'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone'--or so readers familiar with traditional Catholicism may think when they finish this broad, balanced, startlingly pluralistic account of the Church's doctrine and practice. Bokenkotter has good orthodox credentials: a church historian, former seminary professor (of theology), and currently a pastor in Cincinnati--but on many key issues, he sees lots of latitude. The ""empty tomb"" has always been the cornerstone of apologetics for the Resurrection; Bokenkotter weighs the scriptural evidence pro and con, decides it may or may not have been a historical fact, but it's not all that important anyway. Many Protestant scholars reject the Virgin birth (Bokenkotter consistently works from an ecumenical standpoint); the magisterium has taught it since the year 200; but it's not really part of the ""core of the Gospel."" There are good reasons for the Reformers' criticism of sacramental confession as Pelagian, magical, legalistic, a tool of clerical tyranny, etc.--and then again there are good reasons for faulting these charges. Original sin has only a doubtful basis in the Bible (Augustine followed a misreading of Paul by Ambrosiaster); but suitably reinterpreted by the ""situationists"" and ""personalists,"" the dogma still has merit. These days, Catholic sexual ethics bristles with conflict and confusion, now that the age-old taboos against contraception, abortion, premarital sex, married clergy, women priests, and so forth, have been challenged. Bokenkotter clearly favors the left on most of these questions, but he stacks up the arguments and stands aside. He crams in an enormous amount of material and effectively draws on secular thinking to explain the psychology of faith (e.g., Erik Erikson on ritual as a way of transcending separateness). If he fails to define ""essential Catholicism,"" that's because his crisp summaries of doctrinal development and present-day divisions show there scarcely is such a thing (except in the mind of the Vatican). Prosaically written, but a solid, informative compendium.