Friday, March 5, 2010

The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America

By James O'Toole, 376 pages, Caravan Books.

After a slow start in the first 150 years of English settlement in what became the U.S., the American Catholic church took off in the mid-nineteenth-century, fueled by Catholic immigration from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Poland. These waves of Catholics were greeted by a skeptical, anti-Catholic Protestant society who accused them of being unpatriotic, as serving Rome and the pope first, and America only second.

French support of the American Revolution was 1 of the earliest events that showed Americans that their country and Catholicism were compatible. Yet the biggest obstacle to the Church in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came, surprisingly, from Catholics themselves. Ethnic rivalry caused problems on occasion, as when the priest had a different nationality than the congregation he was pastoring. In fact, O' Toole notes, “priests from one county in Ireland might be equally unacceptable to people from another county.”

American Catholics had been influenced by the Protestant practices they saw all around, and often claimed the right to run the parishes themselves, rather than the bishops, and even to hire and fire their priests. As the hierarchy grew during the nineteenth century, bishops and trustees of parishes often battled for control, though by the end of the 1800s the hierarchy had firmly established itself throughout the country.

While American Catholics of the 1700s rarely saw a priest, by the 1890s parishes often had several, and could offer Mass several times on Sunday and weekdays as well. The Faithful profiles the spiritual practices of the laity, showing that until Vatican II the most important sacrament seemed to be Confession rather than the Eucharist. This was in part due to fasting rules, which required no food or drink from midnight until after Mass the next day, which in the 1950s was relaxed considerably, though with minimal effect on the reception of the Eucharist.

Though mostly made up of poor first and second generation immigrants, American Catholicism of the 80 years before Vatican II was sure of itself. The laity knew what it was to believe; priests and bishops firmly controlled the parishes, with sisters performing the charity work in the community; devotions such as Eucharistic adoration and Benediction, the praying of the Stations of the Cross, and the praying of novenas, united the laity with the clergy.

O'Toole does a good job of explaining many of these practices, and the underlying theology, which is important because the post-Vatican II years has seen much less of these practices.

The author does not avoid the controversies of Vatican II and its aftermath, but neither does he use the topic as a launchpad for his own formula; he does not bemoan that post-Vatican II reforms didn't go far enough; nor does he condemn liberal Catholics. He does note that “Call to Action” and other such groups have seemed to become rather hollow (and aging) as the years passed.

While O'Toole does examine the sex-abuse scandals, he ends by citing, with hope, the challenges facing the American Church in the twenty-first century.

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