PEOPLE ADRIFT: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, by Peter
Steinfels. Simon and Schuster. 416 pp. $26.
COMING CATHOLIC CHURCH: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism,
by David Gibson. HarperSanFrancisco. 368 pp. $23.95.
Reviewed by JOHN BOOKSER FEISTER, an assistant editor of this publication, managing
editor of Catholic Update, founding editor of AmericanCatholic.org and
coauthor of three books with Richard Rohr, O.F.M.
FEW ANALYSTS of American Catholicism are as well-prepared and articulate as Peter
Steinfels (with the arguable exception of his wife, Peggy). His perspective is decidedly
intellectual and liberalbut at the same time he admits that liberal and conservative labels
are causing more harm than good. In A People Adrift, Steinfels does what almost
no other journalist has: He provides deep context for understanding the current ferment
in the Catholic Church.
Though the book by necessity is much about the sex-abuse crisis, Steinfels was well
into this project before the 2002 scandal broke. His starting point is the 1996 funeral
of the books hero, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
Many bemoan that the news media often dont report well on the Catholic Church
because they dont understand it. Peter Steinfels is a grand exception: active
Catholic, former editor of Commonweal, frequent contributor to many Catholic
publications, senior religion writer for The New York Times (1988-97), where
he still writes the Beliefs column. He is an insider who methodically
documents a sea change in the Church.
The coming decades will be critical for the Church, Steinfels asserts, be-cause
two important transitions are under way. First, 40 years after Vatican II, a pre-Vatican
II generation is fading into history. Second, the lay leadership spawned by Vatican
II is growing at the grassroots, even if it has yet to find its place in Church and
The issues he takes on in depth are the liturgy, passing on the faith to the next
generation and fostering Catholic identity. There is also a rich offering of history,
observation and recommendations that will ruffle feathers. Agree with him or not,
this book is a must read for contemporary Catholic thinkers.
The presence of another high-caliber book on similar themes is a sign of the times.
David Gibsons book The Coming Catholic Church is more specifically about
the major dimensions of the sex-abuse crisis. The Coming Catholic Church is
a page-turner of anecdotes, commentary and history.
Where Steinfels writes as a cultural Catholic, Gibson writes with the outlook of
an enthusiastic convert. Gibson was a Rome-based Vatican Radio correspondent in the
1980s and, most recently, religion writer for the Newark Star-Ledger and reporter
Gibsons strongest gift is his storytelling. He starts at the historic 2002
meeting of U.S. bishops in Dallas and leads us into the waves of tension that are
roiling among the Churchs three estates: bishops, clergy and laity.
(The book is divided into three sections, one for each estate.) His is an excellent
digest of the events of 2002, popular in style, filled with interesting details,
observations and many points of view.
He tackles the history of strained relations between ordained and lay, an ambitious
assignment. Undergirding his presentation is the concept of loyal opposition, a
sense that Catholics will remain Catholic in spite of the scandal, and that reform
is coming, from the undeniable will of the centrist faithful. The coming Catholic
Church, asserts Gibson, is moderate reform led from the center.
Most refreshing in Gibsons work are his understanding and explanation of the
tension between American democratic ideals and European Catholicism. The conflict
between the ordained and lay estates is no new theme to Americans, and Gibson documents
it well. At the same time, Gibson sees a renewal of holiness among priests, bishops
and laity as the key to getting through the crisis.
Choosing between the books would be hard, but Steinfelss is stronger. Gibson,
here and there, misses nuance. His brief treatment of ordained ministry in the early
Church, for example, is simplistic. The old (1917) Catholic Encyclopedia is
quoted repeatedly without alluding to its age. A few speakers whom Gibson quotes
are actually themselves quoting patristic and conciliar sources.
Both A People Adrift and The Coming Catholic Church are syntheses
of decades of close observation, which makes them compelling reading. One would expect
both books to be vilified by Church conservatives for recommending, among other reforms,
loosening restrictions on ordination.
You can order A PEOPLE ADRIFT: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America and THE
COMING CATHOLIC CHURCH: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism from St.
LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOIUR OWN: An American Pilgrimage, by Paul Elie. Farrar,
Straus and Giroux. 555 pp. $27, U.S.; $44.50, Canada.
Reviewed by the MOST REV. ROBERT MORNEAU, auxiliary bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
CHARTING THE INFLUENCE of four major personalities of the 20th century, as well
as describing their impact on one another and our culture, is a challenging enterprise.
Paul Elie, editor and writer, has succeeded admirably. His reading and interpretation
of the writings of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery OConnor and Walker
Percy manifest not only a deep grasp of their work but also a critical intelligence
that is impressive.
For those who have read biographies of Day, Merton, OConnor and Percy, there
is not a great deal of new information. What is novel is the way the author shows
how the lives of these four individuals intersected and how they often addressed
the same themes and issues but from different perspectives. What is of special interest
and value is Elies literary analysis of the short stories, essays, columns
and novels of these four writers.
