Timothy KELLY, The Transformation of American Catholicism: The Pittsburgh Laity and the Second Vatican Council, 950-1972. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009, ISBN 978 0 268 03319 4
Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta.

One of the dominant scholarly discourses in contemporary Catholicism surrounds how to interpret and implement the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. There is already some polarization around seeing the Council in terms of either a hermeneutic of rupture or continuity. This discussion is premised, however, on an understanding of how the Council affected Catholic life. One way of furthering this discussion is to look at broad qualitative studies that examine trends before, during and after the Council. The other, of which this book is a fine example, examines in detail the Council in one particular historical and cultural instance. This enables the scholar to look at the changes brought about by the Council not through an abstract and wide lens but in terms of what actually happened “on the ground” in this case in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The basic premise of the book is that much of the impetus for change in the Church was driven not by the hierarchy but by the laity and, furthermore, that the seeds of this movement can be seen in the immediate preconcilar era. The historical scope of the study begins well before the Council in 1950. This gives a very useful reference point to pre-conciliar practise. Kelly bases his argument, in particular, on examination of three parishes. His analysis centers on changes in devotional behaviour, liturgical reforms and social issues such as materialism and the Church’s response to communism.

Distinguishing between male and female devotional practises, Kelly argues that both were in decline in the 1950’s battling as they were against a rising tide of consumerism and what many clergy referred to a surging sensuality evident everywhere in the wider culture (p.13). He notes examples such as the difficulty that the three parishes had in maintaining widespread daily Eucharistic devotion. The causes of this decline are reflective of a changing era. No longer were clergy, who were vigorous promoters of devotional practises, given unthinking dereference. The stigma attached to not taking part in communal practises declined and suburbanization made the logistics of taking part in such practises more problematic as families developed more individualized routines. Slowly the web of practises that directed Catholics to the transcendent was coming apart.

Postwar prosperity gave many Catholics choices and options that put them more firmly in the American mainstream. With this expansion of social range came the decline of the Catholic ghetto as more and more Catholics moved in circles that reflected the growing plurality of American culture. This was reflected in the increasing difficulty the Church had in maintaining the great stalwarts of integral Catholic life, features such as, marriage within the Church, enrolment in Catholic schools (to graduation as opposed to initial elementary school enrolment) and participation in sodalities and other pious societies. At the same time there was an increasing tendency to define being Catholic in terms of social justice activism and interest in reform, a trend that became accentuated in the postconciliar era. Such a definition does, however, diminish the boundary that defines Catholics against other groups and without strong boundaries any group loses its raison d’être.

One of the most significant reforms in Pittsburgh during the Council was the establishment of lay advisory panels on a parish and diocesan level. These panels provided much data that could be used to plot the course of what the author terms “Aggiornamento Americano” (p.164). The trends established prior to the Council now accelerated. What had been, for example, relatively modest declines in devotional practice now became very noticeable and widely commented on. New practices arose and many organizations were transformed to reflect the new interest in outreach and social justice. As an illustration the Diocesan Council of Catholic Woman (DCCW) was revived in 1954 and dedicated to gathering prayers for the local bishop. After the Council the DCCW focused much more on justice issues enabling its members to participate in social action. The era of greater lay involvement culminated in the 1971 Diocesan Synod, which Kelly describes as the “apex of democratic participation in Pittsburgh diocesan government” (p.271). The Synod, nonetheless, laid the groundwork for significant reform of the diocese on the basis of some of the policies that it promoted. One of the most notable of these where changes in church architecture that reflective the theology behind the Novus Ordo.

In his conclusion Kelly ponders the period under review against the current situation of the three parishes he closely examined. One greatly diminished, another closed since 1993 and the third surviving but scared by the sexual predation of one of its priests. The dreams of a more democratic Church have withered but the question of whether a rise in social activism could ever substitute fully for the incremental demise of the practises and beliefs that feed the religious imagination remains open.


Amazon.com - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books