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“Fatima”: A Family Moviegoing Experience in Re-release

First released to positive reactions in August 2020, Fatima will be rereleased across the country Friday, May 7, 2021, exclusively at AMC Theatres. As the nation begins to open up, and this re-release is well-timed for both Mother’s Day and the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, we are offering another look at Word on Fire Fellow Andrew Petiprin’s earlier review. Venerable Fulton Sheen described October 13, 1917, as “the birthday of the modern world.” He noted, “It was on that day that the forces of good and evil seemed to reach their peak.” As the Bolshevik Revolution began in Russia and World War I raged on, a ten-year-old Portuguese girl named Lúcia dos Santos, along with her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, led tens of thousands of people to witness “the Miracle of the Sun,” the last in a peculiar series of Marian apparitions. There are countless testimonies…

“Chronicles of Faith: David”—Introducing Scripture to a New Generation

Are we twenty-first-century Catholics in the middle of an exciting renaissance of the Christian creative genius? It seems so. Thanks to social media and crowdfunding sites, it is easier than ever for independent artists, musicians, and writers to share their work with audiences who are hungering to be entertained and inspired. Even comic books are experiencing a resurgence in popularity and cultural influence, thanks in large part to the success of big-budget Hollywood franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Voyage Comics founder Philip Kosloski and I discussed in a recent interview for Word on Fire, the comic book scene is currently dominated by secular voices, but Christian comic creators have never been better poised to evangelize the culture through this dynamic literary and artistic medium. Very recently, I had the pleasure of reading a new comic book, Chronicles of Faith: David, that, through its gorgeous artwork and…

Priesthood, Reimagined

In 2002, a group of seven Catholic women gathered on a cruise ship on the Danube River. There, in a ceremony led by three male bishops, outside the jurisdiction of any diocese, they were ordained as priests. According to the Church’s Code of Canon Law, this was illicit: only men can receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. But the women, who liken their defiance to an act of civil disobedience, insist to this day that their ordinations are valid. Known as the “Danube Seven,” they gave birth to a movement, active mainly in the United States and Canada, that has since ordained nearly two hundred womenpriests. 

For all the attention it attracted two decades ago, the Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) movement remains poorly understood today. Fortunately, cultural historian Jill Peterfeso’s book, Womanpriest: Tradition and Transgression in the Contemporary Roman Catholic Church, has stepped in to fill that gap. Her ethnographic account, based on five years of interviews, digital questionnaires, and participant-observation of liturgies, offers the most measured analysis of RCWP to date. Neither sensationalizing the women as heroic renegades nor condemning them as fringe heretics, Peterfeso instead offers readers a nuanced portrait of their lives and worship spaces, letting them speak for themselves. 

From the start, Peterfeso reserves judgment on the question of whether these women “count” as Catholic priests. That question, she writes, is ancillary to her work. Instead, Peterfeso shows how womenpriests can serve as a prism for rethinking broader issues in the Church. Gender and sexuality are among the most pressing, as are clericalism, money, and power. Each comes into sharper focus when seen from the relatively “marginal” perspective of the womenpriests, as the periphery of the institutional Church grants a clarity unavailable at the center.

Peterfeso shows how womenpriests can serve as a prism for rethinking broader issues in the Church.

Most of the sacramental practices of the RCWP would be familiar to contemporary Catholics. They gather parishioners around the Eucharistic table on Sundays, celebrate marriages, anoint the sick, and offer reconciliation. Though their ordinations trigger immediate excommunication, womenpriests insist on their identity as valid Roman Catholics; their institutional freedom from the Vatican enables them to reimagine certain elements of Catholic practice they find troubling. Gone, for example, is the requirement of priestly celibacy. Many womenpriests are mothers and grandmothers, and some are in committed lesbian relationships. They also take a more open, inclusive approach to Catholic sacraments, officiating at sacramental marriages for same-sex couples and offering the Eucharist to all, regardless of age, marital status, or religious affiliation. 

Just as important as womenpriests’ service to local communities is their commitment to broader reform within the Catholic Church. As activists, they aim to revive the stalled debate on women’s ordination, moving it from the Vatican’s all-male Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to the “court of public opinion.” They do so, they claim, by speaking directly to the hearts and minds of lay Catholics, often through direct action. In their view, reforming the priesthood and the hierarchy requires something more radical than incrementalism or technocratic change: for RCWP a woman acting in persona Christi is not just a fantasy that could be, but a reality that already is.

