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 ...

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