Joseh VARACALLI et al., editors, Models and Images of Catholicism in Italian Americana: Academy and Society. Stony Brook, N.Y: Forum Italicum, Inc., 2004. 280pp.. ISBN 1-893127-24-9. No Price listed..
Reviewed by William V. D’Antonio, Catholic University, Washington D.C. 20064

In his Preface, the Honorable Thomas P. DiNapoli said that the editors presented 15 chapters “that will engage the reader and likely tap into your own experiences and views” (vii). Actually, the chapters will engage you in different ways. The editors put it more succinctly in their introduction: “some of the essays are purely academic while others combine the academic with the devotional. Some assume the truthfulness of the cognitive claims of the Catholic faith, others deny it through either reduction or transformation into the secular, and yet others bracket the issue altogether. Some are hostile to the religious institution, others sympathetic, and yet others descriptively neutral” (ix).

Those with little or no knowledge about the experience of the immigrant years and the struggles with Irish Catholics and the dominant Irish Church will find the opening chapters by Primeggia, Gesualdi, and LaGumina helpful. No big ahas! But their sources are solid, and the uninitiated will get the basics.

Chapters four and five, by Salamone on Italian Protestants in Rochester, NY, and Sister Marchione on Jewish Images of Catholicism in Italian American life, recount some interesting findings and interpretations from secondary sources, but neither one would qualify as a definitive statement. Donald D’Elia offers a brief hagiography on Mother Cabrini in chapter 6; again, this essay will be of most value to those who know only Mother Cabrini’s name.

Varacalli present an interesting essay in chapter 7, a “Reflection on the Relationship between the Catholic and Italian Worldviews.” By Catholic he refers to the “magisterially-defined Catholic worldview.” Anyone who knows anything about Italian Catholics, especially from Southern Italy, will know at once that they will not do well in this reflection. Anyone who does not buy Varacalli’s version of the magisterium as defining who is or is not a real Catholic, will either enjoy the imaginary discussion that the essay allows, or will quickly skip to the next chapter. And the next chapter, by contrast, provides a rich and complex “overview of the relationship between Italian and Italian American women and religion...” (127). Linda Ardito’s commentary on the role of “midwife” and how the Church supported it historically provides an unusual insight into a role that offered these women defacto power with their capacity to deliver and baptize babies. All in all, I found this one of the more balanced and perceptive essays, using a wide variety of scholarly sources to reveal how the Church’s support of women in such a role as midwifery was offset by its control of them by the narrow definition of their proper role as defined by their gender. Linda Ardito presents a rich set of references for the reader interested in a more in-depth look at Italian and Italian American women over several generations.

Mary Jo Bona’s short but engaging essay (chapter 9) on “Italian American Women Authors and the Catholic Church” introduced me to a number of women authors about whom I knew nothing before this reading. They seem to have done well in portraying the Italian struggle with the more orthodox Irish American Catholic Church, a theme that runs through the essays, and also reveal the strength of the more traditional Italian understanding of what it meant to be a Catholic.

In Chapter 10 Michael Carroll combines psychoanalytic theory with a dialectical model to show how popular Italian Catholicism “consists of beliefs and practices that have emerged as different groups respond to changing social conditions.” He does this by examining three examples of popular Italian Catholicism: “The Blood Miracles of Naples”, “An Explosion of Saints and Madonnas,” and “Whole and Entire,” the growth of cults honoring saintly bodies that are incorrupt. Again, this was for me an engaging entry into an area of study with which I had no prior experience. I found his conclusion compelling, namely that Psychoanalysis is a useful underutilized perspective in the study of religion.

The longest chapter in the book (chapter 11) by John C. Rao, provides a broad overview of the papacy during the turmoil years 1848-1915. He sheds some light on the interplay between the various philosophies and ideologies stimulating secular, economic and democratic movements that led to the loss of the papal states, and the different responses and pro-active stances taken by popes Pius IX, Leo XIII and Pius X. Considering my own limited knowledge of this period, I felt that I was receiving a fairly balanced overview.

Anthony Haynor looks at what he perceives to be the emerging Italian American Catholicism through the prism of Berger and Luckman’s “social construction of reality.” I found myself page by page and sometimes line by line in debate of his use of the social construction and of possible long term implications, which means that I enjoyed the exercise. Those not acquainted with Berger and Luckman’s work and the subsequent and related works will find Haynor’s summary very helpful, and they should have no trouble following his analysis and interpretations. Whether the reader agrees with them is another question.

Fred Gardaphe gives us a brief look at the writings of several Italian American writers like John Fante, Pietro DiDonato, Jerry Mangione, Tina DeRosa and several others. I cite one particular insight relating to DiDonato’s last novel, The American Gospels, in which Christ comes to earth as a black woman, reflecting the author’s Catholic roots in pre-Christian, matriarchal worship. Despite some repetitive phrases between pages 258-260, this essay also had sufficient new information for me that I found it well worth reading.

In the final chapter, Phyllis Zagano lowers the boom on the institutional church that she sees as mismanaged by corrupted priests and bishops who have neglected the poor as they are caught up in the very individualism that they should be railing against. Where is Catherine of Siena when we need her? Members of the Voice of the Faithful would find little to quarrel with in this essay, although they would surely acknowledge that the church still has large numbers of priests of integrity, a reality that Zagano in a different essay might well admit to.

Varicalli offers a hopeful concluding note about the possibility of developing a Catholic Italian American world view in Italian studies. To which I would say “I wonder?”!

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