Peterfeso notes that much of RCWP’s push for reform emerges from the wreckage of the sex-abuse crisis. She explains that the male priestly body has become a troubling symbol for traumatized laypeople, particularly victims, inspiring “fear and distrust” rather than fostering connection to Christ. Likewise, for many, the altar is no longer a sign of fellowship and communion but one of sexual abuse and exploitation. Female bodies, though, can testify to a “new potential” for the priesthood. Peterfeso witnesses one moving scene in which adult daughters vest their newly ordained mother, gently adjusting her priestly garments as she envelops them in a “giant bear hug.” This distinctly maternal act broadens the symbol of the priesthood to embrace a richer, fuller range of human experience—one that simply isn’t possible when ordination is limited to celibate men alone. 

 

While womenpriests proclaim their resistance to clericalism at every turn, it nonetheless remains a serious challenge for their ministry. Peterfeso explains that the tension between their spiritual charism and institutional authority emerges constantly, often in seemingly mundane ways. Take the question of whether they should wear Roman collars, which presents a kind of Catch-22: “If [womenpriests] claim an indelible, essential transformation,” Peterfeso writes, “they fall into the clerical power trap they seek to avoid; if they do not claim a transformation, they may lose some of their ordained authenticity.” To blur these distinctions, at least during the liturgy, most womenpriests invite worshippers to co-consecrate the Eucharist. Their sacramental authority thus becomes not an exclusive, personal privilege but a communal gift. 

Peterfeso also highlights the ways in which some male Catholic priests quietly participate in the RCWP movement themselves. A few serve womenpriests as unofficial mentors. There’s a limit, though, to what these relationships can accomplish institutionally. Because priests depend on Rome for everything from job placements to housing and health insurance, they are not free to reveal these relationships publicly. Nor can they voice public support for women’s ordination. (The recent laicization of Roy Bourgeois and the excommunication of Ed Cachia, both outspoken proponents, indicate how little the Vatican tolerates dissent on the issue.) While womenpriests must forfeit institutional legitimacy and security for the freedom to speak out, at least they do not have to keep secrets. 

The example of womenpriests can help Catholics envision a Church that is at once more universal and capable of change.

Independence, though, presents its own set of problems. Because womenpriests cannot count on a diocese for support, they must rely on their own means instead. (Peterfeso notes that in one sense, this makes them “worker-priests.”) As a result, womenpriests tend to be predominantly white, upper-middle-class, and well-educated. Their poise and professional polish can certainly confer legitimacy and trust, and in some sense reflect their longing for recognition from Rome. But it also shrinks the pool of eligible candidates, decidedly less marginalized than some of the populations RCWP seeks to serve.

As I made my way through Womanpriest, my imagination flickered with the idea of a Church as inclusive and edgy as RCWP, but also as large, all-embracing, and well-financed as the global Catholic Church headquartered in the Vatican. A pipe dream, no doubt, but one that got me thinking. Why, I wondered, should these well-intentioned, pastorally minded, theologically articulate Catholics be forced to violate canon law and endure excommunication in order to respond to their vocations? The question is especially urgent now, as Pope Francis continues to call for synodality, a “journeying together” that requires parrhesia, or frank, honest discussion. How can that happen when certain questions are already declared off-limits? 

Womenpriests are not a panacea for the Church’s every ill. But their inclusive approach to the sacraments, their experiments with democratic leadership, and their collaborative relationships with laypeople have already done a great service beyond themselves. Their example can help Catholics envision a Church that is at once more universal and capable of change. 

Womanpriest
Tradition and Transgression in the Contemporary Roman Catholic Church

Jill Peterfeso
Fordham University Press
$30 | 272 pp. 

Issue: 

How the Films of Terrence Malick Can Teach Christian Meditation

In his 1966 “Memorial Address”, German philosopher Martin Heidegger stated “man today is in flight from thinking.” By “thinking” he did not mean computation or what he calls “calculative thought” but “meditative thinking” which is an “openness to the mystery.” Identifying the special nature of man as a meditative being, Heidegger believed our greatest task in this thoughtless age is “keeping meditative thinking alive.” No one does this better through film than former Heideggerean scholar, now filmmaker, Terrence Malick.   American Film is often associated with thoughtlessness. As part of the entertainment industry, movies are becoming theme park extensions rather than art. But Malick’s movies are different. He has elevated film beyond mere entertainment, showing how it can be a medium of contemplation and wonder, instilling in audiences a meditative spirit ready to welcome the Lord and become “hearers of the Word.” …

Think, Think, Think!

