James M. O'Toole, The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America, Cambridge (Mass.), Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2008, 376 pages.
SUBJECT AND THEME. To completely know what a thing is we should study how the thing came to be. In large part, describing the development of today's Catholic laity is the task of Catholic historian James M. O'Toole in writing The New Faithful: A History of Catholics in America. Through six periods, beginning with the colonial, he describes the ever-changing mass of laymen.
In O'Toole's terms, the laity of the Church are the 99% of the Catholic movement, the followers of the Church, the "sheep" guided by the priestly shepherds. (p. 3) The hierarchy are the 1% of the Church; they are the individuals—the priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes—who are mystically ordained to perform sacred tasks such as conducting a Mass, receiving a confession, and giving "last rites" to the dying. O'Toole discusses the hierarchy of the Church, as an institution within the Catholic movement, but only to the extent that the laity interact with them.
Because O'Toole focuses on the laity, he is writing an unconventional form of religious history. Most such books focus on a history of theology, the central institutions, or the most prominent members of the hierarchy. O'Toole profiles the masses. (pp. 2-3) He asks (pp. 4-6) three main questions about the Catholic community at each of the six phases of its history in the USA:
1. What is the size and structure of the Catholic community? This question covers points such as the number of priests relative to the number of laity; the number of Catholic schools; and the availability of Catholic charity. The first two points, I think, affect the dissemination of the Church's message on reason and mysticism. The last point involves motivation. The Church is an intensely social institution; it is a place where members can gather, share the company of like-minded individuals, and aid one another through charity.
2. What did Catholics emphasize as the core of being Catholic in dealing with this world and in preparing for the supernatural world? At each historical stage, did the laity stress individual spiritual growth, communal sacraments such as Mass, or "Catholic action," that is, organized efforts to change the social and political world around them?
3. What was the relationship between the American laity and the pope? The relationship has been a sort of "double helix." The laity in America has been changing, often independently of the popes, who were losing political power in Europe but gaining greater theological and personal influence within the Catholic world.
O'Toole is not writing an advertisement for the Catholic Church. He faces defects in the Church movement where he sees them. One example is a phase of the history of the papacy, a phase in which some popes rejected innovations.
Popes [in the early 1800s] were also steadily more enthusiastic in their denunciations of the "rejected innovators" of modern life. Gregory XVI even condemned the new technology of railroads, punning that these chemins de fer ("roads of iron") … were chemins d'enfer ("roads to hell"). … Possibly worse [than freedom of conscience in religion], he thought, was "that deadly freedom that cannot be sufficiently feared, the freedom of the press." (p. 89)
THE AUTHOR. At Boston College, a Catholic school, Professor O’Toole teaches courses in the history of American religion, particularly Catholicism. His special interests are the history of religious practice and popular devotional life. O'Toole's own religious position appears to be the middle ground between the emotionalist and the intellectualist streams of Catholicism. I infer from reading his book that his own position is stated in his description of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), a Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence:
Here was a religion neither of extreme emotions—the screwed up faces and grimaces of enthusiastic revivals held little appeal—nor of so bloodless a rationalism that God disappeared altogether and faith became mere fiction. (p. 36)
STRUCTURE. For each of the six periods, O'Toole describes a particular individual who lived in that period and in some ways represents its Catholic culture. (p. 3) For example, Ch. 1, "The Priestless Church," begins by saying:
Roger Hanly lived with his wife and six children in Bristol, Maine, at the time of the American Revolution. … Roger and his brother Patrick had come there from Ireland about 1770, and they found community with other Irish families, the Kavanaughs and the Cottrills. They wanted to preserve their ancestral Catholic faith, but that was not easy. Much later, they were able to erect a small brick church …. Building it was a genuine act of faith, maybe a foolhardy one, for it was rare that a priest wandered through the region to conduct any services. (p. 11)
O'Toole begins with the Hanly family, broadens to cover other Catholics in the colonies, and then shows the influence that the broader, non-Catholic society had on Catholics—for example, the secular virtue of independence that encouraged local Church supporters, rather than a distant Catholic hierarchy, to organize and fund their own local religious activities.
Readers will see not only a tapestry of Catholics in the USA changing as the generations pass, but also particular revealing threads. One thread, for example, is the author's mention, at each stage, the size of the Catholic population—from less than 1% before the Revolution to about 2% fifty years later, in 1830; a steady rise to about 25% in the mid-twentieth century; and then stagnation. Since then US born Catholics have been declining in number as some Catholics have fewer children and other Catholics leave the Church. So far, Catholic immigrants have barely compensated for those losses.
Another highlighted thread in the tapestry is the stature of the papacy. The papacy declined in its political strength after the French Revolution, but its role within the Catholic Church has grown, in part by appealing not merely through the bishops but directly to Catholic laymen in mass communications. (pp. 44-49, as one example)
In his typically understated manner, O'Toole also makes clear that one of the characteristics of Catholicism distinguishing it from most Protestants was Catholic emphasis on "churchifying," that is, regularly participating in or observing rituals. Mystics of this type are thus as concerned with orthopraxy ("correct practice") as they are about orthodoxy ("correct beliefs, teachings"). The central practice remains the Mass, particularly the Eucharist, in which an ordained priest—that is, someone specially designated through the mysticism of tradition—performs a supernatural act: Bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. (pp. 177-178, but also the many listings under "Mass" in the index.)
Thus, though O'Toole is not writing a history of ideas, a careful reader throughout the book sees the footprints of the supernaturalism, mysticism, altruism, and statism that are the fundamental principles of Catholicism.
AUDIENCE. O'Toole is a skillful narrator. He writes to readers—Catholic or not—who want to understand both the enduring nature and the evolving nature of Catholicism in the USA. Non-Catholics can learn the basic elements of Catholicism from reading this book. O'Toole casually explains Catholic terms as he progresses. For example:
Observance of Lent, for instance, the period of forty days immediately before Easter in the spring, had for centuries emphasized penitence and self-denial, and Catholics paid particular attention to dietary practices during those weeks. Some foods were prohibited, and Catholics were urged to limit their intake of all food and drink as a reminder of the sufferings of Jesus during his last days on earth. (p. 23)
CONCLUSION. Pro-reason readers who want a clearer understanding of contemporary society in the USA, including the Catholic quarter, will benefit from a careful reading of O'Toole's The Faithful. Pro-reason activists who want to learn from the activist techniques of their Catholic opponents will see a range of successes and failures employed by the largest mystical movement in the USA. Pro-reason activists who are specializing in tracking and confronting the Catholic Church itself will find an informative start here.
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here.
 For an academic profile of Professor O'Toole: http://www.bc.edu/schools/cas/history/faculty/alphabetical/otoole_james.html.