Recall what the Roman Catholic Church was like in 1967.
The Second Vatican Council had just concluded and was only beginning to have an impact. The Latin Mass was being set aside and Catholicism had just begun its efforts to reach out to other Christians and to Jews.
No non-Italian pope had been elected since 1522 and the most recent international catechism dated from 1566. American Catholics anxiously wondered what Pope Paul might say about birth control, a subject he was considering at the time.
In society at large, atheistic Communism controlled Eastern Europe, abortion was mostly illegal, homosexuality largely closeted and test-tube babies and cloning were the stuff of science fiction.
So when the New Catholic Encyclopedia was issued in 1967, rapidly evolving events made it out of date almost immediately. Supplementary volumes tried to keep pace, but a complete overhaul was obviously necessary.
Now the second edition is finally available, in print and e-book formats. A monumental achievement, it consists of 15 volumes, 12 million words and 12,000 articles from 4,000-plus scholars, some of whom worked for free. Its aim: authoritative summaries for every important Catholic topic in theology, ethics, worship, history, social trends and biography.
The Catholic University of America controlled the contents, but needed funding and expertise from the publisher, Gale, to make the project possible. The team rushed out the work in just three years, typically processing 100 articles a week.
"It should have taken a year just to figure out what needed to be done," says associate editor Gregory LaNave. "The scope of the work was always daunting,"
The 1967 version was far less rigid than the defensive Catholic Encyclopedia of 1907-14 (now accessible for free on the Internet). The current edition takes even greater note of dissent from the church's official positions.
The Rev. Berard Marthaler, 75, the chief editor and longtime religious education chairman at Catholic University, stresses that his colleagues were "doubly careful to present the church's position authentically," because Catholic officials no longer screen reference works or give them the church's imprimatur.
"There is a descriptive approach to everything," he says. "Where the church had taken a position, we would report that. Where the position was debated, we would report those points of view."
The work states matter-of-factly that Pope Paul's 1968 encyclical against artificial birth control methods "has not been effectively received or widely practiced." It notes the "majority professional view" that homosexual inclinations are "inborn, immutable and a normal variant of human sexuality," even though the church disagrees.
The second edition draws upon the 1967 text, but each article from "A Cappella" to "Zwinglianism" was re-examined. Most got new bibliographies and about a third were heavily reworked. Ten percent of the articles are new, including "Human Genome" and "Womanist Theology."
Among massively renovated topics: women, the laity, liturgical reforms, changes from the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the 1992 catechism, attitudes toward Protestantism and Islam, biomedical advances, archaeological finds and liberal trends in Bible scholarship. The editors also beefed up treatments of developing nations and Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches.
The first volume alone displays the riches. "Abortion (U.S. Law)" is addressed by attorney Helen Alvare, the U.S. bishops' longtime spokeswoman on the practice. "Academic Freedom" carefully assesses Catholic college leaders' declaration of "true autonomy" from outside clerical control in 1967, and the Vatican's campaign ever since to maintain their loyalty to church teaching. "Ars Moriendi" (the art of dying) gets new, in-depth treatment from a Protestant.
Criticisms of some past popes are aired, but the encyclopedia vigorously defends Pius XII's conduct during the Nazi period and calls John Paul II "the pivotal figure" in felling European Communism. The numerous deeds of John Paul's long and activist papacy altered many articles.
Some writers faced special challenges in working on their articles.
Father John Prior wrote his material on Indonesia by hand and dispatched it from the interior of Papua, New Guinea, by boat messenger. The most prolific contributor, by far, was Katherine Rabenstein, an expert on saints who labored hard to keep up with more than 1,200 canonizations by John Paul.
Still, it's impossible for any encyclopedia to be up to the minute.
The church's toughest problem of the last year -- clerical sex abuse of minors -- is barely mentioned. The last years of Cardinal Bernard Law's Boston tenure "were clouded by a major scandal over his handling of pedophiles in the priesthood," the reader is told. But the article on the Lafayette, La., diocese ignores that the scandals began there in 1984.
Whatever the omissions, lay Catholic Thomas Carson, who shepherded the encyclopedia at Gale, takes pride in the production.
"This is beyond a book to me," he says. "This is a big part of my life. They can bury me with a copy."