Book Review

'The Faithful' is a steady look at a changing church

By Rich Barlow
May 7, 2008

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In America, the Catholic Church is in trouble. Enervated by a priest shortage, its faithful often disregard official teachings with abandon while struggling to maintain a Catholic identity in a Protestant land.

"Yes, I follow the news. So what else is new?" you say. But the church I speak of is not in the America of George Bush but of King George III. Visited by itinerant priests only sporadically, American Catholics around the time of the Revolution innovated with a do-it-yourself church centered on home worship conducted by the laity, Boston College historian James M. O'Toole writes in "The Faithful." They didn't always toe the official line. For example, marriages to non-Catholics, unsanctioned by the church, were more common than in Europe.

The laxity left some clergy aghast, and indeed these autonomous congregations aped Protestant organization. But they harkened back to the earliest Christian communities, and they were the only means of keeping the faith alive.

Therein lies a lesson, especially for contemporary traditionalists aggrieved by their co-religionists' straying from the supposedly eternal truth of church teaching on artificial contraception, same-sex marriage, female ordination, and priestly celibacy, among other matters. "For Catholics," O'Toole writes, "understanding the successive ages of their church may open them to accepting change that will continue whether they want it or not. The church and its people have never stood still in changing times, and they cannot do so now."

Like a homilist who loiters too long in the pulpit, O'Toole made even my Catholic eyes glaze at times with excessive detail. But this is generally an intriguing book, brimming with wisdom. It studies the evolution of US Catholicism by dividing it into a half-dozen historic segments, from the Colonial "priestless church" to the muscular, immigrant-fed church a century ago, to the reformist, post-Vatican II church and beyond.

Pope Benedict XVI has talked passionately of the danger of faith without reason. To acknowledge that believers must use their reason is to admit the possibility that reason will lead some to disagree at times with official positions. For those convinced that the church is always right - or who believe the faithful should shelve any doubts - there are cautionary stories. Take the 1960s study by the Vatican of its stance against artificial birth control.

Most on the commission advising Pope Paul VI on the matter suggested ditching the ban. One priest on the commission objected that admitting the old position had been misguided would call into question the church's authority generally (not a particularly principled argument, to be sure). If the anti-contraception stand was wrong, the priest demanded, "What, then, of the millions we have sent to hell" for defying it? Puncturing his certitude, a laywoman on the commission replied, "Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?" The pope, of course, ultimately rejected his commission's advice and maintained the church's teaching.

O'Toole's final chapter looks to the past to forecast the future. Once again, American Catholicism is becoming an immigrant church, as newcomers from traditional societies in Latin America, Asia, and Africa flood the pews. But O'Toole believes that vigorous sanding by American culture will smooth the sharp edges of dogmatism. From same-sex marriage to the war to immigration policy to the death penalty, "American Catholics will face these issues more broadly as Americans than narrowly as Catholics." In the 21st-century church, informed both by Vatican II and the tragedy of the priest sex abuse scandal, "The days of unquestioning lay deference to the hierarchy were over." Good riddance.

Contact Rich Barlow at