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Book Review

Linda Brandi Cateura: Catholics USA: Makers of a Modern Church.  New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989.  336 pp.

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Describing the Catholic Church in the United States is as complex as describing a political party.  The platform has as many angles as members, and in the end how one describes it tells more than what one says.

To describe the American Catholic Church, Linda Brandi Cateura has written a book about 25 American Catholics.  The chapters are responses to interviews, written without questions in essay form.  The book strolls through a portrait gallery of contemporary American Catholics.  Predictably, their views of the same Church diverge.  A fortiori the book serves the overall impression that the Catholic Church in the United States is not so much a harmonious choir as a cacophony of opinions.

For such an ambitious project, Cateura has gathered an impressive array of subjects: Edward Kennedy, Mother Angelica, Alexander Haig, J. Peter Grace, and Mario Cuomo to name a few.  By drawing from the worlds of religion, politics, business, and everyday life, the author compiles a book which will appeal to many.  “The spiritual concerns that any religion deals with,” she explains in her introduction, “are concerns that affect us all.”

Cateura takes pains to make the book accessible to readers unfamiliar with the Catholic Church.  Biographical data introduce each subject along the way, and she parenthetically explains Catholic jargon.  These features help, but they also render the large readership undefined.

Although Cateura has interviewed her subjects in standard question/answer format, she typically omits her questions and prints the responses in essay form.  This style makes her more editor than author.  It also causes her to parenthetically describe gestures which jar the style.  Is this an essay or is it an interview?  The ersatz essay style makes the reading jerky, prompting one to wonder what question provoked this response.

Several times Cateura includes a speech from one of her subjects.  The speeches break the unity of the book’s style but they do contribute to its information.

Cateura’s effort is populist more than theological.  She wants her material understandable to the public, not just to professionals in religion.  Although this makes a more readable book, it also makes a less accurate one.  Some terms are incorrect.  (Bishops are ordained, not inaugurated.)  Some data are misinformed.  (Kansas City has more than one black parish.)  Some opinions are disputable.  (Who says “inner doubts. . . are not uncommonly the secret burden of a priest’s life”?)

Of local interest, one interviewer reports on Kansas City’s one parish administered not by a priest, but by a layman (Bro. Terry McGlennon at Guardian Angels Church in Westport.)

Readers will learn much – e.g., which prominent Americans are Catholics and who was responsible for what revolutionary idea.  The book provides an intimate look at that most private possession Americans of the “my” generation harbor – their faith.

Cateura is right about this: To describe a Church, it’s best to describe its people.  A political party may be judged by its platform, but a Church will be judged by its members.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Key, c. 1989.

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