Over the last two decades, I have spent a great deal of time working with and teaching medical students. Extraordinary sponges of knowledge, these eager scholars emerge from the dark cave of incessant testing and classwork (dominating their first two years of medical school) only to be bleary and blinded by the deep complexity of the patients in their charge. Sated with knowledge, but bereft of experience, they find themselves going down abstruse rabbit holes of inquiry, entertaining inconceivably long lists of diagnoses, and performing the most contortionist of exam maneuvers. After emerging from the patient’s room (usually fifteen minutes later than desirable), students find themselves dazed yet delighted. They are finally practicing medicine. What unfolds next is a torrent of semi-organized information offered with pressured speech and intermittent eye contact while hands fumble through countless papers of chicken-scratched notes. As we begin to entertain the crux of the visit—what…

First Impressions: A Former Presbyterian Is “Surprised by Mary”

I cannot remember exactly why I knelt before a statue of the Virgin Mary for the first time. It was about a year ago. I suspect my priest told me to pray a few Hail Marys after confession. I’d seen parishioners pray on the kneeler before her at the front of the sanctuary. As a new Catholic, I’d been testing out various “features” of my new faith home. Why not say my prayers there? Usually, the first time I experiment with a new spiritual practice my analytical mind takes over and ponders what I’m doing and whether it “makes sense.” This is a perfectly good way to undermine any spiritual benefit that might accrue to me (but, alas, most of the time, that’s the way it works for me at first). For example, when I took the Rosary for a spin a couple of times, my mind was fixated on…

Complacent or Complicit?

Washington and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations only in 1984, which means that Joe Biden will be the first Catholic president to appoint an ambassador to the Holy See. Back in the Reagan years, the selection symbolized not only the anti-Communist alliance between Pope John Paul II and the president, but also the full embrace of democracy by the Catholic Church, a process that had begun between World War II and the Second Vatican Council. Since then, however, something has changed: the relationship between American Catholicism and democracy.

Consider chiefly the failure of the American Catholic hierarchy—from the beginning of the Trump presidency through the January 6 insurrection and even up to now—to elevate its voice in defense of the democratic system and the rule of law. The USCCB and most individual bishops have cast GOP attempts to undermine electoral democracy, voting rights, and the moral duty to the common good simply as mildly unpleasant consequences of political polarization, and not for what they actually express: contempt for public institutions and the democratic ethos at the expense of the political participation of those citizens who most need the protection of the law.

The bishops’ silence is all the more disturbing for what it suggests: a complacency toward, if not an endorsement of, the message pushed by important and powerful Catholic interests in the media, business, and politics supporting the Trumpian assault on democracy. That authoritarian assault has parallels with what’s happening now in Russia, India, and Brazil, and influential American Catholics have greeted it with indifference or, in some cases (such as the anti-liberal turn in Hungary), with delight. You’d have thought this kind of thing would have gone the way of twentieth-century fascism and Francoism. I began studying the history of Catholicism at the University of Bologna in 1989, around the time the Berlin Wall fell. Then, the alliance between Catholicism and democracy felt not only very much of the present, but also of the future, while national Catholic or clerical-fascist movements were part of the past. Today that no longer seems true.

