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  • The Transformation of American Catholicism: The Pittsburgh Laity and the Second Vatican Council, 1950–1972 by Timothy Kelly
  • Kenneth J. Heineman
The Transformation of American Catholicism: The Pittsburgh Laity and the Second Vatican Council, 1950–1972. By Timothy Kelly. ( Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 2009. Pp. xvi, 353. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-268-03319-4.)

Forty years ago three Catholic lay intellectuals (Garry Wills, Michael Novak, and William F. Buckley Jr.) and a priest/sociologist (Andrew Greeley) dissected the fallout from the Second Vatican Council. According to Buckley and Novak, Pope John XXIII’s reforms in the early 1960s and the American Catholic Church’s embrace of progressive politics resulted in parishioners becoming distrustful of their leaders. Although Greeley was not as critical as Buckley, he acknowledged that U.S. Catholic religious authorities had grown distant from the laity—in part, he argued, because reform-minded clergy had sacrificed religious devotion in favor of political activism. Wills, while celebrating the Council and Catholic progressive politics in the 1960s, saw a Church destined for decline as the laity became better educated, experienced greater social mobility, and appeared less willing to accept the moral authority of the clergy.

Historian Timothy Kelly has picked up where the 1970s-era Catholic intellectuals left off. Using the Pittsburgh Diocese as a case study, Kelly assesses the impact of the Council on the laity. Kelly insists that the American Catholic Church had entered a period of decline in the decade before the Council and the upsurge of progressive activism. Extrapolating from declining attendance at devotionals over the course of the 1950s, Kelly argues that the Church was losing its hold on the laity. To bolster his contention, Kelly notes that larger numbers of Catholic children began attending public, rather than parochial, schools.

In a provocative chapter, Kelly asserts that the postwar Catholic Church’s anticommunism fostered lay distrust of political institutions and undermined American civic culture. Whether or not this was so, Kelly paints a dour picture of Catholic anticommunism. One of his villains is Allegheny County judge and devout Catholic Michael Musmanno. To Kelly, Musmanno was a cynical opportunist who red-baited the innocent. The author could have made two observations: first, Musmanno had been affected by his experience as a judge at the Nuremberg War Crime trials. He believed that totalitarian ideologies, whether Nazi or communist, threatened democracy; and second, the key figure Musmanno prosecuted [End Page 180] for sedition was Steve Nelson, who was no mere bystander. Nelson was an agent of the Comintern who had trained in the Soviet Union. He should not have been prosecuted by Pennsylvania, as the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled. At the same time, Musmanno was as sincere as he was overwrought.

Kelly well describes Hugh C. Boyle (1873–50), bishop of Pittsburgh (1921–50) and a national champion of organized labor in the 1930s. Boyle personified the values of the working-class laity. John Wright (1909–79, bishop of Pittsburgh 1959–69) could not have been more unlike Boyle. As a product of middle-class Boston, Wright was alien to the Pittsburgh laity. His civil rights crusade seemed to many Pittsburghers to be a repudiation of Boyle’s earlier concern for labor rights. Wright did not possess the skills (or willingness) to reach out to Pittsburgh Catholics and reassure them that he had not forsaken the faithful. Although Kelly does not mention it, Wright had the distinction of being the only bishop in the history of the Pittsburgh Diocese to be burned in effigy by irate Catholics.

As Kelly concludes, the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s led thousands of Catholics to flee the Pittsburgh Diocese. Kelly is correct in noting that the changes in the liturgy inspired by the Council and that civil-rights activism operated independently of a Church-destroying, de-industrializing economy. Even if college-educated Catholics demanded birth control in contravention of church teaching and left the pews, and working-class Catholics believed Wright dismissed them as racists, there would have been no great Pittsburgh Diocese in the first place without an industrial economy.

Kenneth J. Heineman
Angelo State University
San Angelo, TX


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