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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > Making of the Catholic Encyclopedia

The Making of the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917)

The need of a Catholic Encyclopedia in English was manifest for many years before it was decided to publish one. Editors of various general Encyclopedias had attempted to make them satisfactory from a Catholic point of view, but without success, partly because they could not afford the space, but chiefly because in matters of dispute their contributors were too often permitted to be partial, if not erroneous, in their statements.

This need was felt more acutely when, at the beginning of this century, new editions of several of these general Encyclopedias appeared, in which many subjects of special interest to Catholics were either ignored entirely or else scantily and even erroneously treated. For two years the publishers of some of these Encyclopedias made earnest efforts to amend the articles which provoked Catholic criticism, but their efforts served only to emphasize the need of a Catholic Encyclopedia. Actual work on the Encyclopedia was begun in January, 1905. It was completed in April, 1914. For two years before the formation of a Board of Editors those who were to be its editors and publishers met together occasionally to confer about its publication. These meetings resulted in an agreement among the editors on December 8, 1904, to begin the work early the next year and in the choice of those who were to be its publishers.

The Board of Editors, five in number, was organized in January, 1905, and its membership remained the same throughout the production of the work. All the members had been engaged in editorial work before the Encyclopedia was thought of. As teachers and lecturers they had become familiar with the field of education and with the needs of Catholic literature. Through experience gained in different spheres of activity they had reached the same conclusions regarding the necessity of a Catholic Encyclopedia and the advisability of proceeding at once with its publication.

The editors were elected also as members of the Board of Directors of the publishing company which was incorporated in February, 1905, and they were given full authority in all matters affecting the nature, contents and policy of the Encyclopedia. On February 25 they signed a contract to produce The Catholic Encyclopedia. Two years were spent in studying every phase of the project, in arranging its details and in selecting the requisite methods for carrying on the work carefully and expeditiously. While a systematic procedure was thus determined upon, it by no means precluded later discussion of ways and means; the system itself required that each step should be seriously considered, and for this purpose the regular meetings of the Board were continued during the entire course of publication.

On January 11, 1905, Charles G. Herbermann, Professor of Latin and Librarian of the College of the City of New York, Edward A. Pace, then Professor of Philosophy in the Catholic University, Condé B. Pallen, Editor, Rt. Rev. Thomas J. Shahan, then Professor of Church History in the Catholic University, and John J. Wynne, S.J., Editor of The Messenger, held their first editorial meeting at the office of The Messenger, in West Sixteenth Street, New York. Between that date and April 19, 1913, they held 134 formal meetings to consider the plan, scope and progress of the work, besides having frequent informal conferences and constant intercommunication by letter.

Until February, when offices were opened at 1 Union Square, meetings were held in The Messenger, or at the house of Dr. Herbermann, then on West Twenty-fifth Street. For two years the days for meetings were the first and third Saturdays of the month; after that a meeting was held on the second Saturday only. In the beginning every editor attended each meeting; after April, 1907, only one of the editors from the Catholic University was expected to be present.

At the meetings a report was made by each editor of the work he had done since the last meeting, chiefly in selecting topics; assigning space for each; choosing contributors and specifying the time allowed them for each article. These reports were acted upon; criticisms of the work were considered; the progress of each volume carefully noted, and various problems solved especially about cross-references, repetitions, bibliography, illustrations, maps, and the delays and disappointments which are inevitable in a work depending upon the co-operation of over 1500 persons.

In order to make clear what manner of work they were to publish, the editors issued, in February, 1906, a pamphlet containing specimen pages of text and illustrations. This specimen left no room for doubt about the character of the Encyclopedia. It indicated in general terms the scope, aim and chief characteristics of the Encyclopedia, as follows:

The Catholic Encyclopedia, as its name implies, proposes to give its readers full and authoritative information on the entire cycle of Catholic interests, action and doctrine. What the Church teaches and has taught; what she has done and is still doing for the highest welfare of mankind; her methods, past and present; her struggles, her triumphs, and the achievements of her members, not only for her own immediate benefit, but for the broadening and deepening of all true science, literature and art — all come within the scope of The Catholic Encyclopedia.

