James M. O’TOOLE, The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America. Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. pp. 376. $27.95. ISBN 978-0-674-02818-0; 0-674-02818-X.
Reviewed by Robert E. WRIGHT, Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, TX 78216

This well-written book is about the changing experience of the Catholic laity in the United States, drawn in broad strokes but with a wealth of local references. That having been said, it must be noted from the beginning that it is basically a book about European-origin Catholics, and even then strongly focused upon “the historic Catholic heartland of the Northeast and Midwest” (167). For those reasons, knowledgeable Catholics living west of the Mississippi River valley and Native Americans and Hispanics living in the historic Catholic heartland of the Southwest and elsewhere often will not recognize the pre-1900 history in this volume as applicable to them, nor will those wanting to learn that history find it here (for example, the pre-1820 Hispanic Southwest did not have a priest shortage outside of certain areas of New Mexico, most people were not literate, and priests and Mass were not abundantly available between 1840 and 1920). There are even problems at times applying O’Toole’s generalizations to the trans-Appalachian section of the United States with its French Catholic heritage. And African American laity will find very little on their experience.

What O’Toole does provide is a history of the up-to-now dominant Catholicism in the United States, and this he does very well. An added benefit is that he writes for a general audience possibly unfamiliar with many Catholic terms and practices. If the complaint voiced by some today is true that many Catholics know little about their own religion, this book will be a basic primer for Catholic readers also, not so much in terms of doctrine but rather in terms of the actual changing practice of Catholicism in the United States. O’Toole’s discussion throughout the book is built around the themes of Catholic demography, availability of professional ministers, parishes, the religious practices of the laity, relations with papal and episcopal authority, and relations with the larger United States society. His underlying criterion of evaluation is that laity should have an active participation in the life of the church, which the hierarchy would ignore “at its peril” (306).

O’Toole divides his discussion into six sometimes overlapping periods. During the 1780s to 1820s, a shortage of priests meant only occasional clergy visits for many. So the laity mostly fended for themselves with catechisms and Christ-centered devotional books built around the Gospel readings of the liturgical year and an examination of conscience. The examples given in this chapter are mostly from the East Coast, including the Southern states. The colonial background noted is that of British North America, with only the Catholic practice in Maryland discussed. The following chapter focuses on the eventually eliminated efforts from the 1810s through 1850s to have lay participation in church government. It also describes the “churchifying” of the laity through the ready availability of priests and the growth of devotion to the papacy. Its examples remain mostly East Coast, which lead to some erroneous conclusions for the U.S. church at large during that period. In the trans-Appalachian U.S., bishops did not become less dependent on clergy “who wandered in [sic] from abroad” (63); on the contrary, they relied amost exclusively on regular recruitment from Europe.

The chapter on “The Immigrant Church” (1840s to 1920s) covers familiar territory, with examples almost entirely from the Midwest and Northeast. O’Toole describes very effectively the major shift in devotional practice that came to characterize U.S. Catholicism for over a century. He also describes the increasing papal influence in ordinary Catholic life. One drawback is that he makes it seem like all religious practice took place inside church buildings, ignoring the strong home dimension of this immigrant religiosity. Another is that he characterizes the laity of this long period as merely passive recipients in relation to church authority (147-148). A perfunctory few lines on Native Americans and Hispanics says only that the people’s religion “was different from that of the eastern half of the nation” and these people “would remain marginal to the power structures of the church in America” (100).

The chapter on Catholic Action (1920s to 1950s) also deals very fluently with previous devotional and social societies and the high sacramental practice and typical devotional life of Catholics of this period (again, not taking into account the Hispanic experience). The following chapter on the 1960-2000 period provides a highly recommended discussion of the varied responses of the laity to the liturgical and devotional reforms following Vatican Council II and to the succeeding actions of papal authority, highlighting the development of a more critical stance while remaining within their church.

The final chapter deals with the current situation up through 2007, making this a very up-to-date history. Major attention is given to the sexual abuse crisis and other issues about church authority. Sandwiched in between is a smaller section (285-291) which finally deals with Hispanics, singled out for special attention among the new wave of worldwide immigration since 1965 which is changing the face of U.S. Catholicism. Typically highlighted are their “folk religious” practices. At various places throughout his study, O’Toole speaks of former church attitudes or statements as unintentionally “insulting” in light of later perspectives. As valuable as this volume is for what it presents within its restricted yet important perspective, the treatment of the Hispanic experience as marginal to the story of the U.S. Catholic laity until a still future time in the 21st century, and then only characterized in terms of folk practices, cannot but be deplored.


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