Wednesday, May 6, 2009

James O'Toole's "The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America": Book Review

This history professor at Boston College appears ideally placed to write this introduction. While thoroughly documented with a wealth of scholarship, learning's integrated fluently. Six chapters convey the essence of three hundred years of American Catholicism, combining personal stories with academic analyses.

It looks as if the future of the Church will return to its beginnings here. A largely priestless nation, with laity assuming roles in liturgical celebration and devotional perpetuation while a few priests-- often foreign-born-- travel from parish to parish wearily saying Mass, anointing the sick, and, if anyone bothers anymore, hearing confessions. The one shift from colonial to contemporary practice most striking (besides the leadership of women) seems the abandonment of capitulation to a sense of shame, in favor of autonomy and maturity by a believer not content with conformity to orthodoxy-- "correct belief" as opposed to orthopraxy, or "correct action."

One aside deserving mention is how leading figures we may not associate with anti-Catholicism gained important roles early on. John Jay proposed for the New York constitution to bar Catholics from voting or owning land; Margaret Fuller the Transcendentalist hated Catholic power; Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, may have opposed slavery but he also inflamed Cincinnati's residents with rumors of an papal plot to take over the Mississippi Valley. This enraged the locals to burn down a convent school-- where most students were from affluent Protestant families. However, O'Toole places such outbursts in context and does not sensationalize them.

Catholics, scattered and thin on the ground as they were in such a country, even when pre-19th c. immigration numbering one or two percent of the population, tended to argue with the hierarchy. I was surprised to find that until the Baltimore council squelched opposition, that laity formed conventions, trusteedoms, and boards that ran many parishes along with or in the absence of regular clergy. As de Tocqueville observed, as with the Protestants, so with the Catholics: it was essential that religions "'while carefully putting themselves out of the way of the daily movement of affairs, not collide unnecessarily with the generally accepted ideas and permanent interests that reign among' the citizens." (qtd. 73)

Naturally, Rome never liked this: the clergy were the bishop's "brethren in Christ"--the laity only the "children of God." The later 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of the immigrant-dominated Church. The jump from marginal presence to major force for Catholics happened rapidly. One circuit riding preacher in 1829 said Mass in a somewhat tidied-up hog pen on the frontier; by the 1860s this same man, John Timon, presided over the booming diocese of Buffalo. I wish more attention had been given to this rousing chapter, but O'Toole had to pack a lot of detail gleaned from first-hand sources into this compact book, and he provides plenty of references.

What the bishops insisted on as the "distinction of divine origin" patronized the lay folks as the power of the hierarchy and the spread of immigrant and native-born clergy made nearly a fourth of America Catholic. The historian excels on gleaning data from catechisms, tracts, missals, and journalism that enlivens his tale of how Catholics in the pews kept some control even as they bowed to the priests and nuns in charge. Marian and saintly veneration increased as immigrants imported their favorites. Cities balkanized along national parish lines as well as territorial ones. O'Toole shows how parish groups of women and men locally prepared early on for the later resurgence in mid-20th century America of lay leadership as the clergy, weakened intentionally or accidently by Vatican II's liberalization, gave more power to ordinary folks.

They overcame the passivity bred into them by their lack of participation in the Mass over the decades before Vatican II. Unions, Catholic Workers, St. Vincent de Paul, Holy Name, K of C, Father Coughlin's radio talks, Legion of Decency, Christian Family Movement, Cursillos, charismatics: the roll call of such diverse movements attests to the variety of ideologies and perspectives among 20th c. American Catholics.

O'Toole has published on the role of confession as the way that the laity engaged mostly in English, in the most personal extension of the Church's power into their private lives, and he sums up its once feared and awesome power felt by its adherents well:
"Lay Catholics had perhaps dozens of opportunities, every single day, to send themselves to hell for all eternity, and that would be a frightening prospect indeed without the remedy the sacrament offered. Confession reminded them of their own responsibility for what they had done: no blaming someone else, no claiming mitigating circumstances, no hoping that secret sins could be kept secret. Confession was like a court proceeding, sermons and textbooks explained, and the penitent was both the defendant and the prosecutor. The only reason for being there was to plead guilty." (183-84)
Similarly, the author incorporates telling encounters between clergy and laity that signalled the kind of resistance that, fueled by democratic values, led Catholics to challenge Rome and erode the sway of the confessional as the postwar era encouraged many Americans to challenge authority and change tradition. The birth control issue polarized many. Fr. Marcelino Zalba, a Spanish Jesuit on the special commission studying the subject in the mid-1960s to advise Paul VI, denied that the Church could reverse its opposition. Doing so would weaken other papal pronouncements; the power of Rome would weaken. If it was declared wrong to have condemned artificial contraception, Zalba opined, "what, then, with the millions we have sent to hell" who failed to follow the Church's orders? Patty Crowley, a prominent married laywoman, countered: "Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?" (qtd. 200-01)

As O'Toole highlights, this showdown marks the boldness that signalled a sea-change that would quickly erode papal homage and clerical control. Yet, even as the history moves into our own era, Catholics remain somewhat different in their knowledge of their faith than Protestants in what's still a very religious nation, at least in theory. A survey around the early 80s-- among my generation, the first to have grown up with no real memory but of the vernacular, post-Vatican II reforms, still found only a third of Catholics able to name even the four evangelists!

Immigration, of course, continues to form a less European, more multicultural Church today. O'Toole sees no return, given the reduction of clergy, to any true papal control or episcopal recovery of power. He notes astutely how John Paul II appointed conservative bishops loyal to Rome; these, however, often did not work their way up in their native dioceses and were transferred about heedlessly. Lacking local support and insight, these bishops may have exacerbated the terrible abuses that have now crippled the Church in the eyes of many who practice-- or used to (a fifth of those born Catholic are now "dormant")-- their ancient yet evolving form of faith.

The book has a few shortcomings. It's less detailed on more sweeping national changes than "American Catholic" by Charles Morris (also reviewed by me on Amazon), but offers a streamlined treatment concentrating on the telling anecdote. While lively and admirably paced, this means O'Toole rushed through much. For example, while Fulton Sheen's covered, there's only a glance at the liturgical movement reforms of the 50s and no mention at all of the postwar cultural-literary movement of not only Thomas Merton but Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, or J.F. Powers. I only found one typo ("peeking" for "peaking") and an error spot-checking the notes, but the lack of a bibliography makes consulting the dense documentation for a first mention of a cited work tedious. The index is markedly inconsistent in its entries. For instance, I could not find there de Tocqueville, Fuller, or Zalba but I did locate Beecher, Jay, and Timon.

Near his conclusion, he agrees that a "wit who observed that the geography of American Catholicism could be overlaid on the map of major league baseball was still correct, but the important centers now were places that had not fielded teams a century before." (303) He downplays the role of foreign-born priests and finds that the lack of ordinands and the growing conservative nature of the few who do enter the priesthood now will continue to clash with a more confident laity who keep falling towards the middle. They muddle along rather than leave the Church or regress to an earlier compliance with teachings most of the faithful simply now ignore. This uneasy relationship brings us back to the beginning: few clergy, a laity taking charge of their rituals and practices, and Rome wondering how to deal with the restive democrats-- now moving into exurbs, expanding the barrios, and diversifying immigrant suburbs even as the inner city "national" parishes fade away and the old blue-collar ethnics die out or flee the Rust Belt.

(Review posted to Amazon US today.)

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