Those familiar with OConnors novels and short stories, with Mertons
autobiographical and meditative prose, with Days Catholic Worker message
and with Percys linguistic essays and fiction will be given new insights that
are both enlightening and critical.
This is a human book, at once depicting the protagonists as having great
gifts and severe limitations. The theme of pilgrimage runs throughout as we witness
wayfarers struggling to make sense of this mysterious human journey. Elie writes
in the Preface: A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story.
A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the reports and goes in search of the
evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness. The pilgrims seek not only to confirm the
experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.
Pilgrims often make the journey in company, but each must be changed individually;
they must see for themselves, each with his or her own eyes. And as they return to
ordinary life the pilgrims must tell others what they saw, recasting the story in
their own terms.
Well-balanced are the genius and flaws of each pilgrim in this bookno hagiography
here. Well-developed, too, the historical and cultural context out of which these
authors lived and wrote.
In another book worth reading, All Saints (Crossroad, 1977), author Robert
Ellsberg saw fit to include Day, Merton, OConnor and Percy. Being called holy
bothered Dorothy Day. Surely the title of saint would also bother Merton
who knew his sins so clearly, would bother OConnor who was in touch with her
meanness and rudeness, would bother Percy who struggled to the end with issues of
faith in a postmodern world.
Yet, if a saint is one who responds to the gifts of God as fully as possible and
one who attempts to receive and pass on Gods love courageously, all four of
Elies subjects deserve inclusion in an all saints book.
From Day we are forced to deal with the issues of poverty and justice; from Merton
we are continually challenged to seek our authentic self and be a reflective, prayerful
community; from OConnor we hear story after story of how Gods grace is
active in the strangest of personalities and situations; from Percy we are confronted
with those ordinary Wednesday afternoons leading to an everydayness that
can be overwhelming.
The questions and issues they wrestled with are our own. We are indebted to them
for articulating the large questions of life and offering some direction.
Paul Elies analysis is perceptive and engaging. His story about storytellers
is a narrative that captivates, even kidnaps our imagination.
You can order THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN: An American Pilgrimage from St.
LIBERTY AND THE DEFENSE OF DIGNITY: The Challenge for Bioethics, by Leon
R. Kass. Encounter Books. 297 pp. $26.95.
Reviewed by the REV. MICHAEL P. ORSI, a research fellow in law and religion at
Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
LEON R. KASSmedical doctor, biochemist, philosopher and man of faithis
the current chairman of President Bushs Council on Bioethics. In this volume
he tackles some of the major bioethical and social issues confronting 21st-century
The rapid advances of technology and the power to manipulate human life and reproduction
have led Kass to examine what it means to be human. His thoughtful approach to in
vitro fertilization, genetic enhancement, cloning, organ donation, life extension
and the right to die is challenged within the context of the defense of human dignity.
His personal reflection on the human situation takes advantage of the accumulated
wisdom of Western civilization, his own Jewish faith and life experiences.
From the start, he rejects a rationalistic approach that limits the human to quantifiable
biological data. This holistic vision proves to be not a collection of nays to the
biotech revolution but caveats within a paean to life.
The trend in some quarters is simply to view the stuff of life as a
commodity which persons have unlimited rights to reproduce, transmogrify and terminate
at will. This attitude is the byproduct of two dangerous and humanly limiting philosophiesscientific
reductionism, which reduces all of life to genes, and legal positivism, which creates
rights according to a persons will.
Both of these, according to Kass, lack teleologya reason and ultimate goalfor
human existence and procreation outside of an autonomous agents desire.
Kass asks serious questions not simply about the destruction of embryonic life to
bring about a desired birth for the infertile or a clone for vain people, but also
about the intrusion of technology into human intimacy.
Kass is not afraid to resort to feelings for his arguments since these are also
part of our humanity. His arguments are reminiscent of his visceral attack on cloning
as repugnance for the unguarded use of human embryos, the taking of organs
for transplants or the right to end ones life. Without delving into some of
Kasss graphic examples, the bottom line is that we may be reentering an era
in which the buying and selling of human flesh is once again on its way to legitimacy.
Although his major arguments are framed through the lens of Orthodox Judaism, he
often comes to the same conclusions that guide Catholics.
Many have dubbed the 21st century the century of biotechnology. Kass wisely puts
into perspective such complex issues vis-à-vis the cost to human dignity.
This easy-to-read book will help both the ordinary person and the professional understand
what is at stake as the political system tries to grapple with issues that may redefine
human life and perhaps compromise our liberty more than the most tyrannical government
You can order LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE DEFENSE OF DIGNITY: The Challenge for Bioethics from St.
GRATITUDE, Mary Jo Leddy. Orbis Books. 192 pp. $18.
Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST, a writer who has taught religion and culture at the
University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
MARY JO LEDDY is a woman of integrity. She is a remarkable witness, in the way she
lives her life, to what it means to be a person of Radical Gratitude, the
title of her latest book.
