The Catholic priest in a small city in the state of Arkansas brought to his parish two other clergy to hear pre-Easter confessions. The three ministers completed their work in twenty minutes, so paltry was the turnout. The host churchman sarcastically congratulated himself for presiding over so holy a flock. For all but a few sad sinners, confession was apparently unnecessary. The priest has probably never heard of St-Joseph-de-Beauce in Quebec, but he would recognize much of what Frank A. Abbott describes in The Body or the Soul? Is there evidence that St-Joseph's inhabitants thought of themselves as Catholics? Certainly, for the Catholic Church "provided cohesion and meaning to people's lives" (135). Is there also evidence that, as Abbott puts it, "piety was not the most outstanding characteristic" of St-Joseph's people (149)? Yes, evidence for this is also strong. Generally speaking, it seems that the people of St-Joseph were serious about being Catholics but not necessarily good Catholics, at least to the degree advocated by the church leaders. Such, in any case, is this book's basic theme.
On the one side were the requirements of the spirit: attendance at mass and other sacred events, avoidance of activities not in accordance with Christian virtue, and the learning of rudimentary theology in school and church, among other things. Pushing in another direction were more earthy impulses that led, for example, to dancing, drinking, and a disinclination to go to church in bad weather since pulling a wagon through the mud can be hard on a horse. This was a valid concern in itself, the more devout might have thought, but it was hardly more important than tending to matters of first and eternal significance.
Abbott rejects broad depictions of Quebec's priests as plotting, petty dictators out to micro-manage parishioners' lives. He finds clergy who were aware of their real, but limited, influence over the inhabitants of St-Joseph. In the late nineteenth century, St-Joseph's clergy "seem to [End Page 848] have agreed that in the race between holy water and fire water for the loyalty of St-Joseph's parishioners (the males, at least), the latter was more than holding its own" (218). It is worth noting that Christianity's central figures faced similar challenges. St Paul, the purported author of half of the New Testament, spilled a lot of ink addressing problems associated with local power struggles, moral lapses, unauthorized teachings, and personality clashes. If Christianity's primary early organizer had trouble keeping his own people in line, it is hardly shocking that lesser lights would as well.
This is an effort in academic history, but, fortunately, the academic does not overwhelm the historical. The word "hegemony" makes a few weary appearances, and unnecessary quotes from Michel Foucault are parachuted in, but the human beings of St-Joseph come through as just that. Behind "the stereotypes," Abbott writes, "were real people" (249). During the American Revolution, they exhibited "pronounced pro-American sentiment," a view not in accord with the Catholic Church's leadership (43). In the mid-nineteenth century, St-Joseph's parishioners were willing to pay for an impressive church building (which made the clergy glad) but not for a high quality school (which did not). And in the late nineteenth century, many St-Josephites were turned away from first communion on account of their dreadful lack of basic religious knowledge. "While the parishioners never seem to have doubted their Catholic religion and probably considered themselves devoted to it," Abbott writes, "the curés regularly reported that the majority fell far short of the exacting standards of fervent Catholics" (175).
While Abbott resists the idea that St-Joseph's inhabitants were always "socially controlled" by their priests, he seems to accept implicitly the assumption that if priests could have controlled everything, then they would have. And perhaps that assumption is warranted. But while care is taken to understand the people of...