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About The Book

In A People Adrift, a prominent Catholic thinker states bluntly that the Catholic Church in the United States must transform itself or suffer irreversible decline. Peter Steinfels shows how even before the recent revelations about sexual abuse by priests, the explosive combination of generational change and the thinning ranks of priests and nuns was creating a grave crisis of leadership and identity.

This groundbreaking book offers an analysis not just of the church's immediate troubles but of less visible, more powerful forces working below the surface of an institution that provides a spiritual identity for 65 million Americans and spans the nation with its parishes, schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, clinics, and social service agencies.

In A People Adrift, Steinfels warns that entrenched liberals and conservatives are trapped in a "theo-logical gridlock" that often ignores what in fact goes on in families, parishes, classrooms, voting booths, and Catholic organizations of all types. Above all, he insists, the altered Catholic landscape demands a new agenda for leadership, from the selection of bishops and the rethinking of the priesthood to the thorough preparation and genuine incorporation of a lay leadership that is already taking over key responsibilities in Catholic institutions.

Catholicism exerts an enormous cultural and political presence in American life. No one interested in the nation's moral, intellectual, and political future can be indifferent to the fate of what has been one of the world's most vigorous churches -- a church now severely challenged.



Today the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation.

A few years ago, that proposition might have seemed melodramatic, typical journalistic sensationalism. Then, in the first half of 2002, the church was hit with a gale of revelations about sexual molestation of minors by priests, and as the winds of scandal continued to howl and howl, it seemed that no statement about the Catholic Church was too melodramatic or exaggerated to get a serious hearing. My own analysis of the sex scandal, somewhat different from the standard versions, will come later. But the important point is that the church faced these rather stark alternatives of decline or transformation before the revelations and would do so today even if this shocking sexual misconduct had never occurred. The reasons the church faces major choices about its future, while not unrelated to aspects of the scandal, go even deeper, to two intersecting transitions in American Catholic life. How the church responds (or fails to respond) to those transitions will determine its course for much of this century.

That future is obviously of great interest to devout Catholics. It should be of interest, in fact, to other thoughtful Americans, and to non-Americans who recognize the place that the American church occupies in both the world's most powerful nation and the world's largest single religious body. The fate of American Catholicism will have a significant impact on the nation's fabric, its political atmosphere, its intellectual life, and its social resilience. It will have a significant impact on worldwide Catholicism; in short, on the world.

The American Catholic Church is a unique institution. In ways obvious or mysterious, profound or trivial, the Catholic Church provides a spiritual identity for between 60 and 65 million Americans, approximately one-fourth of the population. These millions are Catholic in amazingly diverse ways. For some, their faith is the governing force of their lives. For others, it is a childhood memory with little impact (so they think) on their adult existence, something casually evoked by a poll taker's question, for want of any other religious label. There are Catholics for whom the church is the source of peace and joy, and Catholics for whom it is the cause of fierce anger and outrage. Not infrequently, these are the same Catholics. In recent years, if the Gallup poll is believed, approximately 30 million Catholics go to Mass at least once a week, although this total appears to have at least temporarily dropped by several million because of the sex scandal. Other measures put the number at Sunday Mass on an ordinary weekend at somewhat under 20 million. Another 15 to 17 million go to Mass regularly, some at least monthly, many of them "almost" every week. Even in the year of the sex scandal, half of the nation's Catholics say that their religion is "very important" in their lives, and another third say it is "fairly important."

The church spans the nation with its parishes, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and clinics, and a social service system second only to the government's. Despite the impact of the sex scandals, Catholicism remains a powerful moral force in a society with fewer and fewer moral authorities of any sort.

Like virtually no other American institution, the Catholic church is a bridge. Unlike the nation's second largest religious body, the Southern Baptist Convention, or many other geographically concentrated faith groups, the Catholic church links regions: Catholic New England with Catholic New Mexico, by way of the urban Midwest -- Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Louis. What is more crucial, the church bridges races and classes, suburban neighborhoods and inner-city ghettoes. It links power brokers on Wall Street or Capitol Hill, whose grandparents were immigrants from Europe, with newly arrived immigrants from Latin American, Haiti, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia.

