This book is the fruit of a 2005 conference sponsored by the Jesuit Institute at Boston College as part of the ongoing Church in the 21st Century Project on the ecclesiological issues facing the Catholic Church in the American context. While the immediate catalyst for these investigations and the larger institutional efforts of which they are a part was the sexual abuse crisis in the church in America and particularly in Boston, these papers take that event as a starting point to ask wider, long-ranging questions about the interaction of the Catholic Church with American culture and its future in this country.
The title of the book might be slightly misleading to some with regard to the book’s focus. I have two minor quibbles and a word of praise. The quibbles. First, the book is about the situation of the Roman Catholic Church in this country, not “the church” tout court. A minor point, but a valid one, if one is to take ecumenical awareness of the reality of “the church” outside of the Catholic Church seriously. Second, the book is about the situation of the Church in the United States, not North America. While Natalia Imperatori-Lee’s excellent essay on the ecclesiological implications of the veneration of Guadalupe in the Latino/a experience brings a broader understanding of the “Americas” and “North America” into the conversation, the locations of the authors and the questions they ask are firmly rooted in the experience of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Thirdly, and beyond these minor points, this collection of essays is not a treatise on inculturation per se, but on the particular inculturation of the Catholic Church in the United States context. Other resources will be more helpful for one seeking an exploration of the theory of inculturation; this collection wisely focuses on the questions of inculturation in this particular context, addressing questions of political life, of the role of women and particularly of women theologians in the U.S. Catholic context, of polarization and sectarianism within U.S. Catholicism, of the Asian American and Latino/a American contributions to the emerging U.S. Catholic Church, and of the values and visions of our community’s younger members. This focus of the book upon the particular challenges, gifts, and constituencies of one ecclesial context gives the essays the depth necessary to make a significant contribution to the future development of the U.S. Catholic Church.
Almost all of the essays are of a consistently high quality. David Hollenbach and Nancy Dallavalle both address questions of the role of Catholics in public life. Mary Ann Hinsdale’s essay on the contributions of women theologians in the history of the Catholic Church, Francis Sullivan’s historical study of lay participation in the “Constitution of the Diocese of Charleston” created by Bishop John England, and Peter Phan’s paper on Catholics in Asia and Catholics in the United States all point to ways in which the distinctive gifts of the U.S. Catholic Church may contribute to the wider church. John Beal’s and Dean Hoge’s studies bring social scientific data from organizational theory and sociological studies, respectively, to bear upon questions of Catholic identity and institutionalization in the U.S. Finally, Mark Massa’s essay “Beyond ‘Liberal” and ‘Conservative’” is a passionate warning against sectarian tendencies in the American Catholic Church, and a call for a renewed awareness of Catholic unity which would make possible vigorous yet charitable debate in and through our plurality in this context.
In short, what one takes from this book is not a systematic theory of inculturation, nor even a comprehensive picture of the U.S. Catholic Church, but a rich enough cross-section of some of the major issues, questions, and identities of Catholicism in the United States to begin the investigation of this complex reality. Many of the essays will be quite useful in undergraduate courses and in religious education as the starting points for discussions on ecclesial identity, institutionalization, and the role of Roman Catholics in public life, and their clarity and lively style will make them both accessible to non-specialists and valuable to theologians and pastoral ministers.