Assessing the history of the relationship between Catholicism and democracy in the last three decades could help in getting a sense of where things stand now, and how they got this way. A good place to start would be with a book published exactly thirty years ago: Samuel Huntington’s The Third Wave, which I think deserves more attention from Catholics. Huntington described global democratization as arriving in three waves: the first in the early nineteenth century, the second after World War II and decolonization in the 1960s, and the third mostly in the 1980s. He saw a correlation between Western Christianity and democracy thanks to the religious roots of the concepts of the dignity of the individual and the separation of the spheres of Church and state. The connection between the expansion of democracy and the expansion of Christianity was no longer Protestant-centered but Catholic-centered. During and even after World War II, the Church’s alliances with authoritarian regimes—especially Franco’s—made Catholicism seem antithetical to democracy. But then came Vatican II. It was one of the major factors in bringing about the “the third wave,” in which Huntington saw the contribution of Catholicism to democracy as decisive. Three-quarters of the countries that turned to democracy during the “third wave” were Catholic or home to an important Catholic majority/minority, including the Philippines, Chile, Mexico, Poland, and Hungary. Catholicism had become a force for democracy through two channels. The first was Vatican II and its “political” message: social change and participation, the rights of individuals, the common good. The second were base-popular movements: Base Ecclesial Communities in Brazil, the Christian Left in the Philippines, grassroots politicization of the Church in Poland, Argentina, and Chile. There was a shift in the position of the hierarchies from accommodation to ambivalence and finally to opposition to authoritarianism. The papacies of Paul VI and John Paul II also played a role; the latter’s apostolic trips (beginning with Poland in 1979) were pastoral visits, but they had a political impact as well.

We have to wonder what remains of Vatican II’s impact on Church-state relations, religious liberty, and political participation.

Huntington saw the Church’s emphasis on the universal dignity of the human person as the catalyst for the trend toward democracy in the 1970s and ’80s. But Catholicism’s contribution on this front was inseparable from the contribution of American capitalism. Huntington acknowledged economics as a significant source of political change: “The logo of the third wave could well be a crucifix superimposed on a dollar sign,” he wrote.

Things have changed in the thirty years since Huntington’s book, at least in terms of what remains of Vatican II’s contribution to the political culture of Catholics. The shift was already evident at the end of John Paul II’s pontificate and the beginning of Benedict XVI’s in 2005, with the rise in Europe of xenophobic and nativist political parties and movements that sought to forge an alliance with Catholic conservatism. True, Vatican officials and bishops’ conferences have spoken out against the new Catholic Right, as the Rome-based American historian Michael Driessen recently pointed out. But the effort has had mixed results. It did not stop Catholics from voting for Matteo Salvini in Italy, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, or for the right-wingers in Poland. And if, as Driessen says, “this reassertion of Catholic identity politics was met with evident tension by Vatican officials and bishops conferences across Europe,” there was no such reaction in the United States to the same phenomenon here.

The USCCB is an episcopate that is culturally and theologically a fruit of John Paul II’s pontificate, and, until the 1980s at least, it was receptive of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the Church and politics. Now we have to wonder what remains of Vatican II’s impact on Church-state relations, religious liberty, and political participation. The Catholic Church globally is struggling to make sense of the repudiation of liberal democracy, beginning with the heartland of Catholicism in Europe. Even Pope Francis’s political message needs more clarity as it keeps swinging between the language of “inclusive populism” and the politically more evocative concept of “popularism”—something evident in his April 15 video message, “A Politics Rooted in the People.” But there is no doubt about Francis’s rejection of authoritarianism and his awareness of the dangers in the return of authoritarian leaders. There’s also no doubt whose side he’s on when it comes to the defense of democratic institutions and the political participation of all people. The position of the USCCB is not as clear, and thus raises questions about the strength and seriousness of its commitment to our democratic institutions in these anxious times. The Church’s competence in teaching on political matters is limited. But is it beyond the competence of the Church to defend the right of the people to vote?

The increasingly extremist contempt for democratic institutions is not uniquely Catholic. But it has affected our clerical leadership, and finds facile justification in the fact that there is a tendency in modern democracies to downplay or deny the relevance of the Christian tradition and of religion more generally. It seems a long time since Catholicism’s embrace of the democratic ethos was supported by the liturgical and magisterial symbolism of Vatican II and of the new institutions of Church governance created or sanctioned by the council. The national bishops’ conferences were much more than a new administrative body; they became a model for a non-monarchic, non-authoritarian way of governing the Church. But the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI weakened the authority of the bishops’ conferences vis-à-vis the Vatican. This also weakened the bishops’ sense of themselves as a collegial body, of their role as representing the Church in matters both ecclesiastical and ad extra—in some countries more than in others.

The inability to open a synodal process in the US Catholic Church deepens the crisis of ecclesial governance, but it also reflects the ambiguity of the bishops’ stance on the crisis of democracy. It’s in this context that the Biden administration chooses a new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. A president obviously has no influence on ecclesial synodality; a president can’t unite the Catholic Church. But Biden’s choice of ambassador can certainly send a signal about what kind of Catholic political culture this administration intends to support.

