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  • The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America
  • Monica Mercado
The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America. By Colleen McDannell. New York: Basic Books, 2011. 304pp. $26.99.

“I am the last of a generation” (ix). Thus begins Colleen McDannell’s latest work, The Spirit of Vatican Two: A History of Catholic Reform in America. Introducing herself in the book’s first pages as a child of the “Catholic sixties,” McDannell offers a history of twentieth-century American Catholicism through the eyes of her mother, Margaret, whose lifetime bridges the pre- and post-concilliar eras. In doing so – coupling family history with church history – McDannell offers insights for both the religion scholar and the general reader interested in understanding the challenges faced by today’s church.

For Catholics like Margaret McDannell, “the Spirit of Vatican II” – defined by the author as “a constellation of changes that Catholics experienced in their homes, churches, and schools” – were not felt overnight (xi). Instead, as McDannell argues, “For [Margaret’s] entire life, her parishes had been slowly changing” (205). Reforms handed down from Rome, McDannell demonstrates, found “uneven acceptance” in American pews; by broadening her analysis to the “spirit of Vatican II,” she also poses questions about equally important changes in postwar white, middle-class parishes: what happens to the [End Page 72] church when college-educated American Catholics are no longer likely to remain in one parish for their entire lives?

Families like the McDannells (who moved from the Rust Belt to the Pacific coast, and later retired to Florida) confronted issues of belonging in multiple parish communities, and the author has collected a number of moving oral histories from her mother’s peers to illustrate the restlessness, confusion, and opportunities caused by this increased mobility. McDannell does an excellent job of illustrating how the changing geography of Catholic life dovetailed with the exodus of men and women from the religious orders after the 1960s to shape the practices of many lay men and women. Catholics grappled with new roles in their parishes, serving as Eucharistic ministers, parish council members, and music directors (Margaret McDannell became a lector). In particular, McDannell sees “the transference of religious education from Catholic sisters to Catholic parents [as] a radical change in the American Church,” and the development of Sunday Schools as a lay ministry is a subject that merits further exploration (172–173).

Although McDannell initially frames the book as a memoir, readers should note the subtitle, which points to its function as a survey text. In sections that abandon the premise of family history, the author describes the Council meetings in detail, along with reactions to Humanae Vitae and other controversial topics. While light on citations, a bibliographical essay encourages lay readers to seek out key works in Catholic history, and challenges scholars of American Catholicism to pursue further research on the post-concilliar era, which has received scant attention to-date. For both audiences, ultimately, The Spirit of Vatican II suggests provocative questions about the meaning of change and the ways in which we might study it. This comes as no surprise: McDannell’s previous works have served as indispensible guides to American religion, and her latest tome deserves space on the bookshelves of college and parish libraries.

Monica Mercado
University of Chicago


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pp. 72-73
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