Catholics Other Than the Pope

March 19, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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If, like me, you are getting reaaaaally tired of hearing about the new pope and the Vatican, you may enjoy my review of three new books about Catholics. It appeared in the most recent edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.


Sacred Dread: Raissa Maritain, the Allure of Suffering, and the French Catholic Revival, by Brenna Moore. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013). 293 pp. Paper, $30; e-book, $21.

Raised by the Church: Growing Up in New York City’s Catholic Orphanages, by Edward Rohs and Judith Estrine. (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2012).  238 pp. Hardbound, $22.95.

Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church, by Timothy Matovina. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012). 312 pp. Hardbound, $29.95; e-book, $16.19.

In recent years, what with attacks by the Vatican and the hierarchy on US sisters, affordable health care, and lgbt equality, it hasn’t always been easy to remain Catholic.  But as the three books reviewed here demonstrate, the Catholic tradition, past and present, is no less enriching for all of that—growing, changing, providing insight into vital issues.

I begin with Sacred Dread, Brenna Moore’s study of the French philosopher, mystic, and Jewish convert to Catholicism, Raissa Maritain, and the French Catholic Revival (1905-1950) of which she was a part. Moore is one of a cadre of young Catholic feminist scholar here in the New York metropolitan area (among them, Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Elena Procario-Foley, and Julie Byrne) making significant contributions to Catholic studies. Moore’s book introduces readers to the extraordinary work of a woman who has, for the most part, been eclipsed by her husband, the French Catholic neo-Thomist philosopher, Jacques Maritain. I was reminded throughout the book of how much the female member of this pair has been overshadowed by the male: whenever I read “Maritain,” I would think of Jacques, and then remember that the book is actually about Raissa.

The central question of Sacred Dread, as Moore tells us, is “How did suffering and anguish achieve such a prominent presence in so many French Catholic revival  works, and how can this fascination with suffering be understood.” Feminist theologians like Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock have in recent years condemned the Christian doctrine of vicarious suffering. But the French Catholic Revival, spearheaded by figures such as Leon Bloy, Charles de Foucauld, Charles Peguy, Simone Weil, and Maritain herself, had an enormous and in many respects positive impact on American Catholicism, suffering and all.

Moore’s analysis does not ignore the problematic side of the Revival’s focus on suffering and abasement, for example, its use of Jews and women as the primary figures of such suffering. But it also places this focus in an historical and social context that does the phenomenon far more justice than do blanket liberal feminist condemnations. Even before the horrors of the two world wars, French Catholics were turning to the suffering of Jesus and Mary as an alternative to the naïve optimism of nineteenth century Romanticism and scientific positivism. Maritain was a Russian Jew who emigrated to Paris at the age of ten and turned, at the Sorbonne, from liberal secularism to a vision of this “sacred dread” that sustained her through the extermination of European Jewry. Moore’s reading of the life of this remarkable woman adds much-needed nuance to liberal feminist scholarship on Christianity.

In 1946—not long after Maritain and her husband returned to Paris from their exile in New York City—the  unmarried mother of newborn Edward Rohs left him on the steps of a Sisters of Mercy orphanage in Brooklyn.  Raised by the Church is a memoir of the next nineteen years of “Ed’s” life, as he moves up through the post-war Catholic orphanage system, and of what becomes of him after he leaves. Interwoven with this personal narrative is the history of the child welfare system in New York.

Compared with Brenna Moore’s sophisticated analysis of Raissa Maritain, Rohs’s memoir is almost innocent, but I enjoyed every word of it.   A resident of five different orphanages in the gender and age-segregated New York Catholic orphanage system, Rohs shares his experiences in a moving, deeply personal style. Early in the narrative, for example, he reports his shock at the disappearance of mother figures when he moved up from orphanages staffed by Catholic sisters to those staffed by brothers. For the rest of her life, he treated one of the Sisters of Mercy from his childhood, Sister Johanna McLaughlin, like the beloved aunt he never had.

Perhaps most striking, for me, are the stories Rohs tells of an experience of physical and sexual abuse by a lay counselor in one of the orphanages and of attempted sexual abuse by a visiting Catholic brother at another orphanage when he was a bit older. Although Rohs admits to experiencing both trauma and rage in response to the first case, (less so to the second), he is ultimately forgiving, if not of the perpetrators, then of the institutions in which they acted. With regard to treatment by the sadistic lay counselor, Rohs writes, “”these memories are wrapped within the larger context of a child being raised in an environment that lacked sufficient staff trained to listen and respond to me.” Rohs went on to work in the Catholic orphanage system himself, and later, as a professional in the New York State Office of Mental Health. Writing of the violence experienced by young people in the New York state system, Rohs describes his own isolated incidents of abuse at the hands of people who were supposed to protect him as “peanuts.”

The chronological structure of this review, and even the subtitle of Timothy Matovina’s book—Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church—might lead a reader to assume that “Latino Catholicism” is a contemporary phenomenon. And indeed, that’s what many of us think: all these Hispanic immigrants came to the US in the twentieth century, the way the Germans, the Irish and the Italians did in the nineteenth. But as Matovina clarifies immediately, there were Spanish-speaking Catholics in the territory that is now the US four decades before the English founded Jamestown, and seven before the first English Catholic settlement in Baltimore. And nativists were killing Spanish-speaking priests in the Southwest even as they were burning down white-ethnic Catholic churches and convents in the Northeast before the Civil War.

But it’s the present as well as the past that drives Matovina to call for—and enact—a remapping of American Catholicism in light of the mutual transformation of the US Church by Anglo and Spanish-speaking members.  For, as we learn, forty-five per cent of all Millennial Catholics (born between 1979 and 1987) are Latinos, as are two-thirds of Catholics under the age of thirty-five who attend church regularly. If we are concerned about the future of the church, then, it is crucial to absorb what Matovina tells us about Hispanic church leadership; parishes and apostolic movements like Cursillo; worship and devotional practices to Our Lady of Guadalupe and others; Latino involvement in Catholic networks of education, health care, social service, ministry, pastoral training and publications; as well as how Hispanic Catholics are passing on the faith to the next generation. It is impossible, in a review of this length, to do justice to the sweeping and comprehensive study of the Catholicism of Spanish-speaking Americans past and present that Matovina offers in Latino Catholicism. I was struck, however, as I worked my way through his nuanced arguments, by the extent to which the future of Latino Catholicism is threatened by problems that also undermine the rest of the American church. Matovina argues convincingly, for example, that the future of US Latino Catholicism, in large part, will be determined by the quality of Hispanic ministry, especially to Hispanic youth—pastoral juvenil. And studies show that the most effective youth ministries are led by paid pastoral staff. But the vast majority of Latino ministers in the US Catholic Church are deacons, who are, by definition, not paid, and by women, who for the most part earn lay ministry certificates because they can’t afford the academic ministry degrees generally required for paid positions. In 2006 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops likewise replaced its Hispanic ministry office with a less well-funded office of “cultural diversity.” Why all this underfunding of the future of US Catholicism? Because of the costs of the sex abuse crisis, as well as the lost contributions of alienated former Catholics and of Latino Catholics who are joining evangelical churches in significant numbers.

This depressing conclusion is not what you may have anticipated from a review that begins by referring to the “enriching” Catholic tradition. But difficulty, and even betrayal, have always been part of that tradition. I can do no better, then, than to close with the final lines of Latino Catholicism, the words of San Antonio Archbishop Patricio Flores:

“’Let us not falter,’ the Lord told his apostles when they struggled against the  winds. He tells us, now that we are in mid-sea, ‘Courage, do not be afraid. It is I.’”

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