Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Maureen K. DayApril 03, 2020
Seven Catholic peace activists were arrested at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia April 5, 2018. The protesters said they took the action to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and to repent for the sin of white supremacy that guides U.S. military policy. (CNS photo/Kings Bay Plowshares).

For 15 years I have enjoyed the numerous books by the sociologist Sharon Erickson Nepstad that examine religious social movements that work for peace and justice. Her latest, Catholic Social Activism: Progressive Movements in the United States, explores the ways American Catholics have championed worker justice, peace, feminism, liberation theology, immigrants and environmentalism. Drawing upon historical texts and many other sources, Catholic Social Activism brings readers a thorough and complex history of recent Catholic activism in the United States.

Catholic Social Activism by Sharon Erickson Nepstad

NYU Press

224p, $30

Some of the efforts, like the sanctuary and immigration movements, showed a great deal of cooperation between lay Catholics and the church hierarchy. Others, like women’s movements and liberation theology, have been contested; at times the laity’s activism leads the hierarchy into eventual engagement and at other times they remain at loggerheads. This lay-magisterium interaction is central to her book, and Nepstad tells a compelling story.

To suggest a critique of Nepstad’s book, it is, with important exceptions, a story of white Catholics. I know of many black and Hispanic parishes engaging in justice work in their communities. Including some of the parish- and diocesan-scale efforts that do not enjoy the national visibility of the groups Nepstad chronicles would have helped to illuminate their efforts.

Drawing upon historical texts and many other sources, Catholic Social Activism brings readers a thorough and complex history of recent Catholic activism in the United States.

Nepstad concludes the book by offering five themes learned through her observations. Exploring the first of these, she asserts that charity is not sufficient; socially engaged Catholics must work toward structural change. This book also demonstrates the power of collective action, as well as the costs of significant personal sacrifice: not only countless hours but also many people imprisoned—some even losing their lives.

It is much easier and more rewarding to engage in works of mercy, in which we see the immediate fruits of our efforts: one more jacket for a warmer body, a lovingly prepared meal for a full belly. But Nepstad demonstrates the Catholicity of justice work and might inspire readers to such work even when their efforts fall short of a clear victory.

The rigor and breadth of Nepstad’s research and analysis makes this an excellent book for academic courses. Yet the page-turning readability also makes it valuable for everyday Catholics who look to deepen their understanding of Catholic social teaching and how our church has enacted it.

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

City and state/province, or if outside Canada or the U.S., city and country. 
When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.

The latest from america

In her new book, '(R)evolutionary Hope: A Spirituality of Encounter and Engagement in an Evolving World,' Kathleen Bonnette has brought St. Augustine’s philosophy into dialogue with 21st-century reality in ways that would impress even modern mindfulness gurus and internet pundits.
Michael T. RizziJune 27, 2024
In 'The West,' Naoíse Mac Sweeney tackles the history of the idea of the West through 14 portraits of both famous (Herodotus and Gladstone) and lesser-known historical figures (Phillis Wheatley and Tullia d’Aragona).
Joseph P. CreamerJune 27, 2024
In 'Who’s Afraid of Gender?,' Judith Butler contends that the contemporary backlash to “gender” is an attempt to recapture the transforming power structure and return to the (days when it was simple to use gender to organize power in the world.
Brianne JacobsJune 27, 2024
In 'Incarnating Grace: A Theology of Healing From Sexual Trauma,' Julia Feder is not only concerned with rejecting dangerous theological projects that have misled (and mistreated) survivors; she is also keen to plumb the depths of the Christian tradition more positively, for resources that offer
Karen Peterson-IyerJune 27, 2024