In Los Angeles, for example, the cardinal archbishop, Roger Mahony, has mixed easily with the city's newspaper editors and Hollywood executives, but he is also viewed as an advocate for struggling Hispanics and other outsiders. In his archdiocese's 287 parishes, Mass is said in thirty-eight languages. More than half of the Brooklyn diocese's parishioners are said to speak English as their second language. In Holland, Michigan, the home of the tulip festivals and a daunting number of denominations descended from Dutch Calvinism, Saint Francis de Sales Catholic Church often greets callers with a phone message in both Spanish and English -- and has a special monthly Mass in Vietnamese.

A church that embraces so many different groups inevitably becomes not only a bridge but also a battleground for the culture wars dividing American society. Many of the issues facing Catholicism mirror those of the larger society: anxieties over rapid change, sexuality, gender roles, and the family; a heightening of individualism and distrust of institutions; the tension between inclusiveness and a need for boundaries; a groping for spiritual meaning and identity; doubts about the quality of leadership.

The size and stretch of American Catholicism would have been unthinkable, probably even appalling, to most of the leading citizens of the young United States two centuries ago. At the time of the American Revolution, the twenty-five thousand Catholics in the former colonies constituted but one-tenth of 1 percent of the population, and their church, in the eyes of many of their countrymen, embodied everything that the brash new nation was striving to escape. Catholicism was the hereditary foe of the liberty in whose name the Revolution had been fought. It was the seedbed of superstition and the sworn enemy of Protestant conscience, enlightened reason, and scientific advancement. Worldly, corrupt, and cynical, the Church of Rome was viewed as a stronghold of priestcraft, moral corruption, medieval obscurantism, and monarchical tyranny. New England piety and Enlightenment rationalism, however divided in other respects, could unite on this.

Those Revolutionary-era forebears could scarcely have imagined, certainly not with equanimity, that in a little more than a century, the Catholic Church would become the nation's single largest religious body. On the eve of the nation's bicentennial, Catholicism would be implanted in 18,500 parishes; the church had created a skein of flourishing institutions, with 8,500 elementary schools and 1,600 high schools, 245 colleges and universities, 750 hospitals and health clinics that, along with a network of social services, treated or assisted over 35 million people each year. In many a Northern and Midwestern city, Catholic spires defined neighborhoods the way that Congregational, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist steeples had anchored rural villages and small towns.

What would have assuredly baffled those first generations of Americans even more is the fact that by the middle of the twentieth century, Roman Catholicism, the once alien creed, had become virtually identified with Americanism. In the 1940s and 1950s, there was scarcely a more reliable indicator of being patriotic, it seemed, than being Catholic. It would not be long before the last barrier fell: in 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president.

parHaving confounded the assumptions and expectations of early Americans about Catholicism's American destiny, history now did the same to Catholics. The church had won its vaunted place in the American mainstream by standing apart, by celebrating and inculcating democratic and conventional middle class values, but in its own way -- at arm's length and within its own all-embracing institutions. Now the defensiveness could be relaxed; the permeable membrane with which the church had guarded its members could be officially dissolved. But barely had the American Catholic Church sunk back for a few moments of comfort into the soft upholstery of acceptance than it was thrown into turmoil.

The sources of that turmoil were both internal and external. First and foremost, the Second Vatican Council upended Catholicism's theological and liturgical certainties. But it was the church's fate that such an unprecedented effort at self-scrutiny and renewal coincided with all that was summed up in the shorthand phrase "the sixties." In the United States that meant the civil rights struggle, the rise of a youthful counterculture, and the conflict over Vietnam. The civil rights struggle, although it began in the South, where Catholics were lightly represented, posed painful questions about widespread attitudes and practices to which Catholics had individually and institutionally often accommodated. Eventually the campaign against racial discrimination sent tremors through the urban neighborhoods that had long been Catholic ethnic strongholds. Likewise, the countercultural revolt that dumped the gray flannel suit, "I like Ike," and Leave It to Beaver for drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll struck hard at the moral restraint and respectability that the church had taught to waves of immigrants and their suburban children, sometimes as though equivalent to the gospel itself. Finally, America's engagement in Vietnam, denounced by Catholic priests and church-bred antiwar activists, tore at American Catholics' confidence that their faith and their enthusiastic Americanism coincided.

