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Documenting the Rise of the Laity

AMERICAN CATHOLICS: Gender, Generation, and Commitment, by William V. DíAntonio, James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge and Katherine Meyer. AltaMira Press (a division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.). 178 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by JOHN BRODERICK, a professor of sociology at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, and a pre-Vatican II Catholic (for purposes of the categories in this book).

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be Catholic today? What is distinctive about being a Catholic? Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics were pretty clear on how they differed from their non-Catholic neighbors. The boundaries are now less distinct.

These authors, all sociologists, attempt to answer these and similar questions by analyzing survey data of Catholic laity taken at six-year intervals from 1987 to 1999.

They compare the response of pre-Vatican II Catholics (born between 1910 and 1940) with those of Vatican II Catholics (born between 1941 and 1960) and post-Vatican II Catholics (born in 1961 or later).

They find a gradual shift over these 12 years and expect it will continue. (Before reading further, consider what you think the trend might be.) Cynics might see a move from "pray, pay and obey" to a "cafeteria Catholic" mode in which the laity pick and choose from among the teachings and traditions of the Church. But currently, Catholics are more sophisticated than that.

While pre-Vatican II Catholics have stronger visions of Catholic boundaries than those born later, there is clearly a gradual move from conformity to autonomy among American Catholics.

In 1966, shortly after the Second Vatican Council, William DíAntonio, one of the authors of this book, predicted that in the long run laypersons would do what seems rational and practical whenever a Church tradition could not be sustained by what they saw as sound reasons. These surveys indicate that his prediction was remarkably accurate.

The research shows that Catholics have high levels of support for the basic dogmas (sacraments, the Resurrection and the Real Presence in the Eucharist, for example), but that they are more likely to reach their own conclusions in areas where non-theologians and non-clerics have some expertise (sexual issues, capital punishment and Church governance, for example).

The laity have come to understand that all organizations run by human beings are subject to revision over time and that participatory forms of governance are useful for safeguarding against abusive relationships, especially in hierarchical systems which can sometimes be unmindful of human rights.

The call for active participation by the Church in public affairs is not new. Early in the last century, Cardinal Jozef Cardijn of Belgium used the slogan "Observe, Judge and Act" in founding Young Christian Workers and Young Christian Students. From these initially European groups, the idea spread into the labor movement and Christian Family Movement in the United States.

Prior to that, Pope Leo XIII had called for Catholic action in public affairs. More recently, the laity have become more active in both public affairs and Church affairs.

Since the sad disclosures about sex abuse in the Church in Boston and elsewhere, participating in Church governance by the laity has increased. For example, Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization which seeks, among other things, to shape structural changes within the Church, has grown rapidly since its founding in Boston in the spring of 2002.

This bookís data were gathered before the current problems achieved such public attention. Since these surveys were done at six-year intervals, the next one is due in 2005. It will be interesting to see if current events will continue the trend toward autonomy by the Catholic laity. The trend has certainly been away from "pray, pay and obey" toward Cardinal Cardijnís "observe, judge and act."

The authors conclude with the suggestion that Church leaders find ways for the magisterium and the laity to work together in formulating policies that reflect the will of God and the best instincts of both clergy and laity. They hope that the "observe, judge and act" movement will continue and that clergy and laity will work together in developing a new way of "being Church."

You can order AMERICAN CATHOLICS: Gender, Generation, and Commitment from St. Francis Bookshop.

IN SEARCH OF AN AMERICAN CATHOLICISM: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension, by Jay P. Dolan. Oxford University Press. 312 pp. $28.

Reviewed by JOHN F. FINK, author, columnist and editor emeritus of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

THE HISTORY of American Catholicism is the study of change, Jay P. Dolan says, and this is especially true for the past 40 years.

Dolan, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, set out to show not only the changes that have occurred in the Catholic Church in the United States, but particularly how American culture has shaped Catholicism. He has succeeded.

Dolan shows in depth how Americans have influenced Catholicism in five areas: democracy, devotional life, national identity, doctrine and gender.

Like a good historian, though, before getting to the changes of the past 40 years, Dolan reviews the way Catholicism changed earlier in America.

During the first decades of our country, when Catholics were few and far between, the passion for democracy was prevalent. Catholics were sympathetic to the democratic spirit of the age, and this was reflected in the trustee system of parishes.

This changed, though, during the immigrant period (1820-1920). The Catholic Church grew numerically but there was a change of attitude. Dolan says that, in the era of the immigrant Church, a siege mentality emerged and Catholics came to believe that they were under attack. Frequently, they were, especially by the Know Nothing Party in the 1850s and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

Nevertheless, there were leaders, such as Isaac Hecker, who believed that the destinies of the United States and American Catholicism were bound together.

It was after World War II that Catholics became more affluent, moved out of the Catholic ghettos into the suburbs and began to change Catholicism. Then came the Second Vatican Council, with its changes.

Dolan believes that the renewal of Catholicism would have taken place in the United States even if Vatican II had never happened because the social and cultural transformation after World War II was more important for American Catholics than the council was.

The best example he gives of the way Americans influenced Catholic doctrine was the Vatican Councilís document on religious freedom. "When the Council fathers endorsed the principle of religious freedom," he says, "they acknowledged that culture does indeed shape religion."

