Carefully researched but basically slanted story of one year in the life of a ""typical"" American Catholic parish. Between May 1993 and May 1994 Shapiro, a South African--born magazine editor and former Anglican clergyman, conducted more than 150 hours of taped interviews and attended services and meetings, both social and educational, at St. Paul's parish, Kenmore, N.Y. The result reads like a novel but is in fact a kind of documentary, with just a few name changes and about 20 characters, among whom Shapiro moves back and forth, interspersing his text with quotations from Vatican pronouncements, which he uses to spice his clearly confrontational approach. The Catholics we meet are mostly likable and discontented, such as Judy, an adult religious educator weighing her feminist views against Catholic belief, and Father Don, a young priest who leaves the Church for his male lover. Shapiro gives his material some measure of continuity by focusing on the regular group classes for would-be Catholics, and he graphically describes conflicts in both instructors and students as they move toward baptism at Easter. The reader is left wondering how the Catholic Church--or at least St. Paul's parish--carries on, as hardly anyone actually appears to believe in any meaningful way. Shapiro sees Catholicism as an alienating system that imposes its doctrinal and moral positions on people who are more or less bewildered and spiritually passive. In Shapiro's scenario, Pope John Paul (whose speeches are described as ""spiel"") frequently plays a kind of Grand Inquisitor role, especially with his 1993 reaffirmation that moral values have objective as well as subjective force. Our author presents the disaffected as heroic dissidents who are loyal to their consciences, and most of the clergy as well-fed cynics, while the token orthodox layperson looks like a clever, albeit well-intentioned, apparatchik. The author's polemical tone throughout must raise doubts about the reliability of his work.