American Catholicism, in other words, would not have escaped conflict and change even if there had been no Second Vatican Council. Inner-city parishes would have felt the consequences of suburban growth and white flight. The religious patterns of immigrant subcultures would have been frayed by the educational and economic successes of the postwar generations. Catholic marriages, sexual mores, and attitudes about male and female roles would have been shaken by the pill, the sexual revolution, and the women's movement. But the Council magnified the theological repercussions of these developments. It emboldened critics within the church and legitimated new thinking that ultimately touched even the most intimate recesses of spiritual life.

Americans, regardless of their religious loyalties, were fascinated by the Second Vatican Council and by Pope John XXIII, the pontiff who called it against the advice of his Roman bureaucracy. The country had changed since anti-Catholicism contributed to the defeat of Al Smith's 1928 presidential campaign. Non-Catholics had come to appreciate, although still with a trace of envy and foreboding, the size of the church and its place in their communities. At the same time, Catholicism retained for many people an aura of mystery, of the exotic, even of the forbidden or sinister. And for Catholic and non-Catholic alike, the church had come to symbolize unyielding permanence, whether interpreted as an anachronistic obstacle to modern progress or as a solid rock in a convulsive landscape. The Council suddenly revealed the church less as the unmovable rock of Peter than as the barque of Peter, a ship being trimmed and retrimmed to catch breezes and ride out tempests, stanching leaks and undertaking repairs even as it navigated treacherous currents.

What happened in Rome when the world's Catholic bishops gathered in four separate sessions of roughly two months each from 1962 to 1965 summoned up deep feelings about permanence and change, steadfastness and adaptation. Americans also realized that the Council and its aftermath had very practical consequences for their own society. Almost immediately it eased long-standing tensions between Catholics and Protestants and between Catholics and Jews. It promised to alter the tonality of the nation's morals, to create new alliances in civic life, to bring new energies to neighborhoods.

Yet enthusiasm about ecumenism and "aggiornamento" (John XXIII's Italian for "updating") rather quickly turned to talk of "a church in crisis." In the name of the Council, priests and lay leaders were demanding changes that startled bishops and alarmed Rome. Catholic scholars set about digesting two centuries of theological thought and biblical exegesis that church authorities had managed to keep at bay. A drawn-out debate about the church's condemnation of contraception led a papal commission to urge a change in the teaching; and when, after several years of suspense, Pope Paul VI rejected the commission's conclusions, his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, only spurred questioning by the clergy as well as by the laity of the church's moral competence in matters of sexuality. Theologians publicly dissented from official teaching; priests quietly or not so quietly resigned from the priesthood to marry; nuns shed not only their peculiar head-to-foot garb but, in many cases, their traditional roles as schoolteachers and nurses, and not a few left their strife-ridden religious orders altogether.

All these developments were accompanied by volleys of accusations and counteraccusations along with dire predictions from all directions about the church's future. Church authorities had assiduously cultivated the image of a church united in its beliefs; now that image appeared shattered by poll data revealing wide differences between the faithful and official teachings. As the sixties passed into the seventies, moreover, the fact that the church became a leading actor in the bitter national dispute over legalized abortion meant that any evidence that the hierarchy was losing its hold on the flock would inevitably be underlined.

No wonder the word "crisis" was so widely heard. Catholicism in the United States, perhaps as much as anywhere in the world, was being swept by conflicting visions of everything from prayer and morality to the nature of the church, even to the nature of God. The church was prodded and buffeted not only by social movements and political moods but, since 1978, by a papacy that is at once dynamic in its leadership and conservative in its policies.

