Vows

There is a generational passing going on in the American Catholic Church, as anyone who attends meetings of Voice of the Faithful or Call to Action or Corpus can testify. For the most part, the members are the grizzled veterans of the Vietnam era and before, who came to adulthood in the church around the time of Vatican II, some a little before, some a little after. While the statistics may not be available, it would be a fair wager that many if not most spent some time in the seminary or the convent, even if the majority of them did not proceed to ordination or solemn profession in their religious congregations. A good sprinkling are ex-nuns and resigned priests. These are the people who celebrated the work of Vatican II, who traveled to hear the young Hans Küng and later wrote to protest against his silencing, who mourned Humanae vitae and celebrated Populorum progressio. They honed their skills in demonstrations and campaigning during Vietnam and Watergate, and put them to work in Boston in 2002 in response to the sexual-abuse crisis, winning a victory that, like those earlier events, could never extinguish the damage that had been done, nor cure the people’s psyche. Today they continue to fight for a more progressive future for the Catholic Church, though as they look around them for younger faces at their meetings, they must wonder if it is a losing battle.

Peter Manseau’s story of his parents’ lives is emblematic of this precise moment in the history of American Catholicism. Bill Manseau was a Catholic priest in the Boston Archdiocese who left his duties in Roxbury to marry Mary Donovan, a former Sister of St. Joseph. But unlike most priests who left the ministry, Bill was determined to crusade for the compatibility of marriage and priesthood, and therefore deliberately did not seek, in the telling phrase of canon law, “reduction to the lay state.” Bill worked as a Protestant minister, all the while seeing himself as a Catholic priest, while Mary raised a family of three children and, much of the time, made the money that kept the family paying its bills. They often moved from place to place, never achieved the relative financial ease of many of their peers, and for the most part stuck to their guns. Still today, as their son records it, Bill continues to fight the good fight and Mary, more resigned and sadder perhaps, oscillates between amused tolerance for and irritation with her husband’s greater stamina. And, as the book eventually reveals, hers was by far the more difficult path.

This fine book has many strengths. In the first place, the story of the ills of the preconciliar church in the Northeast has never been better displayed, in my opinion. Manseau has a novelist’s gift and tells his tale with haunting eloquence. Whatever positive there is to say about the apparently flourishing church of the fifties and sixties is not a high priority for the author. But then, the story of his parents’ careers inside the institution is not so rosy either. As so many must have done at the time, both parents more or less stumbled into seminary and convent, under the not-always-benevolent influence of local priests. Like people who marry too young, both in their different ways grew up in the formation structures of the church, and grew out of them. And while everyone’s story is different, these highly particular lives bring an immediacy to the culture of mid-twentieth-century American Catholicism that all the sociological treatises and theological explorations simply cannot match.

The book can be read on several levels. It is an account of seriously pathological aspects of Catholicism, particularly the formation process for fledgling nuns and diocesan seminarians, including a glimpse of John Geoghan, the serial predator pedophile, who was a contemporary of Bill Manseau, but also the closed-mindedness of clerical culture in the Boston Archdiocese, an attitude which was a major cause of the sexual-abuse scandal itself. It is an intermittently moving and always superbly written depiction of the courage Peter’s parents have shown in their lives together, sometimes in the heroism to which they were both called at different times, more often in their learning to accept the ordinariness that goes with reduction to the lay state. Very interestingly, it explores the tensions inherent in the family life of children raised by a priest who will not accept his “ex” status and a mother who seems for much of the book to be more and more willing to come to terms, forget the past, and move on. And it is also, as the title suggests, to a high degree autobiographical. The later chapters of the book in particular explore how Peter’s own spiritual pilgrimage is marked by those of his parents, as he exorcises many of the family demons and briefly explores a monastic vocation. We need to be grateful, on the strength of this book, that pursuing a career as a writer was one product of this soul-searching.

Perhaps because there are so many different strands in the book, the treatment of some issues is less than we might want. For example, both parents are curiously absent from the stage for lengthy periods, particularly as the architecture of popular midcentury Catholicism is laid out. But it is the psyches of both parents that are only hinted at when we might wish for a deeper exploration. Peter’s account of his father’s extraordinarily steadfast maintenance of his priestly status comes to us from the outside, as does his description of the tensions between his parents as they see the costs and pay the price for the lives they have chosen. About many things, it seems they insisted on greater reticence than their author son might have wished. Or perhaps this is what to expect of a book authored by a loving son whose subject is parents who are still both very much alive. There are both justifiable reticence and understandable self-censorship in this book. Still, that does not detract from a captivating story of two courageous people with remarkable insight into a world that, like the generation from which Manseau’s parents come, is slowly passing away.

Published in the 2006-02-24 issue: 
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Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University. His book The Wounded Angel: Fiction and the Religious Imagination (Liturgical Press, 2017) won the College Theology Society award for the best theology book of 2017. In June 2018 he begins a one-year appointment as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

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