The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping A New American Catholicism
by David Gibson
350 pp.; $23.95
When asked what he thought about the Catholic laity, John Henry Newman replied that the Church would look foolish without them. David Gibson's splendid if overly sanguine new book partakes of Newman's pragmatism and generosity. By comparison with a leadership which appears, by turns, haughty, repentant, and feckless in the face of scandal, the American Catholic laity seems the very model of sensible, long-suffering maturity. But if, as Gibson contends, the laity is also mounting an unstoppable insurrection in American Catholicism, we might want to know what exactly this regime change promises.
A convert to Catholicism and an award-winning religious journalist, Gibson provides a refreshingly well-informed and judicious survey of American Catholic life, from the steadfast but restless faith in the pews, to the numerous troubles that vex the priesthood, to the confusion and defensiveness that lame the episcopate.
At ease with an array of sources—reportage and commentary, scholarly literature, his own extensive interviews and research—Gibson ranges widely without being shallow. We receive brief but proficient histories of the papacy, priestly celibacy, the American bishops, and the Second Vatican Council, and succinct elucidations of religious sociology, sacramental theology, and the psychology of pedophilia. (The absence of reference notes and a bibliography is frustrating.) But we also get a tad too much of the Polls-Have-Shown brand of pop social studies. (I'm certainly glad that two-thirds of Catholic women rated "high" on a "sexual playfulness scale," but I'm still not sure what it portends for American Catholicism.)
While the sex-abuse scandals provide Gibson a ready point of reference, he realizes they've compounded stresses even more injurious than the ones the bishops have addressed (so far, he shows, with awe-suppressing ineptitude). Catholic women are increasingly impatient, not only with official teachings on contraception and ordination but also with a male clerical culture blinded to its reliance on their labor and devotion. The rising generation of younger Catholics seems indifferent or lethargic about church attendance, moral teachings, and doctrinal authority.
Among priests as well, the scandals have exacerbated larger and more intractable dilemmas. Despite the psychologically illiterate efforts of conservatives to link pedophilia and homosexuality, the exposures have drawn attention to a gay clerical subculture which, Gibson rightly asserts, must be thoroughly uncloseted and discussed as the institutional and theological crisis it poses. And that crisis points to a broader perplexity about the nature of the priesthood itself, a confusion fueled not merely by declining numbers—an attrition which has forced parishes to rely increasingly on lay people for numerous "clerical" functions—but also by a laity which can't decide if it wants "guardians of orthodoxy" or "regular Joes, only better." Gibson sees little chance that these issues will be confronted soon or well by an episcopate dedicated to its "dying mystique" of clericalism.
Still, Gibson finds reason for hope in a "revolution from below" which, occasioned by the reforms of Vatican II, has left almost nothing of Catholic culture untouched. From liturgical innovations (altar girls, lay distribution of the Eucharist and other sacraments) to structural perestroika (parish councils, the expansion of the diaconate), the laity has already effected a metamorphosis in the power relations within the American Church. Arguing from these realities, Gibson sets forth an eminently prudent agenda for greater ecclesial democracy: more power and oversight for lay parish councils and diocesan review boards; lay participation in the selection of bishops; a "careful reimagining of the Catholic priesthood" that would include the ordination of women and the revocation of mandatory celibacy.
As well-considered as these reforms are, I wonder if they really go far enough—not just in the political and structural senses, but in the spiritual and theological terms that Gibson acknowledges but, in the end, evades. If, unlike many liberal Catholics, Gibson respects and admires the spiritual discipline at the core of traditional devotions, he also prefers to avoid theological discussion, and this disinclination weakens some of his key contentions. He insists, for instance, that the Catholic crisis is a "crisis of governance rather than a crisis of faith," and urges reformers to separate structure and policy from what he considers "circular arguments about doctrine and theology." But in any Christian view, priesthood, sexuality, and ecclesiology are all matters of faith and theology because they are practices through which we embody, not only our relations to each other, but to God as well. Thus, crises of governance are crises of faith, and theological arguments, while they can be circular, are also indispensable.
I would also challenge the standard liberal faith in that darling "laity." One question that remains unanswered—and even unasked—is a simple but (I'd wager) disconcerting one: "Who are these people?" My view (based on my own research and on recent studies of religious culture such as Michael Budde and Robert Brimlow's brilliant Christianity Incorporated) is that "the laity" turn out to be the very upper-middle-class Catholics whose therapeutic, consumerist ethos Gibson derides. Indeed, Gibson himself asserts that the revolution arises from a laity "who lead busy lives in a world that is busier than ever."
Doesn't this frenetic pace stem from a devotion to accumulation? Would lay power really augur an epoch of openness and honesty? Under cover of shibboleths like "revolution from below," might Catholics be trading one managerialist culture for another—one which, given Gibson's generational observations, may be even less informed and coherent than its predecessor? My own answers to these questions would not be reassuring, and Gibson's book does little to assuage my fear that, without a theology and practice that upholds a "sign of contradiction" to the venality of American culture, the victory of the laity will be as pyrrhic as it is inexorable.
Eugene McCarraher is an assistant professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is the author of Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought (Cornell Univ. Press, 2000). He is currently at work on The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com.
Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
One-Hit Wonder | The long swansong of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. (July 7, 2003)
Divinely Decreed? | Re-fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. (June 27, 2003)
Why There Will Be Sidewalks in Heaven | Isaiah and the New Urbanism. (June 9, 2003)
True Believers | Incoming! The McSweeney's crowd launches a new monthly. (June 2, 2003)
Facing the Past Günter | Grass and the debate over Germans as victims in World War II. (May 19, 2003)
Are Movies Fundamentally Inferior to Books? | Two responses to Ralph Wood's claim that "biblical tradition elevates word over picture." (May 12, 2003)
Buffy and the Meaning of Life | Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally gets some respect. Too bad the life is slowly ebbing out of the show. (May 5, 2003)
Bird Watching with Anne Lamott | A PBS documentary enters the unruly, grace-filled world of the author of Traveling Mercies. (April 21, 2003)
A Story Darwin Might Love | Brian McLaren's evolutionary interpretation of the faith promises more than it delivers, but what it delivers is good enough. (April 14, 2003)
Why We Are in Iraq | Michael Kelly, R.I.P. (April 7, 2003)
Letter from Spain | A former resident returns to find that it is still stony ground for the Gospel. (March 31, 2003)
Lessons in Nation-Building From a Fledgling Democracy | Shays's Rebellion describes a time when revolution was no longer cool. (March 24, 2003)
Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however…(March 17, 2003)
Vanity Fair | A chronicler of religion plays the straight man. (March 10, 2003)
Diagnosing "The Doctor" | A new assessment of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preacher. (March 3, 2003)