Every visit of Pope John Paul II to these shores, in 1979, 1987, 1993, and 1995, has been the occasion for taking the church's pulse, blood pressure, and temperature -- and for issuing ominous diagnoses. Yet each time, the crowds and the fervor marking the visits, combined with the documented reservations of many Catholics about the pope's teachings, indicated how difficult it was to pronounce any simple verdict on the current strength and future prospects of American Catholicism.

Quite apart from Catholicism's endurance through two millennia of ups and downs, Catholics were continuing to grow in numbers in the United States. By the end of the century, there were at least 12 million more American Catholics than in the years after the Second Vatican Council. As a percentage of the national population, Catholics had fallen back in some years, rebounded in others, but overall held their own. The record of recent years might be compared unfavorably to Catholic growth rates at earlier points in the century, but it could hardly be viewed as an augur of a diminishing population. The number of students in Catholic schools, having dropped precipitously from the mid-sixties to the 1980s, leveled off and even increased; new schools were started even though the system's underlying finances remained tenuous. And ironically, even as Catholic schools, once the special object of non-Catholic suspicions, struggled for survival, they were increasingly viewed as models of educational effectiveness, particularly for disadvantaged children, and as anchors of inner-city neighborhoods. Likewise, although the gap between the hierarchy's official positions and the views of many Catholics on topics like contraception, divorce, and the restriction of the priesthood to celibate males has continued to widen, the bishops issued pastoral letters in the 1980s that became centerpieces for national debates about the nation's defense policies and the workings of its economy.

The instruments for carrying out these periodic checkups on the health of Catholicism in the United States have been extremely limited. Opinion polls have concentrated on the news media's narrow range of favorite topics -- Catholic views on contraception, abortion, the ordination of women, and a handful of other popular issues. Lurking behind these measuring sticks has usually been the assumption that the church must modernize, become up-to-date, adjust to America -- or fall by the wayside.

I do not accept that assumption, at least not in the form it usually takes. While it would be silly to deny that to be meaningful a faith must have at least some plausible fit with its cultural surroundings, much talk of getting in step with the times cloaks unstated or unexamined beliefs about just what the times require, usually along the lines of accommodation to secular worldviews. That being said, I also do not accept what has increasingly become the opposing assumption: that only religious groups that define themselves sharply and stubbornly in opposition to the prevailing culture are destined to flourish and grow. Both assumptions, although rooted in important truths, are oversimplified and misleading. So are evaluations of American Catholicism based on nostalgia for a Catholic "golden age" of the 1950s.

The starting points for this analysis are somewhat different. First, any honest examination of what might be called "leading Catholic indicators" -- church attendance rates, ratios of priests to people, knowledge of the faith, financial contributions -- reveals a church at risk. On closer examination, some of these trends prove to be more ambiguous and susceptible to varying interpretations than may at first seem the case. Nonetheless, American Catholicism, to put it bluntly, is in trouble. Absent an energetic response by Catholic leadership, a soft slide into a kind of nominal Catholicism is quite foreseeable. Not that Catholics will suddenly flee from the church, repudiate its creed, or spurn the solace to be found when needed in its familiar ministrations. But they will participate in its communal worship and service more and more irregularly and occasionally. Their faith will become an increasingly marginal or superficial part of their identity, bearing less and less on the important choices of their lives -- about work and career and sacrifice on behalf of others, about sex and marriage and how they raise children or forgive their parents for the way they were raised. At the outside, there is even the possibility of a sudden collapse, in a single generation or two -- such as has been seen in Ireland and, earlier, in French Canada -- of what appeared to be a virtually impregnable Catholicism.

Second, although the issues highlighted by the media as crucial to the future of American Catholicism are not unimportant, especially when they are recognized as symptoms of deeper questions, they give a very partial sense of the challenges the church faces. The standard topics -- sex, gender, priest shortage, papal authority -- must be supplemented, even framed, by other concerns, especially questions of worship and spiritual life, of religious education and formation, and above all, of leadership.

