American Catholicism in the 21st Century

Crossroads, Crisis, or Renewal?

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Benjamin Peters, Nicholas Rademacher
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , April
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The theological arguments gathered in this volume wield Catholic tradition to confront, critique, and develop 21st- century US Catholic engagement with new demographics and enduring injustices. The essays emerged from the College Theology Society’s June 2017 meeting on the theme of “American Catholicism in the 21st Century: Crossroads, Crisis, or Renewal?” Authors in the collection draw from notable US Catholic thinkers like Joseph A. Komonchak, William L. Portier, and Virgilio P. Elizondo throughout three sections that reassess “American Catholicism,” explore its “Opportunities and Challenges,” and propose “Resources for Renewal” of the US Catholic Church. Each author knits the pursuit of spiritual progress together with themes ranging from racial or environmental justice to the 2017 US political climate, to pleas for inclusion of marginalized voices within Catholic and American communities, particularly Catholic colleges and universities. Benjamin Peters and Nicholas Rademacher’s edited volume offers scholars of religion useful conversation partners both for studies of the US Catholic tradition and of the strategies available to religious communities passing through the fold between US religious and secular spheres and articulating their visions for each territory.

Part 1 of this volume collects several arguments for redefining both the chronology and the central themes of American Catholicism. Essays by Timothy Matovina and Paul G. Monson highlight opportunities to recognize what Monson calls the “hemispheric” nature of the American Church in its history of slaves, enslavers, immigrants, and transnational communities, recognizing it as “both a persecuted minority and a persecuting majority” (26) of the US population. A roundtable on Portier’s theology emphasizes that taking these historical and geographical perspectives may help educators to approach today’s Catholic Church with their students—especially evangelical Catholics and Catholic millennials—more effectively and responsibly. Two final essays in this section by Patricia Wittberg and William A. Clarke draw on the same considerations for discussions of parish culture and administration. Both authors urge colleagues and co-religionists to respond to the needs of generationally and racially shifting parishioners and to find opportunities for “thoughtful spiritual reflection” (65) that emerge when Catholics confront their failures to have done so already.

In part 2, the collection identifies and examines pressing concerns for Catholicism in the 21st-century United States. Essays are largely organized around arguments for responding to “intergenerational and social diversity” (75) with care and consideration. Scholars whose work touches on ritual or liturgy may be interested in Katharine Mahon’s diagnosis of post-Vatican II liturgical reforms, which she argues fed into an over-intellectualization of the Mass, for its continuation of debates about the work of action and meaning in religious practice. Essays by Mary Doak, Jessica Coblentz, and Dana L. Dillon urge theologians in and out of the university setting to resist both US and Catholic forms of racial violence and to confront white Christianity with its complicity in the rising violence and division of the Trump era’s “tribal antagonism” (78). John N. Sheveland concludes this section with a contribution to the growing literature on the Catholic sex abuse crisis. He offers a proposal for recognizing the trauma of the scandal for its victims and for the Church as a whole, and for using trauma studies as a frame for policies aimed at both preventing new abuses and facilitating recovery for those who have been victimized.

The final set of essays explores resources within US Catholicism (and in the case of Steven R. Harmon’s essay, within Baptist-Catholic interreligious dialogue) for growth, grace, and grappling with the challenges considered in the previous section. Michael Baxter investigates the potential for Catholic witness after the 2016 election of US President Donald Trump by contrasting the Americanist and radical social thought traditions of US Catholicism, finding the latter far more productive for the present moment. Daniel P. Horan provides a summary of overlapping concerns in the work of Thomas Merton and critical race theory and an opportunity to leverage this collaboration for the work of white Christians “surrendering the unearned privilege and power granted by structural racism” (198). Laura M. Taylor’s contribution draws on feminist interpretive theory to read the Virgin of Guadalupe with Mexican and Mexican American women and as an opportunity to practice “a preferential option for in-between” (209), prioritizing the lives and dignities of immigrants and refugees within the United States. Mathew Verghese’s contribution, which concludes the collection, offers the case study of Catholic environmental justice work in the Appalachian region as an example of ecological activism grounded in local communities.

With a common orientation towards crossroads, crises, and renewals, these essays provide a useful summary of College Theology Society concerns for 2017 as well as several jumping-off points for exceeding this consensus. Authors urge their readers and one another to listen to emerging Catholic populations, especially millennial, Latinx, and evangelical Catholics. They also advocate justice for and with those suffering under systems of white supremacy or the trauma of sexual abuse. The collection’s claims for theology as a potent resource for societal and spiritual liberation, complementing the American Academy of Religion’s 2016 conference on “Revolutionary Love,” may aid scholars of religion engaged in similar work. The absence of an essay on women in US Catholicism is notable, although insights derived from similar investigations underpin several essays here. The potential violence of normative gender supports Mary M. Doyle Roche’s argument for inclusion of LGBTQ youth in Catholic community, while other authors cite feminist theologians, feminist theory, and women’s writing as useful resources for addressing sexual abuse scandals (Sheveland), the plight of immigrants and refugees (Taylor), and the necessary reimagining of saintliness and suffering for ordinary 21st-century lives (Alison Downie), respectively. Including a sustained consideration of the experience of women in US Catholicism in a volume that includes Baxter’s adamant conflation of US domestic abortions with its foreign drone strikes could have furthered the call for openness that organizes much of this volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer A. Callaghan is an Independent Scholar with research interests in US religion and politics as well as 20th century US Catholicism.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin Peters is an associate professor of theology at the University of Saint Joseph (CT). He is the author of Called to Be Saints: John Hugo, the Catholic Worker, and a Theology of Radical Christianity (Marquette).

Nicholas Rademacher is associate professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Social Justice minor at Cabrini University in Radnor, PA. He is co-editor of A Realist’s Church: Essays in Honor of Joseph A. Komonchak (Orbis 2015) and author of Paul Hanly Furfey: Priest, Scientist, and Social Reformer (Fordham University Press).



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