Public Witness demonstrates that the American Bishops have had to be both bishops and Americans to serve the Catholic Church in the United States. The book shows that they have been both, by providing us with a historical account of their rhetorical goals and practices as evidenced in their pastoral letters. Kari does not examine in detail all the pastoral letters, although she does provide more than adequate detail to demonstrate her thesis by reviewing the more important pastoral letters. She claims that "...these statements manifest a rhetorical momentum that parallels the social history of the nation. The processes of producing the pastoral letters trace an arc of gradual and continuous transformation as they evolve from internal exhortative epistles to ecumenical public forms." (p. xix)
There are three stages the bishops have gone through in trying to bridge the church-state gap. First, they associate Catholicism with nationalism, then they focus on national policy issues, and finally they initiate a stimulating national conversation through a national consulting process to produce pastorals. She thinks that these stages show, and the present demonstrates, that the pastorals show an increasing American democratic influence upon the bishops and an expanding role for them within the public arena of American political discourse.
These stages and an increasing democratization of the Catholic church are described in six chapters: I) From the first American bishops to the Baltimore councils (1792-1884), this is stage one; II) 1919-1980, stage two, where they led the formulation of social justice policy issues; III) "the Challenge of Peace," IV) "Economic Justice for All," both these pastorals representing the third stage. V) "The Pastoral That Wasn't" deals with the attempt to write a pastoral dealing with the status of women. VI) Reviews all the chapters with her emphasis upon the rhetorical nature of the pastorals.
This is a valuable book for those interested in American Catholic history, religious rhetoric, or ecclesiology. It is thoroughly researched and provides an excellent bibliography. There is no index. It does read like a doctoral dissertation so one wonders about its envisioned audience. Its doctoral tone might frighten and overly challenge undergraduates but graduate students in American history, religious or secular, would benefit from reading it. The general reader must be willing to read the precision and detail of a clear presentation. It is worth doing so.
History, of course, never ends. Chapter five, which describes the failure of the Woman's Pastoral, may be the beginning of stage four of where the failure in producing the pastoral gives rise to taking a different choice than that that taken by our first bishops in stage one. If the present is parent to the future church, then the bishops' pastorals of the future, instead of enragement and usage of American rhetoric, will probably chose to stand outside that culture and judge it. The multiplicity of voices that destroyed their vision of what a pastoral should be in the Woman's Pastoral then is replaced by their vision of a pastoral: using the rhetoric of jeremiad, focusing on society's sins. This easily may be stage four. A pastoral reflects the vision of the church. The dominant Episcopal voices at present both in the United States and Rome use this rhetoric which suggests a wish for one authoritative voice representing a strong, coherent, united membership. According to all polls this would be the voice of twenty per cent or less of the current church membership. This voice, then, seeks no accommodation to a culture considered inherently sinful and it demands to both build and control the bridge between church and state. The future pastorals, in other words, will be those of powerful spokesmen for a strong, wealthy, cult.