Tom Roberts is well known to students of the American Catholic Church as the long time editor of the National Catholic Reporter. From this vantage point he has offered an overview of the Catholic Church in light of recent controversies and future possibilities. The book is largely descriptive in style and as such provides a very useful and readable account of the recent history of the Church with a special focus on the United States. Roberts uses well the journalistic technique of identifying arguments with people and as such provides a very accessible narrative account of the tensions within the American Catholic Church.
Roberts supports the thesis of Jesuit Fr Michael Massa who sees the Church in contemporary culture through the prism of change. In citing Massa’s work Roberts makes use of a simple dichotomy between a changing Church and a static one – “a time of tension between those who understand that the church has changed over time and will continue to change and those who believe the church is timeless and cannot change”, (p.16). This, of course, is in contrast to Benedict XVI’s argument on the need for the Church to see itself through a hermeneutic of continuity. This hermeneutic does though allow for change but this is seen within the context of reform. I think a greater engagement with this continuity and reform argument would have strengthened much of the analysis offered in the book.
Good use is made of contemporary sociological data which draws attention to a number of vital issues facing the Church in America. One of the most important of these is the decline in levels of Catholic religiosity, measured by such markers as Church attendance. Roberts correctly points out that the real decline in these measures is masked by the large numbers of immigrants who have swelled Catholic ranks in recent decades. These new arrivals mask, to a large extent, the decline in the indigenous strength of the Catholic Church in the USA. Equally pertinent is the movement of second and third immigrant generations away from strong Catholic affiliation, noticed most evidently in the Latino population.
Roberts’ account of the sex abuse crises is an excellent summary of the events and key issues involved. He challenges the notion that bishops were unaware of the depth and scope of the problem until relatively recent times. In his account, as with many others, a real hero emerges in the neglected figure of Fr Gerard Fitzgerald, the founder of the Servants of the Paracletes who sounded clear and unequivocal warnings on the intractable nature of pedophilia in the nineteen fifties. Roberts sees the sex abuse crises as a manifestation of clerical culture which is symptomatic of why the Church must change. He contrasts the response of bishops in the United States with bishops in other places. At the heart of this decadent clerical culture is the manipulation of power.
After extensive coverage of the murky depths of the abuse crises, Roberts felt the need to leave behind this imbroglio and to search out signs of life on what he calls the Catholic margins. He records new ministries in the La Cruces diocese in New Mexico – the poorest in the United States - and a series of initiatives in urban New Jersey. In all of these he sees what he calls examples of authentic leadership. A point that is elaborated on in future chapters. Roberts describes the tensions in the Church as largely arising from a peculiarly American insistence on single issue intervention in the political arena. For instance, he contrasts what he calls the hysterical reaction of many American Church leaders with those of leaders in other countries. For instance, the very public furore and fissure over the University of Notre Dame granting President Obama an honorary degree with the almost unmentioned action of Benedict XVI in making French President Nicholas Sarkozy an honorary canon of St John Lateran’s.
In discussing the large numbers of Catholics who have left the Church or have greatly weakened their allegiance, Roberts favourably uses the views of theologians such as Beaudoin who see here not so much a decline but the emergence of a new religious paradigm. A feature of this is a postmodern religious configuration, described in terms of creating individual spaces within what is called normative Catholicism. This may be the case but I think an engagement with conventional theories of secularization would have made for a more interesting comparative analysis. The question that remains unexplored here is weather what we are seeing in the American Catholic Church today is, predominately, an example of religious resilience or a stage in the secularization process.