Third, just as the assumptions and topics featured in media coverage of American Catholicism have grown frozen over the years, so have the analyses favored by leading figures within the church itself. Liberals and conservatives raise the same fears, make the same complaints, offer the same arguments as they did twenty years ago. Has the world stood still, one wonders, since the Second Vatican Council? Can nothing be concluded from more than three decades of postconciliar experience? Wouldn't it be a remarkable coincidence if liberals were proven right about absolutely everything and conservatives wrong -- or vice versa? The time has come for analyses and recommendations that freely cross liberal-conservative party lines -- and that also seek insight in the experiences of other religious groups.

Fourth, and most important, while the future of the Catholic Church in the United States is by no means sealed, American Catholicism must be seen as entering a crucial window of opportunity -- a decade or so during which this thirty years' war between competing visions is likely to be resolved, fixed in one direction or another or in some sort of compromise for at least a good part of the twenty-first century.

Change, of course, will continue; it always does. But at some moments in history the options narrow; the range of possibilities jells; and barring the jolt of an extraordinary event like the Second Vatican Council, any further breaks in the pattern or changes in direction become painfully difficult and excruciatingly gradual. The Catholic conviction that the church will persevere, in one form or another, until the end of time -- "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18) -- is compatible with both vigorous health and sorry decline. It is compatible with any number of alternative futures, just as it has been compatible with any number of contrasting pasts, eras of disarray and decay no less than eras of growth and influence.

Why do the next ten to twenty years constitute one of those moments when the mold is being set? The answer is that the church is currently and simultaneously negotiating two key transitions.

The first transition is a passage in generations. Already a leadership formed in the dense subculture that characterized American Catholicism before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is being replaced by a leadership formed entirely after the Council, indeed largely in the most tumultuous period immediately following that landmark event. This succeeding leadership generation arrives with new questions but increasingly without old knowledge. And the Catholic generations that follow, the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings now inching their way toward leadership in Catholic thought and institutions, remain a religious blank. They await a definitive religious imprint, whether from the New Age or MTV culture, the media, the Vatican, or rival forms of liberal and conservative Catholicism.

The second transition is the passage from clergy to laity. At every level of Catholic life, from parishes to hospitals and universities, from administering dioceses to providing spiritual counsel, leadership has traditionally been in the hands of priests and nuns -- that is, of people who underwent an intense, shared religious formation and who, because of celibacy, lived almost entirely within the framework of Catholic institutions. The ranks of those people are shrinking. Leadership is steadily passing into the hands of laypeople, and certainly at many levels of church life this change will be permanent. The spiritual, intellectual, and psychological formation of these new lay leaders will be highly diverse; their loyalties (and economic ties) will be to families, communities, professional groups, and so on, in a completely different fashion than was the case with priests and nuns. As the papacy asserts the claims of central authority and uniform norms at the top, the conditions that traditionally allowed that authority to be exerted effectively are disappearing at the bottom. Will these contrary pulls balance one another -- or prove mutually destructive?

The combined effect of these two intersecting transitions will be enormous, but the exact outcome is not predetermined. The transitions will generate a whole series of choices for American Catholics, leaders and faithful, but the future depends on what choices are made, or left to default, as this double passage is negotiated.

So far I have referred to the Catholic Church in the United States or American Catholicism, with only glancing mention of the pope and the Vatican. Obviously, it would be fanciful to suggest that the future of the church here might be determined without regard to the directions and decisions of the church's supreme pontiff. Those decisions will be major determinants of the eventual outcome. And yet to consider the church here (or in other parts of the world) as a passive recipient of papal policy is to misapprehend Catholicism, both theologically and sociologically. American Catholic leaders have repeatedly shaped both the way that papal policy is formulated and the way it is implemented. While this book will recognize the importance of papal initiatives and constraints, the emphasis will be on how the American church responds to them.