Another example is the acceptance of birth control by 90 percent of American Catholics despite the Churchís condemnation. Dolan says, "The acceptance of artificial contraception within American society has transformed the belief of Catholics."

He notes that post-Vatican II Catholicism has largely become the Church of the laity. Furthermore, he shows how the American womenís movement of the past 40 years has had a truly revolutionary impact on the Church.

He acknowledges, though, that there is often conflict between American Catholics and the Vatican. He says that the hierarchical Church represents one dimension of Catholicism, but another dimension is the peopleís Church rooted in the parish community. "The Vatican issues its edicts," he says, "but they do not seem to have much impact at this local level."

Dolan added a postscript to his book in order to comment on the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church since he wrote the book. He concludes that the Church needs better leaders who are more accountable to the people they serve. The scandal, he says, has revealed the need for far-reaching change.

As thorough as Dolan is, I believe there are some omissions. When discussing the 1950s, for example, he says that this is when Catholics became more affluent and began to move to the suburbs. He could have attributed this to the G.I. Bill after World War II, which made it possible for many Catholics to go to college who otherwise would not have been able to do so.

He also could have emphasized the influence of the Catholic press throughout U.S. history. He mentions the influence of Commonweal and The Catholic Worker, but neither of them had either the circulation or the influence of numerous other Catholic periodicals.

You can order IN SEARCH OF AN AMERICAN CATHOLICISM: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension from St. Francis Bookshop.

TOWARD A NEW CATHOLIC CHURCH: The Promise of Reform, James Carroll. Mariner/Houghton Mifflin. 116 pp. $8.95.

Reviewed by the REV. LAWRENCE VENTLINE, D.Min., a longtime religion writer for The Detroit News. Author of six books, he is the founder of Cura Animarum. A priest of Detroit for 26 years, he is a licensed counselor.

WINNER of the National Book Award for An American Requiem, James Carroll challenges the Church to atone for its sins. Some, like me, will find Toward a New Catholic Church: The Promise of Reform a most negative confrontation.

In Constantineís Sword, Carroll excavated and explored a long story of anti-Semitism in the Roman Catholic Church. Carroll has also gone public with the story of his departure from the Catholic priesthood into the world of professional writing. Now, in this book, Carroll says he sees reform as the Churchís only way out of the sexual-abuse catastrophe.

Dramatically, he says, "Not only the discredited bishops who protected abusive priests must go; the whole system that produced them must go." "A power structure that is accountable only to itself will always end by abusing the powerless. Even then, it will paternalistically ask to be trusted to repair the damage."

In seven chapters, the writer makes five proposals: from a call for a new biblical literacy and Christology, to changes in Church power and democracy, to reforming in repentance.

Carroll claims that Jesusí message is distorted and advocates scholarly investigation. His ironic chapter entitled "The Holiness of Democracy" assumes a revolution in the Churchís calcified system of power and authority.

"When children become sexually vulnerable to disturbed men, we are an inch away from the question of what those men, and also their protectors, make of women," Carroll charges.

Clearly, Carroll wrestles with reform in the Church while it is in the middle of systemic decay, and proposes a Vatican III to usher in a new era of participation and democracy in the Church. With a fervor as intense as the quest for good over evil, Carroll points out that parishioners, priests and bishops must make a choice toward a new Catholic Church. He makes much of lay initiatives for change in groups like Voice of the Faithful.

For this reader, Carrollís confrontational call for change in the Church is another negative voice in an already saturated media milieu. Although I found Carrollís review of Church history rigorous and his analysis of the great issues that must be faced pointed, his language will only make Church leaders more defensive.

Nevertheless, his call for a truly ecumenical council is worthy of merit. Bringing together the minds and hearts of men and women who love the universal Catholic Church is an idea whose time has come.

You can order TOWARD A NEW CATHOLIC CHURCH: The Promise of Reform from St. Francis Bookshop.


Book Briefs

The trauma of child sexual abuse leaves many victims. Here are some books that might help with the healing.

• TAKING BACK OUR LIVES: Reflections for Survivors of Childhood Abuse, by Patti Sherlock (ACTA Publications, 140 pp., $9.95), is intended for victims of all kinds of child abuseóphysical, psychological, sexual, neglect. Sherlock, a survivor of physical child abuse herself, finds comfort in faithís power to interrupt the cycle.

• ITíS NOT THE SAME WITHOUT YOU: Coming Home to the Catholic Church, by Mitch Finley (Image Books/Doubleday, 195 pp., $12.95, U.S.; $19.95, Canada). One of the hardest things to hear in the stories of those abused by priests is that they have stopped all association with the Catholic Church. This book recounts stories of Catholics who feel alienated for many reasons and explores the anger, bitterness and disappointment that they feel. Within its covers are a gentle invitation to return and the message that forgiveness needs to go both ways.

• AGONY IN THE GARDEN: Sex, Lies and Redemption From the Troubled Heart of the American Catholic Church, by John Van Der Zee (Thunderís Mouth Press/Nation Books, 275 pp., $13.95, U.S.; $22.95, Canada). An in-depth exposť of the sexual and financial corruption in the Santa Rosa Diocese, this book praises the laypeople who worked to break the official silence and stop the cover-ups.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 6.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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