Meg Wilkers KARRAKER. Diversity and the Common Good. Civil Society, Religion, and Catholic Sisters in a Small City. Lexington Books, 2013. 166 pp. ISBN 978-0-7391-8152-2 also eBook. Reviewed by Ana Lourdes SUAREZ, Catholic University of Argentina, Buenos Aires
In this book Karraker presents the results of a three years research that focused on a small Midwestern U. S. city. A city, she argues, that has been successful in addressing immigration due to its decision to acknowledge diversity and seek inclusion.
From this “successful” case study Karraker raises two related questions: what propels communities and their members to work toward the common good of the society? And, how can a community like the one selected in the study – whose real name is not given in the book – inform us about the creation of a good society? Taking inspiration on Peter Wuthnow (1991) waving together themes of compassion and civic engagement, Karraker argues that religion is a crucial factor for civic engagement. She demonstrates that the city she studied draws heavily on its civil and religious capital, especially that generated by her Catholic Sisters, with the result that the common good is served in the city in ways that are exemplary. To come to this conclusion Karraker used several sources of data: interviews with civic and religious leaders and Catholic sisters from six congregations, as well as published histories, newspapers accounts, and other public accessible accounts of the city´s past and present life.
Karraker supports a social capital approach to civic engagement, rather than a historical-institutional approach or rational choice explanations. Through this well framed approach her research offered her the opportunity to understand how congregations of Catholic women frame social networks and expend social capital within the context of the larger community of these congregations, the larger institutional Catholic Church, and the civic societies within which they operate. They have done so through inter-congregational networks, as well as broader religious, civic, and interpersonal networks, all of which have established acceptance and support in the broader community for the work of the Sisters and their congregations. Catholic Sisters and their congregations have been instrumental in engaging their communities toward inclusion.
In the first chapter of the book the author offers an academic and personal background of her research interests in the community selected for the study. As a Lutheran doing research on the Catholic Sisters, Karraker comments that she has been something Simmel referred to as the stranger within: “in” but not “of” the community (p.3). Throughout the book she openly expresses her positive impression of what women religious and their communities have done both for the American society in general and for their city in particular. Her arguments are laid out very nicely and are very convincing. I myself, being an Argentinean, loved to read this book where the protagonists are American Catholic Sisters. I am now very grateful for their passion, their dedication, and what it means for the American society. I can certainly say the same about Argentinean Sisters.
The second chapter explores diversity in America´s heartland, addressing the issue of how a community manages the practical problems stemming from its homogeneity, as well as the challenges threatening its civic identity. The chapter reveals how this small city on the Mississippi River has creatively confronted changes in the demographic landscape over the last few decades.
Chapter three describes how this city addresses civic issues. Karraker uses the Resiliency Capacity Index offering snapshots about the city's economic, socio-demographic, and communitarian resources. She also discusses the fundamental issue of the “common good.”
Chapters four, five and six frame the book around civil society. Chapter four examines the presence of the Catholic Church in the city. Karraker argues that the high presence of Catholic values is one of the explanations for why the city seems to work so well. The author examines the place of Catholic and other faith traditions, especially about immigrants seen as the “strangers in our midst”. Chapter 5 offers background information about the Catholic Sisters and their congregations, beginning with a brief history of women religious and their congregations. An important focus of this chapter is the theological concept of charism or mission of service to the stranger. Focusing on charism allows one to see the sources of renewal both within the Church and society. In chapter 6 the author presents her findings that show the high esteem in which Sisters are held in the community and their special role in making the city a "good society." Karraker argues that the sisters have provided both human and spiritual capital – hands, hearts, and spirit – as well as economic capital, in support of a broad range of religious and civic institutions. A whole range of creative efforts to promote inclusion and social justice.
In the last chapter Karraker presents all her findings in a theoretical perspecrtive. Diversity and the Common Good gives theoretical tools to understand how partnership between civil society and religion can indeed be a potent force in the pursuit of the common good. I agree with Karraker that Catholic women´s congregations and their incumbents have been a particularly neglected area of study in history, the humanities, and social science. I welcome this book, and hope it will inspire many others. It is so timely! With the election of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church is widely perceived to be embarking upon a radical renewal. A renewal that hopefully will give new value to the role that Catholic Sisters play within the Church and society.