Vital Signs

American Catholics Today
New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church
William V. D’Antonio, James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge, and Mary L. Gautier
Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95, 214 pp.


Once upon a time, U.S. Catholics thought that when they referred to the church they meant the entire community, the people of God. Frank Harrison, bishop of Syracuse, New York, was hardly alone when he titled his 1965 pastoral letter We Are the Church. His people were surprised at first; they had used the phrase “the church” to refer to the ordained men who constituted its visible organization. But good pastors like Bishop Harrison, with the help of innumerable theologians and teachers, persuaded their fellow Catholics that they too were the church. Working with those holding office and those living consecrated lives, they were responsible for U.S. Catholicism. For a while this rather startling idea informed changes in Sunday worship, parish governance, and catechetics, and shaped responses to the period’s critical challenges of race, war, and abortion. Now as then, this idea suggests that, if one wants to say something about the church, it would be a good idea to ask the people. One might do that formally, through diocesan and parish pastoral councils, or one could do it systematically, making use of the tools of social science. For example, when the U.S. bishops were asked to participate in a 1971 synod in Rome convened to consider problems of the priesthood, they commissioned a series of academic studies; they deliberated with local and national representative bodies of priests; and some even consulted their...

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About the Author

David O'Brien is University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton.