Peter MCDONOUGH, The Catholic Labyrinth. Power, Apathy, and a Passion for Reform in the American Church.  New York. Oxford University Press, 2013 pp. 380 Paper.  ISBN 978-0-19-975118-1. Reviewed by Daniel H. LEVINE, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI 48109-1045.

This account of the current status of U.S. Catholicism centers on cultural and organizational decay, and   limited prospects for protest and reform.   Narrative and analysis are keyed to elements of gender and sexuality, money and power, managerial competence or incompetence, and   personalities. The Catholic hierarchy is not simply hung up on sexuality issues: gender based power is central to how the institution works.  The church also faces a long term financial crisis, caused by a combination of mismanagement, the costs of dealing with sex abuse cases, and the disappearance of the low cost labor (primarily nuns) that staffed many outreach institutions. Costs are up, revenues are down, and a once seemingly coherent community that at least in theory obeyed its leaders is now open to other cultural currents. Demographic decline is only partially made up for by immigration. There is a participation deficit, and professionalization has replaced loyalty and obedience in the management of the Catholic institutions in health,  education and welfare.  Movements for reform are weak and stalled.   

The book has much interesting material, particularly on organizations, but the author  does not make it easy on his readers. The text is littered with unsupported general statements (“the moral authority of the church resonates more widely outside Europe and the United States”, 113), irrelevant detail on individuals (Daniel Moynihan’s “taste for the pleasures of the table and the liquor cabinet” ,73), odd characterizations (Bill Donahue is “the Yosemite Sam of the Catholic right”,163),   and a plethora of  metaphors and literary references whose point or relation to the argument is often difficult to discern.  The author also indulges a penchant for list marking (elements, key theme, essential factors).  There are well over a dozen in the Preface, Introduction and first chapter, and more follow.  McDonough himself advises readers to skip directly to chapter 3, which  opens  the examination of  ideas and groups. This  begins  with a broad brush the analysis of the alliance between economic neo conservatism and Catholic ideas, a working pact that  emerged  in reaction to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the perceived decay of the family, and  soon fused with a focus on welfare reform and the promotion of “faith based initiatives”. The analysis of progressives and reformers follows. Concerns linked to sexuality and gender are also prominent here (with a focus on victims of abuse, rights of women and gay people) along with  organizational reform. The discussion of groups like the Leadership Roundtable, Voice of the Faithful,   SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) , Call to Action and Future Church is lively and informative.   

McDonough is pessimistic about the decaying infrastructure and eroding culture of American Catholicism and  about possibilities for reform. This is a kind of pessimism unlikely to be affected by the enthusiasm aroused by Pope Francis—it is more deeply rooted. It is worth comparing The Catholic Labyrinth with James Carroll’s  Practicing Catholic (Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, 2009). Carroll is also pessimistic, but more appreciative of diversity in the global reach of the church  and more  open to change as a real possibility.   

One issue not dealt with much by the author is why the American Catholic hierarchy continues to attribute its ills to secularization, depicted as a succession of inroads and assaults on the community of the faithful. They complain regularly about religious persecution, and conflate secularization with secularism. But these are not the same thing at all. In any case, secularization is not just about religious decline: it is also about plurality and choice as real features of everyday life and thus by extension of religious life. The root of these complaints is fear of loss of control, but such control is surely illusory in the contemporary world. The solution is not to issue orders, suppress dissent, and build walls but to work within plural world. The failure of the conservatizing strategy of Benedict XVI, with its focus on unity and “reconquering Europe” for the church suggests the urgent need to rethink this issue. This will require a change of mentalities that is not much in evidence in the hierarchy, although some of the statements  and appointments of Pope Francis point in that direction.

The references deployed by the author are sufficiently rich and varied that a formal bibliography would be in order, but none is provided.