It differs from the general Encyclopedia in omitting facts and information which have no relation to the Church. On the other hand, it is not exclusively a church Encyclopedia, nor is it limited to the ecclesiastical sciences and the doings of churchmen. It records all that Catholics have done, not only in behalf of charity and morals, but also for the intellectual and artistic development of mankind. It chronicles what Catholic artists, educators, poets, scientists and men of action have achieved in their several provinces. In this respect it differs from most other Catholic Encyclopedias. The editors are fully aware that there is no specifically Catholic science, that mathematics, chemistry, physiology and other branches of human knowledge are neither Catholic, Jewish, nor Protestant; but, when it is commonly asserted that Catholic principles are an obstacle to scientific research, it seems not only proper but needful to register what and how much Catholics have contributed to every department of knowledge.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

As for Catholics, their duty as members of the Church impels them to learn more and more fully its principles; while among Protestants the desire for a more intimate and accurate knowledge of things Catholic increases in proportion to the growth of the Church in numbers and in importance. The Catholic clergy are naturally expected to direct inquirers to sources of the needed information; yet they find only too often that the proper answers to the questions proposed are not to be met with in English literature. Even the writings of the best intentioned authors are at times disfigured by serious errors on Catholic subjects, which are for the most part due, not to ill-will, but to lack of knowledge. It would be fatuous to hope to call into immediate existence a Catholic English literature adequate to supply this knowledge and correct errors. The Encyclopedia, therefore, is the most convenient means of doing both, enabling, as it does, the foremost Catholic scholars in every part of the world to contribute articles in the condensed form that appeals to the man of action, and with the accuracy that satisfies the scholar.

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

The work is entirely new, and not merely a translation or a compilation from other encyclopedic sources. The editors have insisted that the articles should contain the latest and most accurate information to be obtained from the standard works on each subject. Contributors have been chosen for their special knowledge and skill in presenting the subject, and they assume the responsibility for what they have written. Representing as they do Catholic scholarship in every part of the world, they give the work an international character.

The Encyclopedia bears the imprimatur of the Most Reverend Archbishop under whose jurisdiction it is published. In constituting the editors the ecclesiastical censors, he has given them a singular proof of his confidence and of his desire to facilitate the publication of the work which he has promoted most effectively by his influence and kindly cooperation."

In the execution of the plan thus outlined no essential feature has been changed or omitted; the Preface would be as appropriate to the fifteenth volume as it was to the first. Since it was written innumerable questions arose regarding matters of detail; but these were settled in accordance with the ideas and principles which were adopted by the editors before a page of the Encyclopedia was published.

In accomplishing their preliminary task and in dealing with problems that presented no slight difficulty, the editors were encouraged by the widespread interest which the first announcement of the Encyclopedia aroused. Cordial approval and assistance was given by the Apostolic Delegate and by the members of the Hierarchy, particularly by his Eminence Cardinal Farley, to whom the project was formally submitted on January 27, 1905. Many useful suggestions were received from clergymen, teachers, authors, and publishers in the United States and in other countries. The project was welcomed with enthusiasm by the laity, and a large number of subscriptions were taken before the first volume appeared in March, 1907. As other volumes followed with promptness and regularity, the public soon became aware that the Encyclopedia was rapidly passing from the region of things possible and desirable to that of accomplished facts, and moreover that it was taking a unique position among the important publications of modern times.

The Encyclopedia was to be "an international work of reference on the constitution, doctrine, discipline and history of the Catholic Church." With a scope so vast before them, the editors devoted their earliest efforts to the mapping out of the subject matter. This was arranged in thirty-two departments which were then distributed so as to allow each editor a certain group of departments for special supervision and yet leave to the Board as a whole the final decision upon the inclusion or exclusion of any proposed subject.

In each department, the selection of subjects was determined to a considerable extent by the very nature and purpose of the Encyclopedia. Other titles were drawn from various sources — such as Encyclopedias of a general character, standard works, and periodical publications. A large number of articles were suggested by scholars whose competence in special lines or in the preparation of works similar to the Encyclopedia gave weight to their opinions. No subject, however, was accepted or rejected until it had been passed on by each editor.

