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American Catholic Lay Groups and Transatlantic Social Reform in the Progressive Era.

By Deirdre M. Moloney. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. xviii + 267 pp. $49.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.

This work provides fascinating insights into American Catholicism from approximately the mid nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth. The author addresses issues that pervaded society at the time and sets for herself the daunting task of investigating how an emerging Catholic laity would find their place in that society while at the same time creating their own identity.

The issues addressed include the assimilation of the immigrant and his or her adjustment to the new environment, along with the cultural and religious challenges provided by the new land. Thus Moloney looks at the ethnic continuity that some immigrants wished to maintain at the same time that they desired to prove their American identity. The book highlights the social problems of poverty and alcoholism, owing in part to the experience of the immigrant, and the Catholic immigrant allegedly more than others. The emphasis that the author places on the leadership role of the laity is the particular value of this book. The author begins at a period in the nineteenth century when the American hierarchy and laity were somewhat estranged after the unfortunate recent experience of Lay Trusteeism. Moloney then shows that the Catholic laity, especially as it became more economically self-sufficient, felt qualified to speak for itself as well as branch out into areas of interest and concern of its own, with or without hierarchical blessing. Of special value is the extensive research the author has done to uncover the unique influence women had in the social movements and the remarkable contribution of some Catholic laywomen to the causes of the times.

The author makes a strong point of addressing the contrasts that emerged in the attempt of the Catholic community to address certain issues. For example, there was the interesting identification of those referred to as the "worthy poor," who were often distinguished from those whose poverty was somehow of their own making (especially because of willful alcoholism or chronic indolence). Similarly, there was the concern of some whether the Catholic Church (or any religious group for that matter) should position itself as an agent of change within society, or whether it was sufficient to work at alleviating suffering without necessarily overcoming its causes.

Moloney shows a comprehensive familiarity with the struggles the laity encountered at times in dealing with the hierarchy. It is important to recall the overriding influence of the hierarchy in all things Catholic before the more recent emphasis on ecclesiastical collegiality. As a result, while lay Catholics were able to branch out on their own to some extent, there would always be the possibility that a local bishop might intervene, interfere, or even put an end to a movement if it were considered somehow compromising of Catholic principles. Any hint of a softening of attitude toward artificial birth control, for example, would invite swift hierarchical opposition. Similar opposition would arise if the activity became too closely aligned with Protestant movements of similar purpose.

In a future edition of this book, it may be well to correct a few errors. The encyclical of Leo XIII to the American church in 1895 should be spelled Longinqua Oceani. The NCWC was originally the National Catholic War Council, then Welfare Council, but its abiding title was National Catholic Welfare Conference, in deference both to the fear of the Holy See that it would assume juridical authority as a "council," as well as to those bishops who feared its existence would compromise their diocesan autonomy. Further, it should be noted that John Henry Newman was raised to the cardinalate, but not to the episcopacy (22). Also, when addressing the question of the Americanist controversy in the late nineteenth century, surprisingly neither the text nor the bibliography acknowledges Thomas McAvoy's in-depth treatment of the subject. Similarly, the mention of John Lancaster Spalding in various places in the book could have noted David Sweeney's "Life" of the Bishop of Peoria. Finally, although Henry Browne's works are noted in a few places, his history of the Catholic Church and the Knights of Labor is nowhere acknowledged although the Knights are proposed as an outstanding example of the lay leadership the author describes.

This is a very good book, both because of what it covers and what it suggests can still be investigated. Recent interest in the "Emerging Layman" has made the subject of great interest. Future research such as that of Moloney will add both to an understanding of the importance of the laity in American Catholicism and to an appreciation of the struggles that the laity encountered.

W. Barry Smith

D'Youville College
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Author:Smith, W. Barry
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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