Two images came to mind as I finished this terrific new history of American Catholics. First, I thought of John Nava’s tapestries lining the walls of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, where a dozen anonymous faithful seamlessly blend into the Communion of Saints, including notables like John Chrysostom, Joan of Arc, and Frances Cabrini, all turning their attention to the Eucharistic banquet table. Then, and somewhat discordantly, I thought of the NBC series The Office, a comedy that mixes benevolence and malevolence, discomfort and compassion, incompetence and informality, in a narrative of workaday life under the sway of a distant corporate headquarters. Both visions reflect some truth about Catholicism in this country. Taken together, they suggest the stylish way James O’Toole weaves the grand with the humdrum in his account of American Catholic life across the centuries, with its panoply of joys and hopes, anxieties, and griefs.

The story told in The Faithful begins along the late eighteenth-century Eastern Seaboard, with what O’Toole calls the “priestless church.” These tiny, inchoate communities practiced their religion without Rome’s involvement or even a cleric’s help, except for the occasional itinerant priest who might pass through once or twice annually, stopping to refresh the community’s participation in formal sacramental life. Revolutionary-era Catholicism antedated the resurgent papacy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the faithful had negligible interest in Roman declarations. Indeed, most would surely have wondered, as Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith would a century and a half later, “What the hell is a papal encyclical?”

O’Toole sees significant parallels between eighteenth-century American Catholicism and that of today, when even Catholics with a profound attachment to their faith seldom stop to ask themselves, “What would the pope do?” While we haven’t yet arrived at priestlessness, lay ministers began to outnumber priests more than a decade ago. Ecclesiastical infrastructure is shrinking fast. The parish count in the city of Pittsburgh went from seventy-five in 1990 to forty-one in 2000, a powerful trend in scores of dioceses. Contemporary Catholics live in the aftermath of a profound revolution that has eroded the foundations of familial, social, political, and religious institutions. This erosion, O’Toole implies, makes our postinstitutional world rather like the preinstitutional one of eighteenth-century Catholics.

And they managed to be faithful. O’Toole illustrates this faithfulness by focusing on exemplary figures both prominent and obscure. There is John Carroll, the new nation’s only bishop, riding the itinerant’s circuit in Maryland; and there, in Maine, are seven members of Roger Hanly’s family, praying together from a single prayer book to keep the Sabbath. Might these emblematic figures hint at a future that will play out, more than two centuries later, in the underchurched communities of the South and Southwest?

Moving forward from the Revolutionary era, O’Toole shows how subsequent generations of clerics and laity, and a famously entrepreneurial episcopacy, gradually formed a more orderly church. Using an awkward but effective term, he charts what he calls the “churchifying” process of the decades after 1840, when priests and nuns developed a multifaceted ministry to a massive immigrant population, urged regular sacramental practice, heightened clerical control, and promoted a new sense of Rome’s importance. Churchifying meant modernizing, rolling out a more streamlined, systematic version of religious life—one no less authentic or honorable, perhaps, than what had come before, but different. The fruit of churchification would later mature into the triumphal moment of American Catholicism in the mid-twentieth century. But this often idealized church proved ultimately anomalous: the short-lived product of a time when immigration slowed to a trickle, upward mobility surged, and the massive church infrastructure combined with social and political pressures to ensure common experiences and shared sympathies.

The version of Catholic churchification set down in The Faithful challenges linear ideas of modern progress. We often think of the sweep of modern history as liberating to the “ordinary” person, granting individuals greater autonomy as time goes on. Yet churchifying meant suppressing much lay autonomy. It also meant systematizing religious experience by inculcating a strongly cultic vision of priesthood, emphasizing concern for exact performance of duty and proper execution of rubrics, promoting the trade in indulgences and ecclesiastical titles, and cultivating a more passive ideal for the laity. Greater use of clerical garb in the late nineteenth century encouraged this trend—as did the increasing prominence of another distinctively clothed cohort, women religious. Yes, bishops and priests often called the shots, but nuns (who outnumbered priests after the mid-1800s) provided the workforce and public presence that allowed a “Catholic culture” to thicken.

Every successful system contains some potential seed for its demise, and as O’Toole demonstrates, that applies to the mature church of the twentieth century. Churchified Catholics were supposed to consider faith as the dynamic core of their lives, and so, by the 1930s, it became possible for everyone, laity included, to have a “vocation.” This promoted what O’Toole identifies as the “personalization” of faith. Now “ordinary” laypeople energized “Catholic Action” initiatives—from labor unions to interracial programs to service clubs, and even to magazines like Commonweal—that aimed to bring faith to bear on everyday economic and social relations. Vehicles for this personalization also included the Cana and Pre-Cana movements, the Christian Family Movement, and Cursillo, which later gave way to programs like Marriage Encounter, the charismatic renewal, and spiritual direction. Vatican II–era reforms hastened personalization by emphasizing a “universal call to holiness” and allowing many of the external elements of “Catholic culture” to be subordinated to an interior relationship with God.

Predicting the future is perilous, but as the faithful move forward into the postinstitutional breach of American Catholic life, it will be interesting to see how they draw on both the churchifying and the personalizing elements of the past. O’Toole foresees persistent tensions over authority and gender issues, and predicts that the legacy of sexual abuse, along with bitter parish closings, will affect internal church relations for at least a generation. But the real challenge, he suggests, will be “the ongoing diversification of laypeople.” As the immigrant church of the late nineteenth century shows, ethnic and racial diversity can bring variety at the expense of harmony. Today, class diversity further complicates the picture; O’Toole wonders if we might be witnessing the differentiation of three parallel groups of the faithful: well-off whites, working-class white ethnics, and poorer people of color.

One thing will be evident to any reader who finishes this enlightening and resourceful book. The church of the future may be made up of saints, but they’ll have their feet firmly planted in an imperfect world.

Published in the 2008-12-19 issue: View Contents
James P. McCartin teaches at Seton Hall University. He is the author of Prayers of the Faithful: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics (Harvard University Press).
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