The work was intended to show not only the inner life of the Church in organization, teaching, and practice, but also the manifold and far-reaching influence of Catholicism upon all that most deeply concerns mankind. Hence the introduction of many titles which are not specifically Catholic or even religious in the stricter sense, but under which some interest of the Church or some phase of its activity is recorded. Such are the accounts given of different religions and sects, of countries and states, of literatures and philosophies, of institutions and individuals that have been extraneous, or even antagonistic, to the Church. Special care, of course, was taken to include those subjects which are often treated in a way that gives false or inaccurate impressions regarding the Catholic position or the facts of history. Even where the same subject would naturally recur under different titles, it was, if sufficiently important, allotted a separate article. On the other hand, to avoid needless repetition, it was often found necessary to introduce the subject in alphabetical order with a cross-reference to the article in which, under a different title, it would be more appropriately treated. Finally, as no other extensive work of reference would be available to a large number of the purchasers of the Encyclopedia, due provision was made for supplying in every instance such general information as the ordinary reader might reasonably expect to find in connection with the subjects treated.

As the vitality of an organization is manifested chiefly in the achievements of its prominent members, it is but natural that this work should contain a large number of biographies. In these articles, particularly judicious selection was necessary, as well as moderation in treatment. For obvious reasons biographies of living persons were not admitted; nor was distinction of whatever sort the chief criterion of selection, but rather, in the case of eminent Catholics, their loyalty to the Church. On grounds that are plainly different, the list of biographies includes various names that recall important controversies, heresies, errors or phases of conflict through which the Church has passed, and concerning which it was needful to set in clear light the Catholic position.

From the outset the editors adopted the principle that each article should be prepared by the ablest available writer. The character of the work was such that it could not be done, as much encyclopedia writing is done, by a staff of office assistants. The contributors were selected, not on account of their official position, but with reference to their scholarship and their special qualifications for handling the subjects assigned them. In addition to the names already conspicuous in Catholic literature, the list was drawn up after consultation with well-informed persons in various countries. Inquiries were sent to the Catholic colleges, seminaries and universities in the United States Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland and Australia. The Bishops in the English-speaking countries were requested to suggest writers for articles on their respective dioceses and the political divisions, such as the States of the Union, in which their dioceses are situated. The heads of religious orders and congregations were consulted regarding the assignment of each article in which they might be directly interested. Authorities on Catholic subjects in the non-Catholic institutions of learning in this country were also invited to cooperate. By correspondence or by personal visits, the editors secured contributions from prominent writers on the Continent of Europe, especially among the professors of the various universities and members of learned societies. The fact that the list includes 1452 names, representing 43 countries, sufficiently attests the international character of the Encyclopedia. Furthermore, it can be said without exaggeration that no other work has ever been produced by the joint labours of so many Catholic men and women representing the clergy, the laity, the professions, and the various lines of scientific and literary activity. The list of contributors to each volume is in itself an object lesson; it shows in a concrete way the intellectual forces that the Church has developed and animated with her spirit.

It was not to be expected that every contributor would know by intuition just how an article should be written to answer the purposes of the Encyclopedia; nor would it have been possible to secure the desired uniformity of treatment if each writer had been left entirely to his own devices. The editors accordingly accompanied the assignment of articles with directions more or less detailed for their preparation. Certain classes of subjects, e.g. biographies, states, dioceses, were carefully outlined so that the writer might furnish the requisite information on all essential points. For the treatment of other subjects suggestions were offered with a view to having the articles include whatever might be of actual and practical interest at the present time. In some instances the contributors themselves requested more explicit instruction or indicated possible modifications. The exchange of views on all important matters was extremely helpful both in furthering the aims of the editors and in making each writer an active collaborator. Indeed so cordial, and, in many instances, so intimate were the relations of contributors and editors, that there was no need of establishing special editorial committees in certain countries as the editors had originally contemplated. It also facilitated, to a considerable extent, the editors' principal task.

