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Reviewed by:
  • The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council
  • Timothy Kelly
The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council. By Andrew Greeley ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 222 pp. $24.95).

Most students of American Catholicism identify the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) as a moment of profound transformation for the church. It stands as the great divide between the old and the new Catholicism. That it occurred during a time of great social upheaval in America and the broader west only amplifies its perceived impact. It has become a great shorthand reference for a range of dramatic changes that undoubtedly derived from other social forces as well, and as such it draws much criticism and praise from those who lament or celebrate the changes that Catholics have undergone in the past forty years. We still have no social history of the American experience of the Council, though social scientists have been studying various aspects of it for a number of years. This makes Andrew Greeley's intention to write no less than "a sociological history of Catholicism in the United States in the last half of the twentieth-century (14)" with a focus on Vatican II welcome news.

Sociologist (and Catholic priest, best-selling novelist, essayist, and public figure) Andrew Greeley has been interpreting the Council's effect on American Catholicism for much of the last forty years. Over time he has changed his mind about it. At first he downplayed its significance relative to the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae that reaffirmed the official church opposition to birth control, then he saw it as playing a significant role in the lives of the laity. Most recently [End Page 1163] he has located Vatican II as a catalyst for nothing short of "the Catholic revolution."

Greeley's brief study consists of two parts. In the first, he lays out his interpretation of the Council and its effect on American Catholics. This part, involving roughly two-thirds of Greeley's work, will be what draws social historians' interests, and is the focus of this review. Part two consists of Greeley's prescription for the church in light of the interpretation he laid out in part one. Greeley bases his assessment in part one on a series of social surveys conducted for various reasons between 1963 and 1998, his own observations of the period as he lived through it, and theory regarding revolutionary events, collective behavior, and the Catholic imagination.

The story that emerges from Greeley's study places the Second Vatican Council at the forefront of a revolution in American Catholicism. He sees the laity of the 1950s and early 1960s living relatively comfortably within the confines of a church that placed great emphasis on rules and regulations, on obedience to an exalted church hierarchy, and on a rich array of metaphors and symbols that tied lay Catholics to their church. The laity had become much better educated than in previous years, but by and large they "remained generally devout and supportive of authority." In fact little in 1963 suggested that Council sessions "that had started in Rome would do much to shake the structures of American Catholicism (32,33)."

The world's Catholic bishops gathered at the Vatican for a session each autumn from 1962-1965 in what we know as the Second Vatican Council. (The first Vatican Council met roughly ninety years earlier and served to centralize power on the pope. It was this Council that declared the pope infallible on matters of faith and morals.) Though the curia, the Catholic administrative bureaucracy that served the pope, sought to minimize any opportunity for change, and though the bishops generally did not expect to be able to effect meaningful reform, an "effervescence" occurred at the Council that led to significant reform. More dramatic still, according to Greeley, was the revolution that the laity and the "lower clergy" (presumably the parish priests rather than the bishops and chancery officials) effected in the U.S. in the decade following the Council's close, 1965-1975. This revolution ended the obedience and deference that the laity generally practiced before 1965. The break became...


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