A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920.
By Michael McGerr.
Free Press. 395 pp. $30.
When historians get ambitious, they often get into trouble. In A Fierce Discontent, Michael McGerr has gathered an impressive amount of information about the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century. (The date in his subtitle is puzzling: the origins of Progressivism are imprecise, but no one has ever traced them back to 1870.) He does not ignore political and economic developments, but he pays special attention to social issues, including, as he says in his preface, “the transformation of gender relations, the regeneration of the home, the disciplining of leisure and pleasure, and the establishment of segregation.” But it is precisely here that his troubles begin. He has intermittently interesting things to say about all of these things, but about none of them does he establish his thesis—which is that Progressivism was a radical and utopian project. On his own evidence, Progressives neither accomplished nor attempted what he says they did. Most of them were not radicals on gender relations or household arrangements, and they most certainly did not establish segregation (it had started well before them and was in any case not something peculiar to them). As for “the disciplining of leisure and pleasure,” it is hard to know, after the author’s obscure analysis and bewildering backing and forthing, just what precisely he has in mind. On political topics he is more conventional and more sensible: the Progressives sought to control big business and to end class conflict. But his key analytical model here, presented as a novel insight—that Progressivism was a movement of the middle class caught between perceived threats from the upper class above and the laboring and farming classes below—has been a commonplace of historiographical analysis since the 1950s. Then there is the tacked-on conclusion: that all of American politics, ever since the Progressives, has been a dispiriting and disappointing enterprise, precisely because, for better and worse, it has not lived up to the Progressives’ utopian dreams. But that makes no sense, neither as to what the Progressives—pragmatic reformers that they mostly were—had in mind nor as to what their widely various successors, many of them much more radical than they, dreamed of accomplishing. Advice to readers: garner the data, ignore the analysis.
The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.
By David Carlin.
Sophia. 421 pp. $24.95
“But I am not utterly without hope.” Such are the very last words of the book, indicating the bleakness of this assessment of the present plight and probable future of Catholicism in America. Carlin is a sociologist, journalist, and sometime Democratic politician who here wears his sociologist hat in analyzing why a once robust American Catholicism has in the past forty years reached its current state of demoralization, decline, and disarray. The recent sex scandals play a relatively small part in the story and are represented as indicative of larger dynamics created by the mistakes in implementing Vatican II at a time when newly affluent and confident Catholics were engaging a culture that was in the process of self-destructing. Until the Council, anti-Protestantism gave Catholics a strong identity, and the renewal of that identity requires a new enemy. Carlin nominates “secularism” for that role. At the same time, Catholics should give up the delusion that they number sixty-five million or more in America, and the bishops should concentrate on equipping for the fight the less than half that number who are real Catholics. As an orthodox Catholic, the author does not want to dissent from the Church’s teaching on ecumenism, while he believes that it has created a “denominational” mindset in which the Catholic Church is but one church among others. This, he contends, is fatal for the future of Catholicism. Against those who he thinks rely too complacently on Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail, Carlin points out that there is no promise that the Church in America will not fail or be reduced to a small and defensive enclave devoid of cultural influence. The author provides no new documentation in support of his relentlessly grim essay, but the fair-minded reader will appreciate the frequent insights about the social and cultural currents that have contributed to Catholicism’s now long-standing discontents. Missing from his assessment are the countersigns of renewal and the promising directions pointed by John Paul II which play such a large part in, for instance, George Weigel’s The Courage to Be Catholic, which covers most of the same territory. Carlin describes himself as the Ghost of the Catholic Future who, like the Ghost of Christmas Future, says to Scrooge, “Such and such will happen, Ebenezer, if you do not amend your life.” The such and such in this case is that “Catholicism will fail in America, or will at least be reduced to little more than a culturally irrelevant remnant.” As is the case with jeremiads, The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America sometimes exaggerates and distorts, but it is, all in all, a cautionary tale that should be heeded by bishops, priests, theologians, and lay leaders responsible for the future of Catholicism in America. That future, however, will require leadership that is able to muster a sense of promise and possibility that is not limited to being “not utterly without hope.”
Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism.
By Abraham H. Foxman.
HarperSanFrancisco. 305 pp. $24.95
In his foreword, Elie Wiesel says this book “is written with understandable urgency.” That is a great understatement. In fact, it is a scissors-and-paste job of outrages real and imagined in the service of a screed that displays the Anti-Defamation League and its director Abraham Foxman as reckless alarmists who play fast and loose with the truth. Page after page, Mr. Foxman fights bigotry with bigotry, innuendo, and outright falsehood. Large sections portray contemporary anti-Semitism as a phenomenon of the right, with a full chapter given to a vicious caricature of “the religious right,” when in fact anti-Israel and overtly anti-Jewish passions today are more than equally on the left. Foxman lists William F. Buckley, Jr. and Al Sharpton side by side as people who are to be carefully watched for their “latent anti-Semitism.” Anybody familiar with Mr. Buckley’s lifelong effort to extirpate anti-Semitism from the conservative movement will recognize the slander. Christians who honor the Jewish dead of the Holocaust are “making them into honorary Christian martyrs—as if forcibly converting them after death.” Foxman grudgingly admits, “On the whole, John Paul II has been an important force for good where Jewish-Catholic relations are concerned.” This comes after pages of smearing the Catholic Church and Christianity in general in a manner worthy of James Carroll, author of the thoroughly discredited Constantine’s Sword. (The dust jacket includes a warm endorsement by Carroll.) Then, of course, there is a diatribe against Mel Gibson, who is falsely depicted as an eccentric who denies, inter alia, the legitimacy of the pope and whose film The Passion of the Christ “will try to revive the traditional charge of deicide against the Jews.” Millions of children, says Foxman, who certainly had not seen the film when his book was written, “will absorb the lesson that Jews are ‘Christ killers.’ It’s a belief that has already been responsible for countless deaths.” And so Mr. Foxman’s angry tract goes on and on. Anti-Semitism is always to be taken seriously, and the new strength of anti-Semitism in Europe is cause for deepest concern. Regrettably, this book might end up by persuading a reader who is not familiar with the history or literature that the enemies of anti-Semitism are infected by the same spirit of fanaticism and conspiracy-mongering that they claim to be combating. It is a great sadness.
By Peter J. Leithart.
Canon. 154 pp. $13 paper.
Readers familiar with Leithart’s lively pieces in these pages will not be disappointed by this little book. Kierkegaard said he wanted to introduce Christianity to Christendom. Leithart proposes overthrowing Christianity on behalf of communal fidelity that aims at something like Christendom. In this he takes the side of Oliver O’Donovan against the likes of Hauerwas and Yoder who are, for all their antiliberal rhetoric, good liberals. Or so says Leithart. Written in an engaging and aphoristic style, Against Christianity is a splendid little dustup that will be of particular interest to those familiar with the main players and their arguments.
The First Christian: Universal Truth in the Teachings of Jesus.
By Paul F. M. Zahl.
Eerdmans. 138 pp. $16 paper.
The first Christian of the title is, according to the author, Jesus himself. Writing against the current theological grain, Zahl, who is an Episcopalian theologian and pastor, contends for a decontextualization of Jesus and his teachings. Too much attention, he believes, is now paid to the Jewish and particularistic aspects of Jesus at the expense of universal truths, the chief of which is that all are called to repentance. A short and provocative book reminiscent of Kierkegaard in substance, if not style, and emphatically unsympathetic to Catholicism.
Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal.
By David France.
Broadway. 672 pp. $26.95.
The author covered the sex abuse crisis for Newsweek and has produced a big book, mainly about people and events in Boston, that will hold the attention of readers interested in a journalistic account that tries to be fair-minded, although it is not untouched by moments of legitimate, indeed necessary, outrage. Despite the subtitle, no secrets are revealed that have not been in the headlines.
