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Reviewed by:
  • Public Witness: The Pastoral Letters of the American Catholic Bishops
  • Joshua R. Ritter
Public Witness: The Pastoral Letters of the American Catholic Bishops. By Camilla J. Kari . Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004; pp v + 202. $23.95.

In Public Witness, Camilla J. Kari offers readers a continuation of the works of such scholars as Carol J. Jablonski, George Cheney, Steven Goldzwig, and J. Michael Hogan who engage in rhetorical analyses of the pastoral letters. Kari's interesting contribution is in the rhetorical analysis of the process of constructing a pastoral letter. She enters the rhetorical conversation regarding the pastorals stating, "while all these studies [Jablonski, Cheney, Goldzwig, and Hogan] contribute insights to the rhetoric of pastoral letters, they mostly treat the letters as single, static documents, not as a series of increasingly adaptive strategies" (xvii). Thus Kari's project is to examine these pastorals as a whole body of work tracing the development from their inception through multiple drafts to completion. Her project is immense, and much of it, necessarily, is historical.

Kari's historical work is certainly thorough, and the tracing of the drafting of the pastoral letters is both intricate and engaging. Her project traces the development of the pastorals from being largely defensive in nature to being, mainly in the twentieth century, a voice of cultural critique and an advocate of social justice. What she discovers is, as those before her, the complex and intermingled process of religion and politics. In this regard, one of her explicit claims is "to refute her [Jablonski's] claim by suggesting that, in fact, the processual nature of the letters' production underwent a radical transformation, influenced as it was [End Page 162] by its American democratic context" (xvi). Unlike Jablonski, Kari views the American bishops functioning more as innovators in the context of American moral reform rather than mere preservers of Roman authority.

Kari further posits, "[i]n examining the corpus of joint pastoral discourse, it becomes clear that these statements manifest a rhetorical momentum that parallels the social history of the nation. The processes of producing the pastoral letters trace an arc of gradual and continuous transformation as they evolve from internal exhortative epistles to ecumenical public forums" (xix). Her examination of pastoral discourse as well as a decidedly non-democratic process within a democratic context, the drafting of the pastorals—is intriguing, but the most interesting contribution of her work comes toward the end of the book.

Throughout most of the text, the bishops are portrayed as increasingly ecumenical and encouraging of open dialogue and debate on pertinent social issues facing American society. Largely, the pastoral letters are met with acceptance, although some receive mixed reviews. Yet what is important is the process that evolves during the development of the pastoral letter, and Kari is correct to point to its rhetorical dimensions. For example, the pastoral concerning the status of women, which Kari refers to as the "pastoral that wasn't," may indeed be a revealing indicator about the "limits of a democratic process in bringing about institutional discourse" (xx). The bishops engaged in the same procedural aspects of drafting a letter on the status of women as they did in the past, but this pastoral, it seems, was never meant to be.

Although many people were concerned that celibate men were in charge of drafting a pastoral on the status of women, it soon became clear that the radical nature of the document itself, including the question of the ordination of women into the priesthood, was a controversial mountain the bishops would never successfully traverse. In response to the absolute failure of the women's pastoral, Kari states, "in trying to be participatory, the bishops forfeited a sense of harmony that had previously united them, and in seeking too many voices, they arrived at dissonance. In the end, the bishops were left only with silence" (147). Thus Kari contends that it is the very process that evolved historically that caused the pastoral on the status of women to fail. That is, the process became too democratic and inclusive, thereby disrupting the completion of another document contributing to "institutional discourse."

Overall, I recommend this book to anyone...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5238
Print ISSN
1094-8392
Pages
pp. 162-164
Launched on MUSE
2007-04-23
Open Access
No
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