Roman Catholicism in America

2nd edition

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Chester Gillis
  • New York: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     2020.
     416 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780231142670.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Survey texts require their authors to do the difficult balancing act of choosing which narratives, perspectives, and topics are included in the text and which are not, a process that inevitably will result in at least some group of readers being unhappy with said selections. Roman Catholicism in America by Chester Gillis manages to pull off what would seem to be impossible: he constructs a narrative of Catholicism’s history and present in the United States in a manner that is concise and avoids unnecessary tangents, while simultaneously acknowledging multiple perspectives, stakeholders, and narratives within this story. As Gillis points out, “If it is difficult to describe an ‘average’ Catholic, the same difficulty applies to the entirety of Roman Catholicism in America” (11).

Gillis begins the book by outlining what he sees as the distinctive features of American Catholicism and American Catholics, namely, their sheer multiplicity in belief and practice as well as the intersection of Catholicism with other identities. He profiles the dedication of a new parish in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe with a Mexican-American family in California, and a group of women in a Denver living room celebrating the Eucharist (15–22). Gillis argues that these three instances are just a few of many forms that Catholicism takes in America, pausing within each vignette to elaborate on topics like parish closures, the growth of the number of parishes that offer mass in Spanish and other non-English languages, and the frustration of some Catholics with the prohibition of women’s ordination.

From there, he takes the reader on a journey from European colonialism to the present day, with special attention to the effects of Vatican II on both the Catholic church as a whole as well as on the everyday lives and devotions of American Catholics. Additional chapters are focused on beliefs and practices, the way the Catholic church is organized, Catholicism in popular culture, and challenges to Catholicism’s relevance in American life, including the sexual abuse crisis and the rising number of religiously unaffiliated Americans. Gillis ends with a chapter examining the present moment, with a focus on the role of Pope Francis.

One of the book’s great strengths is its attention to groups that have, historically, not been especially present in many survey texts on Catholicism in America. The lives of enslaved and free Black Catholics in the colonial period, the impact of Puerto Ricans on Catholicism in New York City, and reactions from Native Americans (both Catholic and non-Catholic) to the canonization of Junípero Serra, among other narratives, are woven throughout the narrative of the book. Women, particularly lay women, are also an important part of the narrative in Roman Catholicism in America, with significant attention paid to how various roles available to them have changed throughout the history of Catholicism in America, particularly after Vatican II.

Gillis also carefully balances informing the reader about Catholic teaching while acknowledging that not every Catholic agrees with it, and that both of these elements are important for understanding American Catholicism. Gillis explores the history of Catholic teaching on various topics, stopping to explain canon law or the notion of papal infallibility to the reader along the way as needed. He then examines how American Catholics have responded in various ways, including examples of reasoning from both those who agree with a particular teaching as well as those who disagree.

“Balance” is perhaps the word that best sums up Roman Catholicism in America. Gillis balances the perspectives of clergy and laity, Catholics of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, official teachings and how people interpret them on the ground. This book would be an excellent option for classes on Catholicism or religion in America more broadly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alexandria Griffin is a visiting assistant professor of religion at New College of Florida.

Date of Review: 
August 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chester Gillis is interim provost of Saint Louis University and professor of theology at Georgetown University, where he also served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of Pluralism: A New Paradigm for Theology (1993) and editor of The Political Papacy: John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Their Influence (2005), among others.

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