catholic faith and praxis can ignore.

    So the problem becomes that when people want a treatise, they naturally pick up the one that is best known, aided by its deceptively all-embracing title, and despite its virtues, are led astray by its vices. What is needed, it seems to me, is a direct challenge to McBrien’s seeming hegemony-by-default: For a good orthodox Catholic to write a good, orthodox, accessible, and well-written treatise on Catholicism, preferably titled “Catholicism” and covering essentially the same ground as the McBrien tome, just without the heresy, dissent, and general deck-stacking. We should be able to say to candidates (and anyone else), “oh, you don’t want to buy McBrien, you should buy Zuhlsdorf & Hahn.” (Or whomever; I just pulled a pair of names out of the hat. I’m not sure this is a job for Hahn’s writing style and I doubt Father Z has time.) Perhaps such a thing already exists, in which case I apologize for wasting the reader’s time, but if it does not, it should be written.

  10. merrydelval says:

    I just came across four volumes of the Sacrae Theologiae Summa, published by the BAC in the 1960s, for 25 Euros in Pamplona. They are amazing. In college (Christendom), I studied theology according to the manualist system (De Deo Trino, De Ecclesia, De Revelation), although with emphasis on original sources in translation. At the Gregorian, it was all mind-numbing nouvelle theologie with the occasional nod to St Thomas is a Rahnerian system loosely based on manualism. Here in Navarre there seems to be the desire to renew the manualist tradition in dialogue with the best of old and new.

    What I have discovered is that, for teaching the laity and seminarians basic theology, the conceptual clarity of the manuals is necessary, and they can’t be beat. Together with a copious reading of Scripture, the Fathers, and of course, St Thomas, that is the best education money can’t buy.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t want theology itself just to be manual writing. And, for speculative theology today, one has to be conversant with the post-manualist tradition.

    One can see, though, when seminarians and theologians have studied theology without the manualist framework. The lack of conceptual rigour brings them to often superficial enthusiasms for one theologian or the other at best, and at worst an eclectic syncretism which just bores to tears.

    Is there nowhere in the world where one can study theology according to the way St Thomas studied and thought it? (Thank God for Francisco de Victoria replacing Lombard with Aquinas). That is where I want to go!!!

  11. Fr. A.M. says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you Father. Instead of a ‘renewed’ approach to manuals after Vatican II we got ‘no manuals’. Although it isn’t a manual in the strict sense, I do like ‘Moral and Pastoral Theology’ (4 vols c. 1958 ?), by Fr. Henry Davis. Although one certainly has to take into account recent pronouncements of the Magisterium where necessary, and sound developments in theology ( moral theology has ALSO had very many positive developments since Vat. II – look at Grisez for example), such books are still very useful indeed, especially when it comes to learning how to hear confessions and the moral principles behind confession and the ‘actus humanus’ – Aquinas is also useful here. I had to give some of my manuals away (they went to a good home though) because a lot of my books are still with my parents, and mother asked if I could possibly sacrifice a book or two before the attic caved in. ‘Greater love hath no man…. ‘.

  12. Fr. A.M. says:

    PS. Love the mug.

  13. Jason Keener says:

    I am a big fan of the manualist tradition, and I think everyone starting off in theology should begin with the traditional manuals of theology. If you are confused by the lack of clear thinking in the newer books of theology, do yourself a favor and dig around in your local seminary library or Catholic university library to find some of the oldies. You will be in for a real treat. It is usually the case that the older theology books are the best theology books.

    Theologians today often cannot talk to each other because few began their careers rigorously studying the basic principles of theology that should be common knowledge amongst theologians. I also know many students studying Catholic theology in colleges who might be taking an advanced class on Karl Rahner or Joseph Ratzinger while having had little or no dogmatic or fundamental theology in the manualist tradition. Again, it’s hard to evaluate what is good and bad in the “New Theology” when you have had little training in the manualist tradition, which so efficiently covers the basics.

    Lest I be misunderstood, I do not believe that all theology should be reduced to dry scholastic propositions, but one must learn the basics before they build upon the fundamentals with their own more creative theologies.

  14. A reader sent an email. I ask him if I could post it here. He explains:

    I found a set of Tanqueray’s Dogmatic Theology, in Latin and in excellent condition, in Loome’s Theological Bookstore in Stillwater, Minnesota quite a few years ago. Alas, the volumes languish on my shelf because I never took up the challenge of learning Latin (I am not a cleric of any kind, or a seminarian). I hope, someday, to find a seminarian, or priest, to whom I could donate these wonderful books. Do you know of any interested party? I would even pay for shipping.

    So, understandings that priests and seminarians – I won’t exclude bishops, but I assume they already have their sets close to hand, perhaps we can get interested parties together.

    Drop me a line by email – not here in the combox – if you are interested and I will forward the information.

    Let’s establish some guidelines. How about, first and foremost, priest or seminarian. Then you can read Latin. You can read Latin… not that you want to be able to read Latin… you wish you could… you have always wanted to … you can now read Latin.

    After that, I guess it is first come, first served.

  15. Legisperitus says:

    I have a very useful old book called “Systematic Study of the Catholic Religion” by a Jesuit named Coppens. I have no idea how hard it is to find, or if it’s ever been reprinted, but it has concise and informative answers on a surprising number of topics for such a small volume. For an all-purpose handy guide, I recommend it to anyone who can find it.

  16. Legisperitus says:

    Now that I check, Coppens is available online! http://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/sscr.htm

  17. Not to diss reading Latin, especially since the Bureau 13 role playing game says all Catholic priest characters should have learned Latin, Greek and Aramaic at seminary, and the tie-in novels concur and add firearms skills.

    But I’m surprised nobody is making English translations of some of this olden stuff.

  18. gloriainexcelsis says:

    Little old lay lady me (hmm – sounds like a yodel there) has a copy of Father Tanqueray’s Spiritual Life – in English, thank goodness. I’m trying to do my duty in tending to perfection! Sigh.
    Dum spiro spero. I could use some Mystic Monk coffee about now. [Refresh your supply here!]

  19. AnAmericanMother says:


    I’ll tell my daughter -she’s a big RPG fan. Bet all the priests have to have a B*retta, right?

    At my alma mater, everybody used to have to know Latin, Greek, and Hebrew to graduate. They dropped that requirement a long time before I got there, though.

  20. robtbrown says:

    The manual approach to theology came to be sneered at by liberals and it went out of style, effectively banned from any seminary training after the Second Vatican Council. Study from manuals came to be associated with “rigidity” or perhaps “not being open to the spirit”. The old books were exacting and precise when we should be free and unrepressed.

    Although the manuals contained a lot of good, well-organized information, for the most part, they had little in common with the thought and work of St Thomas. Scotus, yes. St Thomas, not really.

  21. robtbrown says:

    Having taught Mystical Theology, I do not recommend Tanqueray’s book on the Spiritual Life.

    Rather there are three classics I do recommend:

    1. “The Mystical Evolution” by Fr Juan Arintero, op.
    2. “The Three Ages of the Interior Life” by Fr Garrigou LaGrange, op
    3. “I Want to See God” and “I Am a Daughter of the Church” by Fr Marie-Eugene, OCD.

    Of the three, the first is probably the least technical.

    If someone is just beginning, I recommend Garrigou’s “The Three (Conversions) Ways of the Interior Life”, which is about 110 pages and available from Amazon.com.

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