“The best of times or the worst of times”—who would suggest that the Catholic Church in the United States provides a good model of a vibrant church in modern culture? The well-known sociologist Gregory Baum proposes this exact idea in the concluding essay of this text. The optimistic spirit of dialogue that so characterized the Second Vatican Council where Baum served as an expert on ecumenism leaves the reader with the hope that these may indeed be the best of times.
Interestingly enough the eight authors prepared their essays for a conference entitled “Decline and Fall.” Certainly the markers that tend to define vibrant Catholic practice—Mass attendance, frequency of confession, adherence to moral teachings on sexuality—indicate a very significant decline in the United States, Ireland and Quebec since the 1950’s. Those who believe these are the worst of times see the movement into modernity as a fall from grace. However, the authors carefully trace the complexity of reading the current situation.
Employing the disciplines of anthropology, history and sociology the essays incorporate solid data and careful analysis. The authors lead the reader to re-examine his or her own presuppositions regarding the quite apparent decline in traditional Catholic practice in all three countries. In “They Are Not of Our Generation” Michael Gauvreau details the role of Catholic Action in reshaping the place of the Church in modern Quebec. Gauvreau proposes that “conscious cultural choices made by groups of Quebec Catholics themselves” promoted the dechristinization of Quebec more than urbanization and industrialization (p 65). In addition to a more traditional assertion of masculine leadership in the 1950’s, redirecting Catholic Action, the more liberal understanding of marriage that “entailed an explicit divinization of the sexual act itself” (p 69) contributed to a divorce between the traditional Catholic culture of Quebec and the lived faith of the people. Ultimately the “Christendom” of 1950’s Quebec yields to a secular culture with a minimal Catholic practice that mirrors Europe. Kevin Christiano set the stage for Gauvreau’s essay with a presentation offering historical perspectives on Catholicism in Quebec.
James Davidson echoes a similar theme as a possible outcome of the current tension between what he identifies as Culture I and Culture II Catholicism in the United States, models initially developed by Eugene Kennedy. The re-emergence of the Culture I perspective emphasizes the institutional structure of the Church and the Magisterium. Culture II appreciates the personal nature of faith and the importance of individual conscience. With certain parallels to the earlier experience of the Church in Quebec, according to Davidson, both sides may lose. With a “good news, bad news” perspective he contends traditionalist thinking will appeal to some Catholics, but will ultimately have a little impact on the majority of laypeople. And, grounding the optimism of Baum, he contends the current data indicate no significant decline in recent levels of participation in the near future. R. Scott Appleby details the historical place of Catholicism in the United States and highlights the current challenges. He describes well the engagement of the American hierarchy with American culture particularly in defining the pro-life stance of the Church in terms of the Constitution of the United States.
The essays on Ireland written by Dermot Keogh and Lawrence Taylor offer the perspectives of history and an ethnographic study. Keogh notes the enthusiastic participation in welcoming John Paul II to Ireland in 1979. Despite the clear engagement in rather traditional Marian spirituality, the faithful had already embarked on a departure from other Catholic traditions. Again the causes of the new “secularity” come from the complex interaction of a significantly improved economic situation, increased urbanization, and spiritual perspectives long at work before modernity.
Taylor addresses the impact of the sexual scandals in Ireland along with the other incidents of abuse. He describes a visit to the seminary at Maynooth with its greatly reduced student body. Engaged in a dialogue with some of the seminarians he writes how they perceive the current situation as a crisis in the Church and not a crisis of faith. One or another of the seminarians questions the bishops’ trust of the people and the priests. One of the men remarks that priests in Ireland today need to be willing to let go to find their new place in both rural and urban Ireland. Now studying with more laypeople than seminarians, they appreciate the challenges to better incorporate this newly well educated laity into the structures of the Church.
Michele Dillon, like Gregory Baum, offers a summary perspective of the six essays exploring the changed reality of Catholicism in Quebec, Ireland and the United States. Dillon distinguishes the lived experience of the Catholics in Quebec and Ireland from that of the United States. In the former places Catholicism provided an opportunity to stand against the Protestant culture represented by an oppressive government. The Church in the United States developed parallel institutions but never exercised the control of education, health care and social service in the same ways the Church exercised such power in Quebec and Ireland. Baum appreciates the necessary collapse of such influence and power, thus finding in the culture of dialogue and religious pluralism offered in the United States a hopeful model for the Church in modernity and now most likely, post-modernity.
The noted collaboration of the authors and the subsequent editing of their individual essays after the conference make this collection of essays a solid unified work. At times there can be a repetition of perspectives, but generally speaking this helps the reader see the parallels and distinctions in the Catholic experience in three rather different cultures. The points of comparison, along with the historical data yielding a more precise understanding of Catholicism in and around the 1950’s, help the reader appreciate that indeed these days need not be “the worst of times.” The same points of comparison and historical data can effectively persuade the reader that indeed these days might be “the best of times.”