A People Adrift
The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America
by Peter Steinfels
Simon and Schuster, $26, 376 pp.
A People Adrift argues that American Catholics are all at sea. If their great ship has lost its masts and compass, good navigators and shipwrights like Peter Steinfels must get busy to prevent a shipwreck. He is more successful than most analysts of post-Vatican II decline because he manages to go beyond the familiar criticisms made over and over again by the Catholic left and right. The left sees Vatican II and its aftermath as stronger on promise than fulfillment—a terrible missed opportunity—while the right sees it as an era of betrayal, heresy, and surrender. Steinfels believes that the evidence is more surprising and ambiguous than either side will admit. The cultural landscape in which American Catholics live has been transformed in the last forty years and would have caused an upheaval even without the impetus of the conciliar reforms. Making sense of Catholic problems today, he argues, requires a study not just of the church but of the changing world in which it moves.
Steinfels, the New York Times’s religion columnist and a former editor of this magazine, is equally at home in churches, newsrooms, and classrooms, and has loyalties to all three. He wants the church revitalized, reporting accurate, and education illuminating. When he examines the recent priest/pedophilia scandal, for example, he can see it through the eyes of an investigative reporter, a sociologist, and a damage-control-minded...