"The Spirit of Catholicism" by Father Vivian Boland, OP. Bloomsbury Continuum (New York, 2022). 272 pp., $28.

"Catholica: The Visual Culture of Catholicism" by Suzanna Ivanic. Thames & Hudson (New York, 2022). 256 pp., $35.

How do we explain what Catholicism is? Many have tried without fully succeeding. These two volumes offer different approaches to the question, one rather academic and one visual and artistic. Both add to our awareness and have their weaknesses.

Dominican Father Vivian Boland teaches in Rome at the Angelicum, formally known as the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, and brings the expertise of a deft and thorough theologian to the topic. His is a dense volume with helpful insights as he looks again at key themes.

He observes, for example, that "Catholicism is a physical religion, a matter of things being done and used by human beings united in the practice of those things and in the conviction that a certain kind or level of life is made possible by that practice." And that life, he explains, is grace.

He says the key to Catholicism is embodiment, which he mentions in terms of some current questions. "If we recall ... the doctrines of Catholic Christianity that became most controversial in modern times, even among other Christians, they are all connected to embodiment: the Eucharist (the real presence of the body of Christ under the form of bread?), the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary (immaculate conception? virgin birth? bodily assumption?) and the position of the Pope (a monarchical and hierarchical form of government in this body?)."

When Father Boland discusses sacraments and sacramentality, he quotes St. Thomas Aquinas in saying that God as a divine poet can be creative with things in the way that human poets can be creative with words. He further observes that a sacrament belongs within a relationship of communication and communion. He explores in turn three aspects of the Church today: proclamation, liturgy and service.

His clear theological mind is demonstrated in how he describes the interplay between faith and reason for Catholics: "Faith ... gives reason new things to think about, fresh mysteries to stretch its limbs upon and a reach beyond anything it could have attained just by itself. On the other hand, reason has been and is of great assistance to faith.

"Reason helps faith to articulate more clearly the mysteries it transmits. Reason prepares the way for faith through thinking about the world, about human nature and about the first causes of things. Reason accompanies faith every step of the way since faith remains restless, never fully content intellectually."

And about the Trinity: "Just as there is no human word without the warm breath that sustains the articulation of the word, so there is no Word of God without the warm breath that is the Holy Spirit and that sustains the articulation of that Word."

One of the other qualities of Catholicism, that of the aesthetic, which Father Boland mentions, leads us to a consideration of our second book, Suzanna Ivanic's "Catholica." She writes, "The 'Church in pilgrimage' has ... left many signs of its presence, not least many objects of great beauty that continue to speak long afterward of the faith, hope and love of those who have passed that way. Manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, buildings like the cathedral at Chartres and St. Peter's in Rome, works of art such as the medieval mosaic of the 'Tree of Life' at San Clemente, the 'Pieta' of Michelangelo and 'The Descent from the Cross' of Rogier van der Weyden. ...

"Works such as those mentioned, along with countless others, have a beauty here and now precisely because they were conceived by eyes and hearts looking also there and then, toward the destination of this pilgrimage."

What Father Boland describes with theological terminology, Ivanic attempts to do largely with sumptuous photos of artwork and places. One would wish that she had more familiarity with Catholic terminology and culture. While she can help Catholics see themselves in a new light, at times her descriptions of Catholic beliefs are inaccurate, because her expertise is as a European historian, which can also at times limit her perspective and her examples.

Ivanic suggests, "Catholic art is not just a byproduct of religion. It is religion – just as much as the words of the Bible or the ritual of Mass. Its visual and material forms are closely intertwined with Catholic beliefs, practices and identities. It ranges from the gargantuan edifices of cathedrals to tiny, personal devotional objects worn as accessories or used in the home, and from objects cast from the most expensive materials on the planet to the most mundane."

Further, she explains, "For centuries, oral and visual methods of communication were essential to the dissemination of the faith to the illiterate. Didactic illustrations of biblical events in books and on Church walls and household objects helped to reinforce God's message. They taught the stories of the Bible and aided the devotee in exploring their beliefs.

"Art makes Catholicism visible and tangible. Through it the faithful enter into scenes of heaven and hell and visualize the grief of Mary at her son's crucifixion. From the heavily decorated letters of a manuscript to the gargantuan frescoes of the cathedral, art is bound together with the Word in content and form."

"Catholica" displays a dazzling array of art and architecture, occasionally highlighting bizarre and odd practices and too rarely focusing on other than Western European expressions. Overall, this "family album" of the Catholic heritage provides us one more perspective from which to try to understand just what makes us Catholic.

Finley is the author of several books on practical spirituality, including "The Liturgy of Motherhood: Moments of Grace" and "Savoring God: Praying With All Our Senses," and formerly taught in the religious studies department at Gonzaga University.