American Catholics through the Twentieth Century: Spirituality, Lay Experience, and Public Life

By Cunningham, Lawrence S. | Commonweal, October 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

American Catholics through the Twentieth Century: Spirituality, Lay Experience, and Public Life


Cunningham, Lawrence S., Commonweal


American Catholics through the Twentieth Century: Spirituality, Lay Experience, and Public Life Claire E. Wolfteich Crossroad, $24.95, 212 pp.

In a scant 180 pages, Claire Wolfteitch tries to trace the emergence of the American Catholic laity in the twentieth century and to set out a statement of lay spirituality. The book is organized around five large themes: a brief survey of the evolution of the term "lay" and of lay spirituality in history; lay movements in the United States before the Second Vatican Council (our own beloved Commonweal takes pride of place); the issue of Catholics in the public sphere; the rise of lay spirituality and its connection to family life, birth control, divorce, and other difficult issues; the tension in the public sphere illustrated by the friction between figures like Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro and the late Cardinal John O'Connor over the question of abortion policy; and a final chapter on lay spiritualities.

In plain English, Wolfteich takes us rapidly from the post-World War I church to Call to Action. This is a well-trod path and most of the controversies are familiar: the pacifism of Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez's blend of religious practice and social action, John F. Kennedy's privatization of religious belief, etc. The final section on lay spirituality is a pastiche of elements from a number of sources (the charismatics, monastic renewal, and others).

In the end, this is a rather disappointing study, because in its hurry it leaves out too much. The sections on the development of a contemporary lay spirituality are superficial, and are not grounded in works that have near-canonical status, such as Congar's work on the laity.

More important, Wolfteich tells a very one-sided story. While I am an unapologetic "Commonweal Catholic," there is a vigorous body of conservative Catholics who never get a whisper here. They range from the writers in the decidedly odd Wanderer (lay founded and lay edited) to the occasionally interesting but generally cranky pages of the New Oxford Review and Crisis (both lay founded), to say nothing of the public intellectuals who serve as court theologians for corporate America. …

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