American Catholic History, Second Edition

A Documentary Reader

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Mark Massa, Catherine Osborne
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , November
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


I love good documentary readers. They are one of my favorite teaching tools, as they invite students into the complexities of religion, culture, and history in short documents that capture the human, the institutional, and the social components of religion, as well as diversity, conflict, and change. All of these tasks are accomplished in American Catholic History: A Documentary Reader, edited by Mark Massa and Catherine Osborne.

This is the second edition, and as such, elements of the book were updated. Osborne is a full co-editor of the volume, and the number of documents in the volume has increased from seventy to eighty-eight. While the documents are still organized in five sections, those sections are a bit different. In the first edition, published in 2008, the sections were: Frontiers and Encounter, Inside/Outside, Catholicism and the Intellectual Life, Politics, Worship & the Spiritual Life. In the updated version they are now: Frontiers and Encounter, Inside/Outside, Moral Quandaries and Social Policies, Worship and the Spiritual Life, and New Horizons. Bringing politics and intellectual life together to encompass a larger component of American Catholicism and adding the short final section on 21st-century challenges are astute edits. These shifts reflect a strength of the first edition—recognizing the complicated social-cultural-political matrix of American Catholicism—that gains more steam in this edition. The documents are edited to a good length, long enough to get a sense of their cultural moment and short enough to have students read a variety of them for each class meeting. The editorial introductions for each document are also quite helpful for readers.

The documents in each section are organized chronologically, which allows teachers to use the text both thematically or chronologically. Teachers can also find additional themes throughout the text, including gender, race, legal disputes, colonialism, hierarchy, and more. The variety of authors and topics covered in the documents make American Catholic History a flexible and adaptable text.

Though many students will skip it, the short introduction contains a great definition of what Massa and Osborne mean by American Catholicism: “a densely interrelated network of beliefs, practices, church structures, and cultural artifacts” (2). The introduction also prompts readers to consider three main questions as they work through the selected documents: “what ‘question’ is this document addressing?” “what is the argument of the document and how is it constructed?” and “how does the social location of the writer affect his or her ‘answer’?” (3). These questions invite students and scholars of American Catholicism to dive deeply into each document. (An unwritten fourth question might center on how these authors might respond to each other.) There is also a short editorial introduction before each section of the text, which introduces the motivations behind the editors’ organizational choices. “Frontiers and Encounter” considers the variety of people meeting one another in America and the assumptions that undergirded those meetings, along with thinking about frontiers as both geographical and ideological. “Inside/Outside” tracks how Catholics have been an outsider group and their response to this, but also takes note of what happened after Catholics achieved insider status and the complications that came along with that. “Moral Quandaries and Social Policies” investigates “both the ways American Catholics have thought through their moral and social obligations, and some of the hottest issues in several kinds of ‘politics’“ (153). “Worship and the Spiritual Life” includes institutional documents and also considers what the laity were doing and thinking at various points in American Catholic history. And “New Horizons,” though only four documents long, reflects on current challenges in the church, like sexual abuse and immigration, and closes with Pope Francis’s 2015 Address to Congress.

Massa and Osborne’s American Catholic History is a gift to teachers of American Catholicism at either the undergraduate or the graduate level. It has strong pedagogical value and is a welcomed reference volume for library shelves as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Suzanne Clark is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Massa is professor of church history and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. He is the author of The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever and Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team.

Catherine Osborne is visiting assistant professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, and author of American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow, 1925-1975.


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