“The Chosen,” Season 2: Getting Jesus the God-Man Right

I have come very late to the party for the acclaimed, crowd-funded dramatic series The Chosen. Even though my colleague Rachel Bulman reassured us all that it was not a typically “kitschy or pretentious” offering from the Christian entertainment industry, I kept my distance. But with the recent debut of season 2, I decided to take a look. I am thoroughly sold on it, and inspired. This season picks up with Jesus and the apostolic band continuing to make their way through Samaria and Syria. The episodes are composed so far of one deeply affecting scene after another, with superb acting led by Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus. In the first three episodes of the new season, the apostles Thomas, Matthew, and Philip have come into prominence, and the introduction of Nathaniel has offered another new, deeply moving example of the life-changing power of the God-man Jesus that The…

Christ at the Center: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “As kingfishers catch fire”

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist tells us (Ps. 38:4). It’s a good way to sum up ‘leading with beauty’ as an approach to evangelization. We are inviting others to the great wedding feast, the banquet of the Lord. To be sure, it’s vitally important to share with them the fact that this banquet is real, not imaginary (truth), and that it’s perfectly nourishing above all other foods (goodness). But before people will care about that side of things, they need to be interested in the meal itself—and a whiff of what’s cooking in the kitchen is far more effective than a nutritional chart when it comes to convincing a busy and distracted person to sit down for a meal. How can we do that? One way is through literature that gives a taste of the banquet, a glimpse of what it means to be a…

Diversity & Division

By all rights, American Catholics should be in a celebratory mood. The nation’s second Catholic president was inaugurated in January, a majority of Supreme Court justices are Catholic, and Catholics hold more seats in the new Congress than any other Christian denomination. But a distinct lack of jubilation has met such unprecedented political prominence. Instead, it’s only underscored how deeply fractured Catholics are in the United States. 

Many Catholics—who today make up approximately one-fifth of all Americans—are bitterly divided from one another by politics, views on morality, and culture. These divisions are often accompanied by a growing intolerance. In almost any local community across the country, it’s possible to find opposing groups of Catholics who do not just disagree with each other but condemn each other’s politics and practices: Catholic Democrats and Catholic Republicans; traditionalist Catholics who seek out Latin Masses and progressive Catholics who prefer to hear homilies about social justice; Catholics who adore Pope Francis and Catholics who see him as the anti-Christ; Catholics who are pro-life and Catholics who are pro-choice; the list goes on. It is much easier to foresee further division and decline, and even the growth of new schismatic movements, than it is to imagine a more unified future for American Catholics. 

Perhaps U.S. Catholic history can provide perspective and hope for the present moment. For the past five centuries, Catholic communities in the land that is now the United States have been extraordinarily diverse in origin, experience, and outlook. In her masterly and highly detailed recent book, American Catholics: A History, Leslie Woodcock Tentler offers a sweeping survey of Catholicism in the United States, and, ultimately, finds strength in this diversity. 

An eminent historian of twentieth-century Catholic history, Tentler’s previous works have focused on U.S. Catholics and contraception and the history of the Church in Detroit. (Full disclosure: she is also an emerita colleague of mine at the Catholic University of America.) Her latest book proceeds chronologically over fourteen chapters that are interspersed with five biographical vignettes of notable American Catholics, and her narrative begins with the three very different groups of Catholics who initially arrived in the territory that is now the United States. 

The first of these were the Spanish soldiers, settlers, and missionaries who came to the East Coast and the Southwest and built a string of missions in California, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona, where they converted indigenous people—often with violence and under duress—and instilled popular devotions to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The French, who settled in the upper Midwest, followed shortly thereafter. While the population of French Catholic settlers was very small, Tentler argues that their experience had an enduring impact on subsequent generations of Midwestern Catholics, who venerated French martyrs and converts such as Kateri (Catherine) Tekakwitha. 

For the past five centuries, Catholic communities in the land that is now the United States have been extraordinarily diverse in origin, experience, and outlook.

