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  • Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith
  • Beringia Zen (bio)
Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith. By Jerome P. Baggett. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 285 pp. Paperback. $29.95

Sense of the Faithful not only invites the reader into the lived experience of Roman Catholics in the United States, but it offers an in-depth sociological analysis of that experience. Jerome Baggett has written a book that is not explicitly situated within the academic discipline of Christian Spirituality, but demonstrates qualities of sound scholarship within the field—description, analysis, and interpretation.

Sense of the Faithful is a study of six Roman Catholic parishes within the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as the 301 members, collectively, that attend these parishes. Baggett’s descriptions, gathered through participant observation, bring into focus rituals, community worship experiences, and interactions between each parish and society at large. Observations are coupled with parish members’ own words that have been extracted from ethnographic interviews. The qualitative data is put into conversation with the results of a closed-ended survey of demographic information, as well as theological and ecclesiological perspectives of research participants. Baggett includes his own experiences as a researcher throughout the volume.

In the first chapter, Baggett provides a brief overview of the history of Catholicism in the United States. He concludes this overview by suggesting that Vatican II allowed American Catholics to embrace their individual “interpretive authority.” This concept of a post-Vatican II interpretive authority is at the heart of Baggett’s thesis. He writes, “The primary goal of this book is to investigate the manner in which American Catholics remain faithful while at the same time making their own choices about which features of ‘the spirit of the age’ to celebrate or castigate and which ‘new opinions’ to accept or reject” (25). Additionally, Baggett repeatedly argues against equating the notion of the “Cafeteria Catholic” with interpretive authority because the former does not reveal the complexity underlying the construction of religious identity for American Catholics. [End Page 312]

Baggett demonstrates how American culture’s “modern rootlessness” drives an individual search for meaning within a religiously pluralistic society that has a nearly infinite number of symbols with corresponding interpretive potentials. For individual Catholics, the balance between remaining faithful while engaging their own interpretive authority begins with making choices, whether conscious or not, about which symbols (actions as well as objects) from within Roman Catholicism have spiritual relevance. Baggett suggests that these choices are made from within four interrelated sociological constructs—self, institution, community, and civil society. He devotes a chapter to each of these constructs and relies on a number of sociological frameworks in which to analyze and interpret the beliefs and actions of the Catholics in his study.

For example, in the discussion on “Self,” Baggett uses the work of Robert Wuthnow to demonstrate the ways in which American Catholics are “indewlt-seekers.” They remain Roman Catholic but specifically seek out ways in which Catholicism can meet their individual spiritual needs. In the “Institution” chapter, Baggett uses the work of Thomas O’Dea to discuss five dilemmas of the institutionalization of religion and how each of these dilemmas influences Catholic interpretive authority. Kai Erikson’s dimensions of community and David Hummon’s community ideologies are foundational as Baggett describes three different types of parishes—oppositional, hometown, and multi-cultural—and discusses how each type uniquely develops individual interpretive authority. Finally, in the discussion of “Civil Society,” Baggett draws upon his previous research into the complexities of parish-civic engagement. He discusses how parishes participate in “civic narrowing” by engaging parishioners in social-justice projects that are short-term fixes for long-term problems. Similarly, he demonstrates aspects of parish “civic-silencing,” where discussion of public issues is encouraged, but critical examination of the societal structures behind such issues is not engaged.

In the final chapter, “Paradox: Tradition in a Post-traditional Society,” Baggett provides a synthesis of the previous five chapters. He suggests the paradox of American Catholicism is as a living tradition that exists at the confluence of stasis and flux. As a result, Catholics “do not simply receive or consume...


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pp. 312-314
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