This book, it should be made clear, does not aim at plumbing spiritual depths or proposing a new theological vision. If the news media tend to probe Catholicism by means of opinion surveys, there are a plethora of books, usually written by and for Catholic insiders, that diagnose the church's problem and prescribe solutions strictly in terms of spirituality or theology, with scarcely any attention to the nuts and bolts of Catholic life. Whether the perspective is conservative or liberal, the problem is bad spirituality or theology and the answer is good spirituality or theology (the author's). The emphasis here, by contrast, is frankly on the institutional rather than the profoundly spiritual or theological. There is a familiar gibe that Jesus came preaching the gospel and ended up with the church. The gibe expresses an important truth. Love of God and love of neighbor, discipleship, self-emptying service, forgiveness, life led in unending praise and gratitude, life modeled on Jesus' union with the Father, on his call to conversion, on his invitation to a new kingdom, on his teaching, healing, death, and rising -- the church exists not for its own sake but to be the witness, the instrument, the locus of this Spirit-filled sharing in divine glory. In that perspective it is possible to dismiss everything in this book as superficial.

But there is another truth. Even Jesus relied on institutions to announce his message and propel it into the world. He was a Jew, thinking, speaking, and acting within the story of Israel. He spoke the language of that story, and with his followers he took for granted its patriarchs, prophets, practices, and Law. Whether in affirmation or innovation, he observed his covenanted people's holy days, read their scriptures, utilized their sacred spaces, employed their roles and titles. For the institutions of Judaism, it was a time of great flux. But institutions there were, nonetheless, and when Judaism and Christianity went divergent ways in the half century after Jesus' life, it was necessary for the fledgling Jesus movement to evolve its own institutions, often modifications or extensions of the old.

Despite the tendency of people to speak, usually dismissively, of the "institutional church," there is simply no church that is not an institutional church. What other kind could there be? The idea of a noninstitutional church is thought-provoking but also oxymoronic, like a non-food meal or a non-water rainstorm. The Second Vatican Council's description of the Catholic Church as "people of God" may have been attractive precisely because it seemed to minimize the formal structures that had come to burden Catholicism. But it certainly did not abolish them. A people is not a population. A people is not an undifferentiated mass but a group with a sense of itself, a collective memory, a solidarity, an anticipated destiny -- all of which must be preserved in formulas, rituals, written or recited epics, lines of authority, prescribed and proscribed behaviors.

This book focuses on that institutional, practical dimension of Catholicism's life. It does not deny that an institution's vitality may begin in hidden wellsprings of prayer, insight, and mysticism, and that Catholicism's vitality must issue into lives of love, sacrifice, and worship. But every great church renewal has had an institutional expression and every great church failure has institutional sources. Mystical, intellectual, and charitable energies operate within institutional frameworks, indeed sometimes spring from the frustrations of institutional shortcomings. The Catholic Church can succeed as an institution while failing as a church. But it cannot succeed as a church while failing as an institution. That, at least, is the working premise of this book.

Copyright © 2003 by Peter Steinfels

About The Author

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Peter Steinfels, former co-director of the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture, is a university professor at Fordham. He was religion columnist for The New York Times and editor of Commonweal. Steinfels is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (Simon & Schuster, 2003). He lives in New York City.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 29, 2013)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439128411

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Raves and Reviews

Kevin Starr Los Angeles Times Book Review Peter Steinfels is among the most distinguished and respected Catholic commentators in the country....A People Adrift is balanced and judicious.

Alan Wolfe The New Republic The moderation and the heartfelt sincerity on display throughout Steinfels' book constitute, at least for this non-Catholic, an exceptionally persuasive defense of Catholicism as the church goes through its difficult days.

David O'Brien National Catholic Reporter Peter Steinfels is uniquely qualified by his experience, his access to sources and his journalist's professionalism to survey the state of contemporary American Catholicism.

Garry Wills The New York Times Steinfels' balance makes all the more unsettling the harsh conclusions he draws, in his quiet voice, from looking at every aspect of Catholic life....[A] disturbing book.

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