In the allotment of space for each article, the editors, who gave to this point their joint attention, were guided in every instance by the rule "quod requiritur et sufficit." The length of an article is not necessarily, therefore, an indication of its importance. This is true particularly of biographies, in which a line often predicates greater celebrity than a paragraph. The encyclopedic style admits no waste word, and though frequently our writers exceeded the space allotted to them, they rarely, if ever, objected to the condensation of their articles, regarding it commonly as an improvement.

Every article was submitted to each of the editors for criticism, acceptance, or rejection. In case of acceptance — and this fortunately was the usual verdict — the article was handed over to the editor in charge of the department to which it belonged, for revision so far as this might be needed in order to meet the requirements of the Encyclopedia regarding space, content, and literary form. Whenever serious changes were found necessary, these were referred to the author. All articles of a doctrinal character were submitted to the censors appointed by ecclesiastical authority. In the case of an article written in a language other than English, it was translated by an expert, and the translation was then carefully compared by the editor with the original manuscript. Frequently brief paragraphs were added, with the writer's authorization, in order to bring out some phase or detail of the subject that possessed special importance for the English-speaking countries. Additions were also made to the bibliography of works that were more easily accessible to the readers of the Encyclopedia or that were published after the article had been received.

Besides providing for the text of the Encyclopedia, the editors undertook the selection and arrangement of the illustrations, plates, and maps, which are a prominent feature in each volume. The wide range of subjects calling for illustration included personages of note, historic scenes and events, famous edifices, ecclesiastical or secular, monuments of Christian antiquity, codices, manuscripts, and the masterpieces of art in painting, sculpture, and architecture. The maps had to be specially prepared for the Encyclopedia, as they were designed to show not only the political or territorial divisions, but also the ecclesiastical conditions, such as the location of each episcopal or archiepiscopal see.

The editors were aided by a well-trained corps of assistants numbering in the course of the work 151, through whose hands the edited article passed on its way to the press. The office staff rendered efficient service not only by the routine work of preparing copy, but also by keeping accurate records of assignments, transmissions of manuscripts, and reports from contributors. It was thus possible at any moment to ascertain precisely the stage which a given article had reached and the progress that had been made toward the completion of each volume. The staff was also charged with numerous matters of detail, such as the verification of dates and references, comparison of statements in different articles, and preparation of lists of subjects by way of suggestion to the Editorial Board.

The Company which was organized to publish The Catholic Encyclopedia was originally known as the Robert Appleton Company. In 1912 its title was changed to The Encyclopedia Press, Inc. It has always been an entirely independent organization, expressly organized for the special purpose of publishing the Encyclopedia. Until it was completed the Company, therefore, did not undertake to bring out any other book or to enter any other field of business. Its members — all men of prominence in business and financial circles — have given their entire time and the fruits of their long experience to the production of this work. They have dealt successfully with the diverse problems which such an enterprise involves on the material and technical sides: printing, plate-making, advertising, and selling. The whole financial administration of the Encyclopedia has been conducted on sound business principles.

From the appearance of the first volume of the Encyclopedia to the conclusion of the Index Volume, the work met with a cordial reception everywhere. Reviewers not only spoke of it in terms of unusual praise, but they also recognized in it at once the powerful influence for good. Hilaire Belloc, for instance, spoke of it as "one of the most powerful influences working in favor of the truth." Georges Goyau recommended it as expressing the genius of Catholicity and spoke of its vast army of contributors as forming a modern intellectual crusade. The Dublin Review pronounced it the "greatest triumph of Christian science in the English tongue." The Protestant Press commented most favorably on the scholarliness and fairness of the articles, one weekly recommending it as the "greatest work undertaken for the advancement of Christian knowledge since the days of Trent." According to the Saturday Review, London, it was a "model of reference works." According to the Athenoeum, it was a "thorough and learned enterprise." Churchmen, men of affairs, journalists, educators, librarians and editors all vied with one another in praising the scholarship of the Encyclopedia.

Article courtesy the Jacques Maritain Center

Copyright © 2009 by Kevin Knight. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

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