The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America

by James M. O’Toole
Harvard University Press, 384 pages, $27.95

The ideological pretentiousness often found in the fever swamps of contemporary social history is easily dismissed as so much Marxist exhaust. A more modest approach to reading history from the bottom up can, however, illuminate the past by focusing on the loves, loyalties, and quotidian practices of ordinary folk. Done right, that kind of social history can even unravel seemingly settled schemes of “how things were.” A classic example is Eamon Duffy’s 1992 The Stripping of the Altars, which, by demonstrating from parish records the remarkable tenacity of Catholic popular piety in Tudor England, fundamentally altered the study of the English ­Reformation.

James O’Toole’s new volume, The Faithful, won’t achieve anything nearly so grand in the field of Catholic history in America. Still, the book is an interesting supplement to the grand-sweep, classic Catholic historiography pioneered by Peter Guilday in the 1920s and continued in our time by John Tracy Ellis and James Hennesey. In fact, if someone were to marry an O’Toole-like exploration of the way in which American Catholics actually lived their faith to the classic Guilday–Ellis story line (which focuses on great episcopal leaders, Catholic institution-building, and the American Church’s struggles with anti-Catholic bigotry and Roman incomprehension), the result would be something that has never existed: a comprehensive, engaging telling of the American Catholic story in all its many-splendored and much-tattered complexity.

O’Toole, the Clough Millennium Professor of ­History at Boston College, nearly ignores the prelate-centered, bricks-and-mortar institutional tale in order to reimagine the story of American Catholicism as the story of “the faithful.” He divides his study into six (sometimes overlapping) periods, each symbolized by a paradigmatic lay figure of that era. The first four of these explorations are full of fascinating and evocative detail. To those who know only the Church after ­Vatican II, a lot of that detail will seem not so much quaint as utterly foreign.

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George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.