It is gratifying that Tentler narrates the history and legacies of the Spanish and the French, because for so long U.S. Catholic historians paid far less attention to them than to the third group of colonial arrivals: English and Scottish Catholics who arrived in Maryland in 1634 on the Ark and the Dove and established the colony as a destination for Catholic settlers. Eventually, Catholic communities in Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, though small, nevertheless achieved political power through families such as the Carrolls, who produced a signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as the first U.S. bishop. 

During the nineteenth century, the country’s borders expanded westward, eventually incorporating these diverse Catholic populations—along with indigenous converts and enslaved Black Catholics—within the territorial boundaries of the same nation. Tentler’s narrative of this century is perhaps the most compelling of the book. She describes an extraordinarily heterogeneous Catholic population who managed to practice their faith despite enormous challenges. Catholics on the frontier suffered from a chronic lack of clergy, and those clergy who were brave, rugged, or unlucky enough to work in the hinterlands needed to have prodigious linguistic skills (Frederic Baraga, first bishop of the Diocese of Marquette in Michigan, spoke seven languages); be as hardy as possible (the frontier priest was characterized by his “coarsened hands, weathered complexion, and often rather shabby garments”); and accept the reality that frontier Catholics had only “limited exposure to communal devotions.”

During this period, the Church’s diversity became ever more pronounced. New waves of German and Irish Catholics arrived in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century, giving “a hitherto marginal church...a startling new visibility.” By the 1850s, the Catholic Church had become the single largest denomination in the United States, but its size and rapid growth also attracted hostility: anti-Catholic propaganda circulated widely, and tended to fixate on lurid tales of sexually corrupt priests and ravished nuns—as with the 1836 “runaway best seller,” Awful Disclosures by Maria Monk of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal. Nativist political movements, such as the American Party and, later, the Know Nothings, also flourished. 

Most of this migration was urban, and as a result the Church grew rapidly and impressively in urban centers. By and large, the hierarchy focused on establishing and strengthening Catholic institutions, especially through the construction of new, flamboyant, and imposing churches (St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built during this period), as well as the building of hospitals, orphanages, and schools. The labor of female religious, who worked as teachers, child-care workers, and nurses, would sustain all of these burgeoning new institutions well into the mid-twentieth century. (Throughout the book, Tentler consistently acknowledges the incredible contributions of Catholic women, underscoring their essential—and too often underappreciated—role in building and strengthening the American Church.)

This growth was interrupted by the Civil War, in which U.S. Catholics played an ambivalent, and often inglorious, role. Despite the fact that Pope Gregory XVI had condemned the slave trade in 1838, there were no prominent Catholics in the United States who were public advocates of emancipation. Instead, Tentler writes, “Catholic thinking on slavery...was rooted not only in tradition...but also in anxiety over liberal individualism.” Most southern Catholics—and several southern bishops—backed the Confederate cause. In the north, Catholics were underrepresented in the Union Army, and the famous Draft Riots of 1863 saw Irish rioters burning local draft offices and attacking Black New Yorkers in a disgraceful spate of lynchings, property destruction, and the torching of the Colored Orphan Asylum. 

 

Given this history, it is not surprising that Black Catholics experienced racism, segregation, and exclusion both before and after the Civil War. Tentler describes how Black Catholics were barred from the vast majority of white religious orders. Black Catholic nuns were able to establish only two orders by mid-century, and Black priests were similarly rare. Ultimately, Tentler claims, Black Catholics “remained a small and generally segregated minority in the American church until at least the 1950s, when white Catholics began—slowly, hesitantly, and often incompletely—to embrace the liberationist implications of a now-distant Civil War.” Here, readers might find themselves wishing for a fuller investigation of the history of Black Catholicism in the United States, rather than the overview that Tentler provides. This may be a reflection of the fact that many Catholic archives have only recently begun to make public their materials on Black Catholic history in the United States. A new generation of scholars, such as Shannen Dee Williams, are currently investigating this fascinating and important area of research.

While Black Catholics saw only incremental change during the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the rest of the U.S. Catholic population grew remarkably fast. A massive influx of new immigrants from Europe helped double the number of American Catholics between 1884 and 1914, and administrative and institutional expansion continued apace as forty-six new dioceses were created between 1880 and 1904. Tentler describes how the new immigrants of this period indelibly influenced the culture and devotional practices of the Church in the United States. Italian Catholics brought their saints and rituals with them, such as the annual festa; Poles were “prodigious church builders” who fused religion and nationalism (and whose parish disputes led to the only schismatic Church in U.S. history, the Polish National Catholic Church); and new Irish, German, and Eastern-European Catholic immigrants infused their communities with the practices, traditions, and languages of their homelands. 

