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Reviewed by:
  • The Catholic Studies Reader
  • Philip Gleason
The Catholic Studies Reader. Edited by James T. Fisher and Margaret M. McGuinness. Fordham University Press, 2011. 452 pp. $30.00

This volume, a product of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, comprises seventeen essays on various aspects of “Catholic Studies” (hereafter CS), along with an “Introduction” by the editors that offers a provisional typology of organizational approaches to CS, and a listing of problematic issues related to “this emerging discipline.” The book makes no attempt to provide a systematic history of the development of CS programs; nor does it offer a comprehensive listing of those now in existence. The contributors, fourteen women and four men, represent twelve different institutions. All except Fordham (with five) and Dayton (with three) are represented by a single contributor. Surprisingly, there is no contributor from the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, whose CS program is (as David O’Brien notes in discussing the larger context of the movement) the “most ambitious” in the country. [End Page 98]

The essays collected here forcefully confirm the editors’ statement that “no clear consensus” presently exists as to what constitutes a CS program. It is impossible in the space at hand to summarize the book’s contents, and readers will doubtless differ in their evaluation of the various contributions. Speaking as one with no direct experience of CS programs, and from the perspective of a methodologically traditional historian, I will concentrate in what follows on the practicability of the approaches set forth in the book – recognizing, of course, that not all the contributors may have regarded this factor as the principal one to be considered.

Essays by Debra Campbell, Mary Ellen O’Donnell, and Margaret M. McGuinness most successfully combine what seem to me elements essential to the operation of a practicable CS program – namely: 1). the identification of readily accessible teaching materials that are 2). sufficiently broad in thematic content to constitute the framework for the overall program, but 3). do not require the employment of some new instructional technique or distinctive interpretive principle. In the first of these essays, Campbell prescribes the use of autobiographical materials; O’Donnell would use canonical works from the Catholic intellectual tradition dating back to the primitive church; and McGuinness’s programmatic structure rests on “Catholic Social Teaching” from Leo XIII to the present.

Several topics suitable for inclusion in CS programs – but not (as I read them) offered as the framework for the program as a whole – are treated persuasively. These are: women and gender issues; “Black Catholic Studies”; the experience of Asian-American Catholics; and “visual literacy.” (Hispanic Catholics do not have a chapter of their own, but are discussed tangentially in an essay that prescribes ethnography as the methodology best suited to CS).

Besides ethnography, “the Catholic imagination” (combined in one essay with “the Catholic imaginary”), “cosmopolitanism,” and Bernard Lonergan’s analysis of how the human mind works, are recommended as methodological/interpretive approaches to CS. Although they may offer suggestive insights, the relative novelty, specialized nature, and in some cases elusive intelligibility, of these prescriptions militate against their practical applicability. Making CS an institution-wide enterprise, rather than confining it to a special program, is perhaps attended by even greater practical difficulties, but Una Cadegan’s essay claims the University of Dayton has done just that. [End Page 99]

Though consensus about content and method is clearly a long way off, this volume demonstrates that a lot is going on in the field of Catholic Studies.

Philip Gleason
University of Notre Dame, emeritus


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