“Ask a Priest: Is It OK to Read Self-Help Books?”

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Q: Should a Catholic read self-help books, such as The Magic of Thinking Big? I ask because I have read that books related to the power of thoughts or mindset should be avoided because they are incompatible with our faith. Could you clarify things for me? – Virginia

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The Church doesn’t issue specific rulings on “self-help” books. The category itself is extremely broad and covers a wide range of works.

Some books, such as those of Pat Lencioni (on how to negotiate successfully and do well in business), have helped a lot of people and are based on solid research and clear principles of action.

Others, like the book you mention, are more about “positive thinking.” They tend to stand on shakier scientific ground, sometimes bordering on superstition or offering little more than motivational slogans fleshed out a bit.

Others are more serious works based on psychological and sociological research. In general, self-help books can only be judged on a case-by-case basis.

It’s worth noting that a lot of “positive thinking books” tend to focus on worldly things.

A case in point is The Magic of Thinking Big. The blurb on the cover of a 1987 edition says, “Acquire the Secrets of Success … Achieve Everything you Always Wanted: Personal Property, Financial Security, Power and Influence […].”

Notice the emphasis on material wealth—the very thing Jesus warned us about. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).

Real improvement in our lives, real wealth, depends on our closeness to God. This means having a solid prayer life and sacramental life, and relying on divine providence for what we need.

Our own efforts are important too; God gives us intelligence and expects us to use it.

If we can mine a few good suggestions from self-help books, that’s OK.

But we want to keep the bigger picture in mind: Self-help is no substitute for divine help.


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