An adept, comprehensive history of American Catholicism, tracing its growth from immigrant obscurity in the 19th century,...


AMERICAN CATHOLIC: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church

An adept, comprehensive history of American Catholicism, tracing its growth from immigrant obscurity in the 19th century, through its cultural dominance in the 1950s, to its current turbulent condition. Morris (The AARP and You, 1996, Iron Destinies, Lost Opportunities, 1988, etc.) treats his subject with great respect and a certain wistfulness. Part I traces the path (already well trod by scholars) of Catholicism's American rise through WW I, focusing heavily on the Irish example (to the unfortunate neglect of Italians and Germans). In the rest of the book, however, Morris offers an ethnographer's clear perspective on the challenges of 20th-century Catholicism. He claims that the 1950s represented the ""triumphal era"" for American Catholics, who had mastered their own well-defined subculture and were venturing forth into the mainstream. (This era was symbolized in part by by the rise of Joe McCarthy, a Wisconsin Catholic who dictated the terms of patriotism in the 1950s, defining what all other Americans should be.) Yet Catholic assimilation came at the price of secularization; Morris notes that the chaos that ensued from Vatican II's massive changes had actually been brewing a decade before. Today, Morris claims, American Catholics are still trying to negotiate the legacy of Vatican II and to cope with the new institutional stresses facing their Church: Priests and nuns are aging, with few young people replenishing their ranks; a huge influx of Hispanic parishioners is challenging the norms of an Anglo religious establishment; and the debates over contraceptives, abortion, and women's roles in the church are intensifying. Through all of the current controversies, Morris finds that the vitality of the parish is relatively unchanged. It is not the grassroots, but the ""middle and upper management"" of the Church that needs to adapt, he asserts. In all, a valuable synthesis of the American Catholic tradition; some of his insights on the Church's contemporary struggles are downright inspired.

Pub Date: June 1, 1997


Page Count: 496

Publisher: Times

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1997