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Books Do Matter

“Catholic publishing has never had the size and vigor of Protestant publishing in America,” lamented my father, Neil McCaffrey, Catholic intellectual and founder of the Conservative Book Club and Arlington House Publishers, over thirty years ago. That’s still true today; but things are better now than when my father wrote those words in 1973, shortly after Vatican II and the cultural revolution of the sixties. His efforts to include Catholic books on the list of Arlington House—a secular house specializing in political books—led the way, unbeknownst to him at the time, to the founding of Roman Catholic Books, the company that I now run.

Roman Catholic Books was born as the direct result of the work of Neil McCaffrey and Fr. Vincent Miceli, S.J. Both were leading conservative American Catholics. My father behind the scenes and Miceli on the front lines with books, lectures, and appearances on television shows such as Pat Buchanan’s Crossfire, major radio programs of the time (such as those hosted by Larry King and Long John Nebel) and dozens more.

The story actually begins in 1971, almost a decade before its official founding, when Arlington House published Miceli’s The Gods of Atheism, hailed by the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen as “as complete a study of atheism as exists in any language.” The energetic Miceli propelled the book’s sales far beyond those of most religious books, and, indeed, of many secular books.

Miceli and my father became fast friends. I listened raptly when Miceli visited my parents’ home in Pelham Manor, New York, and talk revolved around the unfolding problems in the Catholic Church and the crisis that would lead to the End Times. Once or twice author Dietrich von Hildebrand joined us with his wife, Alice, also an author.

During one visit, Dad directed Miceli to John Henry Cardinal Newman’s great essays on the End Times and the Antichrist. Miceli, like all Jesuits of his day, was a scholar of sorts. He took off with the lead and devoured everything he could on the subject, producing The Antichrist, a synthesized effort applying traditional Church teaching to the events of our time in a way that no one had before. My father, being an astute publisher, saw the work as Father’s next Arlington House book.

But fate intervened, and before the book could be published, my father was replaced at Arlington House, the company he founded but did not own. The Antichrist was canceled. Miceli found a new publisher, and in short order The Antichrist sold over 10,000 copies.

In the meantime, Miceli and Professor William Marra of Fordham University founded Catholic Media Apostolate, an offshoot of a Michigan television apostolate called Drama of Truth. Now in my twenties and doing political fundraising in Washington, D.C., I helped the two with fundraising. In 1980, CMA launched Roman Catholic Books when it bought the paperback rights to The Antichrist. In the two-plus decades since then, the book has sold more than 40,000 copies. Roman Catholic Books’s edition, with its striking full-color cover featuring Signorelli’s depiction of the devil and the Antichrist from the Orvieto cathedral, is still available at $17.95.

Miceli numbered among his friends William F. Buckley, Jr., and Malcolm Muggeridge, both of whom helped him directly or indirectly in his new ministries. Muggeridge provided a huge financial boost with his memorable letter on behalf of the new Miceli effort beginning: “Dear Catholic friend: I am an old man, and I shall soon be dead.”

The letter raised over half a million dollars in two years for the apostolate and catapulted Miceli and Marra onto the Catholic scene with a TV and later radio program that helped promote both the Church’s teachings and Roman Catholic Books.

I expanded my role and became publisher and editor-in-chief of our fledgling publishing venture. We started slowly in the 1980s, carefully selecting one or two titles a year to reprint, such as John Senior’s The Death of Christian Culture (with the addition of Senior’s famous “Thousand Good Books”) and Sir Arnold Lunn’s The Third Day.

Lunn’s books sought to explain why he, a former atheist, found the Church’s message so compelling by the middle of his life. The Third Day’s popularity pointed the way for us every bit as much as The Antichrist, proving that there was clearly a market for Catholic apologetics in an era when Catholics were being told that apologetics was obsolete. Since then RCB has reprinted a dozen apologetics works by other great British Catholics—many converts themselves—such as Ronald Knox, Robert Hugh Benson, Herbert Thurston, and C. C. Martindale.

Most of our titles are reprints of books that are in the public domain. We occasionally do an original or a translation. In fact, one of our three most popular books this year is The Deceiver by an Italian Marian priest, Livio Fanzaga. Known in Italy as the “radio priest,” Fanzaga is the Vatican-endorsed writer and director of Europe’s largest Catholic radio network. The Deceiver was the top-selling religious book in Italy in 2000. William Mahoney, an American studying at the Angelicum in Rome, did the translation at the urging of our good friend Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro, who assisted Mahoney in the task.

Barreiro lives in Rome, where he heads the Human Life International office. In recent years he has led our annual Rome pilgrimage, which is open to the public.

One of the interesting facets of our Catholic publishing apostolate is the authors we publish. Generally, our books are a reflection of the English-speaking Catholic world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I’d guess half the books we publish are by Jesuits or by men who taught in Jesuit institutions. The number of books these writers represent is probably two-thirds of our list if you include students from Jesuit schools. It is a tangible illustration of the all-pervasive influence of the Jesuits in Britain and America. Yet for centuries the Jesuits rarely accepted positions of Church authority. The papacy? Out of the question for a Jesuit. The point is that real influence in the Church is on individual souls, and that comes as much from learned men of faith as it does from edicts from on high.

Books have been the prime medium—and still are.

Today, Roman Catholic Books publishes about twenty books a year. We sell most of them through our catalogue, ads, and web site. The Deceiver has sold about 2,500 copies since its publication in spring 2004, and we expect to do a second printing. That’s a success for us.

Roman Catholic Books has a small staff, relying mostly on freelancers across the country. Without this kind of part-time worker we’d be out of business in a year.

The physical quality of our books is an important but unmentioned factor in the limited success we’ve had. We do mostly hardcovers, usually with sewn bindings, made to last. Dust jackets aren’t common, but we do use gold and silver embossing for the outside titles that look simple but dignified, rather like an old library book. They are durable and not too expensive. If a book has limited sales potential, it often is priced higher than one with greater sales potential, because we can’t print as many copies. This sometimes means that one book may cost twice as much as another, even though the higher-priced book has fewer pages. It also means that we think it is important to bring the book into print regardless of its sales potential.

Roman Catholic Books is a small traditional Catholic publisher, yet our reach is surprisingly long. We get suggestions on books to publish from readers all the time. Some come from distinguished Catholics such as Catholic Answers president Karl Keating; we have reprinted a couple of books simply on his recommendation. The number of notable Catholics who scrutinize our book selections (but whom I never hear from) is interesting. I know because out of the blue a mention will appear in the New York Times, or a book review will pop up somewhere unexpectedly. In one case, Ken Jones, the author of one of our original titles, met a well-known archbishop for the first time who remarked, “Sure. I know you. You wrote the Index of Leading Catholic Indicators. Excellent book.”

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