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  • The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America
  • Joseph P. Chinnici O.F.M.
The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America. By James M. O’Toole. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2008. Pp. viii, 376. $27.95. ISBN 978-0-674-02818-0.)

With the publication of The Faithful, James M. O’Toole has added a very accessible, elegantly written, scholarly overview to the growing number of works addressing the history of the laity in the American Catholic Church. The author divides the material into six thematic and roughly chronological ages: “The Priestless Church Dealing with the Time of John Carroll”; “The Church in the Democratic Republic Focusing on the Constitutional Ecclesiology of John England”; “The Immigrant Church Addressing Developments from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Close of Immigration in 1924”; “The Church of Catholic Action Covering the Period from 1930–1960”; “The Church of Vatican II”; and “The Church in the Twenty-first Century, from the Mid-1980s to the Present.” Each chapter has a common outline, beginning with a biographical profile of a representative Catholic of the period and continuing in synthetic fashion to address the size and structure of the community, its religious and devotional life, the real or imagined relationship with the papacy, the situation of the Church in the American context, and the public perception of the Church. Throughout the pages, O’Toole focuses as much as possible on the life of laypeople, their agency in building the Church and its institutions, and their expression of the faith in prayer life and apostolic works. Fifty-six pages of notes ground the conclusions in original archival work and in a thorough coverage of the secondary literature on specific topics. The whole is concluded with a very useful six-page index.

The Faithful does not claim to be a history of American Catholicism in the classic vein of John Tracy Ellis, James Hennesey, S.J., and Jay P. Dolan; nor does it try to supplement the more contemporary shorter accounts by James T. Fisher and Patrick Carey. Instead, O’Toole incorporates particularly the historiographical advances of the last twenty years in the field of religious practice and movements. He breaks from standard narrations focused on the growth of institutions and ideas and from the periodization associated with immigrant history and Americanization. There is little if any detailed discussion of anti-Catholicism as a shaping force for the community. The book might be considered rather as a series of internally focused snapshots, even historical meditations, on the Church, “a story of its people—the Faithful, the laity— rather than its leaders and institutions” (p. 3). O’Toole’s pages contain insightful personal profiles (see the fine historical summary on pages 305–08); subtle attention to regional examples and ethnic variations (see references to Boston, New York, Milwaukee, New Orleans, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, as well as Hispanic, African American, Polish, Italian, Irish, German, and Asian Catholics); an analysis of the progressive emergence of a “church going people” (p. 83); imaginative parallels between the changing architecture [End Page 632] of the churches and social and liturgical developments in the community (pp. 19, 112, 212); and solid presentations in each era of the mutations in devotional practices, ascetical disciplines, liturgical forms, and sacramental participation that have carried the faith commitments and expressions of the people. The chapters dealing with the last seventy-five years of the community’s development are some of the finest general views available. If the five themes of each chapter are taken as emblematic, almost genetic components of Catholic Identity, then the book as a whole describes both the continuities and discontinuities of a religious community in motion.

When the snapshots of the various periods are juxtaposed, and they can be juxtaposed because of the common structure to each chapter, some fine insights and significant comparisons emerge. Our picture of the Catholic community as it exists in history changes. The weak infrastructure of the priestless parishes and the praying practices of the laity in the Carroll period parallel to some extent the collapsing infrastructure, the priestless parishes, and agency of the laity in the post-Vatican...


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