Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk about Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning is not a sociological study. Its value is not in quantitative measurement or in analyzing trends among groups. Rather, it draws together a widely divergent array of personal perspectives on being a Catholic today. Through individual interviews, Kerry Kennedy elicits commentary on being a Catholic from thirty-seven American Catholics, many of them prominent. From church hierarchy (Cardinal McCarrick) to political commentators (Cokie Roberts and E.J. Dionne Jr.) to politicians (Nancy Pelosi) to actors (Dan Aykroyd and Martin Sheen) and even including one scholar (R. Scott Appleby), these personal stories reveal a dizzying array of perspectives on what it means to be a Catholic today. Kennedy sought to document the perspectives of American Catholics who are known for their expertise on a particular issue or in their profession. The sharing of these journeys, she hopes, will serve as guideposts to Catholics seeking their own spiritual meaning.
Being Catholic in this book’s context is more about the experience and influence of being raised Catholic (although one interviewee is a convert from Judaism) than about one’s current relationship to the institutional church.. Those who have left the church, including a woman who has become a Muslim, weigh in equally on their experience of what it means to be an American Catholic today. In her introduction Kennedy notes that it became apparent early on in the interviews that Catholics make a distinction between their personal belief and their attitudes toward the institutional church. Being Catholic means different things to different people, a concept that would have been unheard of in the pre-Vatican II era, but which shouts loudly from these pages. Comments from the interview of a Dominican nun, born in 1961, capture at least a part of the source of these wide-ranging experiences of being Catholic. She says, "The people of God are confused. They're becoming polarized because they're trying to figure out who we are and what it means to be Catholic. Some of us, in asking the questions, are more like evangelicals and some of us are more like socialists. That diversity in the church isn't new. We aren't always sure of the parameters anymore. When people don't know their boundaries, they can get very anxious about setting them and saying who is in and who is out.” Generation X struggles with additional issues. "We were so poorly catechized,” she says, “that our issues are, first, ones of identity and spirituality, and second, of theology."
For sociologists, this collection of interviews is a gold mine of ideas about the down-to-earth realities of what Catholic communicants are struggling with each day. In our sociological efforts to categorize the behavior of groups, the undercurrent of the individuals in those groups can sometimes be lost. These interviews illuminate these hidden undercurrents revealing the reactions and emotions of people caught in a changing church in changing times. They are real-life stories of successful, goal-oriented Americans whose spiritual lives intersect with their public lives. From a research point of view, sociologists could benefit from reading these stories in several ways: first, the interviews will help explain some of the data on contemporary Catholics; second, it will spark ideas for future research; and finally, it is simply fascinating to delve into the personal spiritual journeys of these famous and not so famous lives.