Running from the Devil: A Memoir of a Boy Possessed.
By Steve Kissing.
Crossroad. 256 pp. $22.95
A quirky account of a Catholic boyhood in Cincinnati in the 1970s, turning on the author’s seizures, which he took to be visitations by Satan. This is not another Catholic horror story of sadistic knuckle-rapping nuns but a basically affectionate tale of the religious imagination running wild through the wildnesses of growing up. The author concludes that growing up Catholic was, all in all, a blessing. Definitely worth a look.
Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery.
By Gregory Wolfe.
Square Halo. 172 pp. $9.99.
A collection of brief essays by the editor of Image, a distinguished journal of religion and the arts. A nice mix of the whimsical, provocative, and devout, as befits the variegated subject.
On the Priesthood: Classic and Contemporary Texts.
Edited by Matthew Levering.
Rowman & Littlefield. 148 pp. $19.95 paper.
Fifteen judiciously chosen reflections on the priesthood, from Clement of Rome to John Paul II. An excellent gift for a priest of your acquaintance who may, from time to time, feel beleaguered or bewildered about what it means to be a priest.
A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist.
By Dom Anscar Vonier.
Zaccheus Press. 196 pp. $12.95
A reprint of a popular 1920s book by a British author who was part of that glowing era of Catholic letters. Avery Cardinal Dulles says this “is one of the few classics in Catholic theology composed in English.” It also carries a recommendation by Richard John Neuhaus and a preface by Peter Kreeft. And, if it matters, this lowly reviewer found it as fine a reflection as they say it is.
The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War.
By Elisabeth Sifton.
Norton. 367 pp. $26.95.
The serenity prayer composed by Reinhold Niebuhr, now most commonly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, is the hook for an effusively admiring biographical memoir by Niebuhr’s daughter, a New York editor. Regrettably, the book will likely to do little to revive interest in the impressive thought of a man who helped shape American religion, culture, and politics over more than three decades, providing a “Christian realist” alternative to Marxist socialism in the 1930s and to religious pacifism in the years leading up to World War II. In Sifton’s telling, however, “the ambiguities of history” (a favorite trope of Niebuhr’s) are reduced to good liberals vs. bad conservatives, good liberal Protestants vs. bad fundamentalist Protestants, and all good people vs. the absurdities of the Catholic Church. Yet for readers of a certain age the book will undoubtedly provide nostalgic pleasures recalling the time when there was a Liberal Protestant Establishment and Reinhold Niebuhr was its prophet.
The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council.
By Andrew Greeley.
University of California Press. 236 pp. $24.95
Father Greeley—sociologist, novelist, and, as he likes to say, a general purpose loudmouth Irish priest— offers a once-over-scathingly ac-count of what has happened to Catholicism in the last forty years, and what might be done to fix it. Greeley is appropriately critical of authoritarian patterns of leadership, casually dissenting on aspects of the Church’s teaching (notably on sexuality), delightfully acerbic on the terrorism perpetrated by liturgists, and pastorally wise about things that can be done to make parish life more winsomely reflective of what he likes to call the Catholic imagination.
Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey.
By David Horowitz.
Spence. 450 pp. $29.95
A megacollection of writings from over four decades of intense political-ideological engagement. The author of the acclaimed memoir Radical Son is described as a “convert” to conservatism and, as in his Marxist days as a leader of the New Left, he continues the policy of taking no prisoners. Horowitz, however, also believes in engaging opposing views—sometimes if only to demolish them—and this book provides an informed overview of many of the most important ideological clashes informing and deforming our political culture. The question Horowitz relentlessly asks is, Whose side are you on? Those who want to take their stand here but also a little bit over there, who identify intelligence with complexification, and who believe truths are never simple would benefit by reading Horowitz but probably won’t. Too bad.