Leddy teaches theology at Regis College in Toronto, and for the past 12 years she
has worked with refugees in the Romero House community there.
Just over a quarter century ago, Leddy became the founding editor of Catholic
New Times, a left-leaning newspaper with a knack for unsettling the religious
status quo. At the same time she remains a faithfully nurtured and nurturing Roman
Catholic. The Church, she says, keeps me real.
Because radical comes from radix (root), one of its meanings is getting
to the fundamentals of the matter. Gratitude, on the other hand,
means a feeling of appreciation for a kindness or favor received. Leddy
has made some basic discoveries about how to live in considerable chaos with a disciplined
daily appreciation for life in all its gratuitous splendor.
This is a book about ordinary grace, she writes at the beginning, which
is here for the asking. For free. And it is because such ordinary grace can be neither
bought nor sold that it is so promising in a time and a place defined by what has
been called the triumph of American materialism.
Radical Gratitude is about living an alternative to a driven, consumed
or consuming existence....It is about liberation in a culture that is supposed to
be the most liberated in the world, that is given over to the pursuit of happiness
and is, nonetheless, chronically dissatisfied. It is...for people who seem to live
in the most powerful culture in the world but nevertheless can feel quite powerless
over many aspects of their lives.
Her second-last chapter deals with why we have not been created by God for getting,
earning or being more. In conclusion, she outlines practical ways of developing the
habit of gratitude.
Stories help to focus attention on truths the author wishes to share. One involves
an African teenage resident at Romero House who looks out the back window and in
broken English points to a garage and asks, Who lives there? Leddy responds
that no one does: It is a house for a car. This sets her and the community
thinking. Given a housing crisis in the city, they decide to turn the house for a
car into a room for a person.
The striking themes in this material are ideal for sermons, talks, devotionals and
The author has concerns about how spirituality, even worship, is accommodating itself
to the market mentality.
Radical Gratitude is not a game plan for revising the underlying values of
modern life and restructuring the American economy. It is much more insidious than
that. It speaks to the heart quietly and unobtrusively, but poignantly. Much of this
can be shared in small groups. Before long, significant changes in the way the world
works might actually occur.
You can order RADICAL GRATITUDE from St.
EYE OF NIGHT, by Pauline J. Alama. Bantam Books/A Bantam Spectra book. 451
pp. $5.99, U.S.; $8.99, Canada.
Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor of this publication.
FANTASY CAN BE a fascinating genre. A writer starts with a blank slate to create
a world for his or her characters.
Pauline J. Alama, a New York grant-writer who has a Ph.D. in medieval English literature
from the University of Rochester, sets her story out-of-time, in a world on the verge
of collapse. In The Eye of Night, the Troubles are coming down from the North.
Cities are being annihilated, civil revolt is killing off kings and nobles, wars
are raging and outlaw bands thrive. Famine has hit some areas three years running.
Time and space, day and night, and seasonal change are often skewed. Even the earth
itself is in upheaval and waking the dead from their graves. Darkness is spreading.
But it is the destiny of three most unlikely heroes to travel into this land of
chaos, this land everyone else is fleeing. They are on a quest to save the world,
Jereth is an ex-priest of some mythic cult, and it is mostly through his eyes that
we see the others; Hyn is a battered, half-blind serving woman who is shorter than
many children and somewhere in the past had one finger cut off; the Lady Trenara
of Larioneth is a quiet, exquisite beauty with a smile as mysterious as the
In Swevnalond the people worship two goddesses and two gods. They celebrate festivals
which mark the seasons of the year and are dedicated to each deity on the World-Wheel in
Jereth spent six years in a monastic order devoted to springs Upright (or
Rising) God. There are also the Bright Goddess of summer, the Turning (or Upside-down)
God of harvest and the Hidden Goddess of the Longest Night. In a way, it is as if
many aspects of our one, true God are parceled out among these deities.
When the story begins, Jereth is three months out of the monastery, having left
before final vows. He is still wearing the tattered robes of his order, his hair
barely grown out of tonsure. He had entered the order to forget his family, who drowned
in a shipwreck, and leaves the order disillusioned and a lost man on
a pilgrimage to find himself.
The stories of the rest of the trio emerge more slowly. The prophet (Hyn), the fool
(Trenara) and their protector (Jereth) make their way slowly to the very edge of
The Eye of Night follows the outlines of a mythic quest, with many twists
and turns. It turns out to be a great tragedywith a happy ending. It is a story
of hard work, self-sacrifice and perseverance, love and grief, caring and tenderness,
and preaches the values of hospitality and living and working in common. It is a
story where nothing is really as it first appears.
I, who seldom read fantasy, found the story a page-turner. I recommend it to those
who want to stretch their imagination a bit and discover some touching characters
and ideas of true depth.
You can order THE EYE OF NIGHT from St.