Patricia WITTBERG, S.C.  Catholic Cultures: How Parishes Can Respond to the Changing Face of Catholicism.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016, pp. 228. $16.95 softcover ISBN 978-0-8146-4858-2. Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105.


Readers will be familiar with the compendium of Patricia Wittberg’s many works on Catholic religious orders. In works like From Piety to Professionalism and Back? Transformations of Organized Religious Virtuosity (Lexington, 2006) and New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity (co-authored with Mary Johnson and Mary Gaultier, Oxford, 2014), Wittberg has analyzed the condition of religious orders and other ecclesial bodies encountering cultural change and social movements. In Catholic Cultures, her most recent work, Wittberg turns her keen sociological eye to the most critical demographic and cultural shift facing the Catholic Church in the twenty-first century: shifting cultures around ethnic groups and generations.

Wittberg frames the book as follows (p. 1-2):

The goal of this book is to explore what it would mean for each parish to take the Pentecost story in Acts seriously. How can Catholics proclaim the Good News in the native language(s) of newcomers whose backgrounds may be quite different from their own?

She reminds the reader of the immigrant roots of the Catholic Church in the United States, along with conflicts, the assimilation/integration dynamic, and the present state of ethnicity and parish comportment (Chapter 2). “Catholicism through Ethnic Eyes” (Chapter 3) is a “must read” for anyone seeking to “take the role of the other” around cognitive culture and cultural values, “a daunting task” when it comes to differences among parishioners in experience of God’s relationship to humanity, worship style preferences, and such foundations as gender roles. Extending the lesson (Chapter 4), Wittberg presents different ways of addressing diversity, the challenges to Catholic parishes attempting integration, and a thoughtful analysis of “why they leave” (pp. 44-46) and what parishes might do to be more welcoming.

In the three chapters that follow, Wittberg conducts a parallel analysis of the generational challenges facing parishes, beginning with a useful table (pp. 60-62) of the formative influences of six generational cohorts from the “Greatest Generation” through the “Baby Boomers” to the “Post-Millennials. In the best tradition of intersectionality, she brings us to understand how ethnicity and generations interconnect (including some reference to intersections with social class). Most useful, Wittberg further contextualizes these generational differences around Vatican II (the Pre-Vatican II Generation, the Vatican II Generation, the Post-Vatican II Generation, and the Millennials. Wittberg reminds us that this last generation includes the two percent of the last category she defines as “Catholic Fundamentalists,” as well as “Millennial Catholic Women” (for whom alienation form the church is stronger than among their male counterparts).

Wittberg sees great challenge, but also great promise, if the Church and each Catholic parish can understand and embrace cultures represented by ethnic and generational shifts. She offers specific strategies for reaching through the consumerist mentality of young adults (e.g., Franciscan spirituality). What strategies would she suggest for the second-generational Hispanics, gay teens, bullied teens, women in abusive relationships, and college students trying to live out of dangerous life contexts?

Wittberg’s knowledge of Christian church history is not only impressive, but organized in such a way as to be accessible to even the reader less acquainted with that history. Likewise, her presentation of theological foundations (e.g., the Pentecost story in Acts) and sociological principles and concepts (e.g., culture. pp. 2-4), as well as empirical data (e.g., from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University) and sociological theory (e.g., Karl Mannheim on generational culture, pp. 7-8) is clear and concise. As always, Wittberg’s work is meticulously documented while remaining a “good read.” However, I would have liked to have had an index to this work.

This work is of value, not only for Catholic leaders and laity, but also those from other Christian faiths hoping to understand the latest range of new cultures, including new ethic, age, and other groups encountering parishes and congregations. She closes her book with an entreaty:

God only asks that we proclaim the Good News to every people and nation As best and as often as we can. The Spirit will take care of the rest. (p. 102)

Patricia Wittberg is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati and professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University. She is a prolific author on the sociology of religion.