By the early twentieth century, the massive immigration of Catholic Europeans came to an end, due to restrictive immigration laws enacted by nativist legislators in the 1920s. (A small but significant group of Mexican Catholics did continue to immigrate to the U.S. Southwest and Midwest throughout the 1920s, but Spanish-speaking Catholics remained an underserved minority until after the first half of the twentieth century.) Still, the Catholic population continued to grow rapidly as the Catholic birth rate boomed. By mid-century, parish life was vibrant, with devotional societies and Catholic social groups thriving across the country. It was, famously, “an era of Catholic flourishing.” 

Despite the troubles of the recent past, Tentler finds reason to be hopeful about the future.

Yet, as Tentler points out, this era also contained the seeds of what would become enduring political divisions. Large numbers of Catholics supported the candidacy of Al Smith, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the labor movement. At the same time, Fr. Charles Coughlin attracted many Catholics to his national radio program, in which he descended into “overt anti-Semitism and fascist apologetics.” And while Catholics served in great numbers during World War II, their strong anti-Communism also occasionally fostered sympathy for fascist leaders abroad. Then, during the 1960s, a series of startling changes rocked Catholic communities across the United States, due in large part—but not completely—to the conciliar reforms of Vatican II. Weekly mass attendance declined significantly, religious vocations collapsed, and Catholic-school enrollments fell. Catholics also began making their own decisions regarding the morality of premarital sex and birth control, despite the dictates of Humane vitae

The history of the past fifty years, which Tentler narrates deftly, will be familiar to many readers. In the wake of Roe v. Wade, Catholics became even more politically polarized, perhaps irreversibly. The election of Pope John Paul II, who was widely popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, nevertheless consolidated these political divides. And both his tenure as well as that of his successor, Benedict XVI, were marred by the ongoing sex-abuse crisis within the Church. Financial troubles and a spate of parish closings—tragic for long-standing Catholic communities as well as for new immigrants who had found havens in underpopulated urban churches—marked the first two decades of the twenty-first century.  

 

Despite the troubles of the recent past, Tentler finds reason to be hopeful about the future. She points out that immigrants from Latin America now make up the most important source of Catholic population growth, and have “shifted the center of Catholic geographic gravity” to California and the Southwest. Tentler also notes that the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope—with his emphasis on the humane treatment of immigrants and the poor—signaled a new way forward for the U.S. Church. 

In a book that adroitly covers the astounding breadth of Catholic demography, culture, devotional life, institutional growth, and intellectual life, it is natural that some topics are given less attention than others. Still, I wish that Tentler had devoted more space to describing the phenomenal growth and heterogeneous character of the Spanish-speaking Catholic population. Mexican Catholic immigrants in Los Angeles have had a very different historical experience than Puerto Ricans in New York or Cubans in Miami, and they are not always unified by the fact that they speak the same language. It would be wise for their fellow American Catholics to get to know this population a bit better. Despite being the most important source of growth for the U.S. Catholic Church, young Latino Catholics are also leaving the faith in numbers that should be setting off alarm bells in U.S. Catholic leaders; perhaps one reason it’s not is that Latino Catholics are severely underrepresented in the Church hierarchy and clergy. 

Nevertheless, like Tentler, I too find hope in the most recent waves of Catholic immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, who have revitalized—and globalized—Catholic parishes, particularly in urban areas. The history that Tentler relates in American Catholics is one of continuous change, adaptation, and renewal, and there is reason to believe that current political divides may be overcome as the newest and most diverse generation of Catholics inherits the leadership of the American Church. For now, the experience of immigrant parishes provides Tentler—and many others—with a sense of cautious optimism for the future. She closes her book with an evocative anecdote about her visit to Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles, where Mass is said every Sunday in forty-two languages. “That Sunday Mass at the cathedral spoke the language of hope,” Tentler says, “hope for the nation, hope for immigrant peoples, hope for the church.” 

American Catholics
A History

Leslie Woodcock Tentler
Yale University Press
$30 | 416 pp. 

Issue: