I should have been required to read a book like this the summer before I began studying theology for ordination. That was my thought as I read Arthur Jones’s breezy but compelling new book on U.S. Catholicism. It certainly constitutes required reading for anyone contemplating ministry in the North American Catholic world these days. Jones, editor-at-large for the National Catholic Reporter and a firsthand observer of the U.S. Catholic scene since Vatican II, here offers a lively account of where we’re at from an arresting vantage point.. What follows, he tells his readers at the outset, is a book that takes its stand somewhere between [the years] 2010 and 2040, and looks backwards to today. Rather than just reporting where we’re atthough this book mainly does thatit takes today’s information, trajects it, follows the trends or tensions, and speculates on what these represent in the future. The result is a lively, journalistic series of reflections on the current North American Catholic soul from the not-so-distant future.
The new Catholics of the book’s title refer to those under-45 Americans who have grown up Catholic after the dramatic changes of Vatican II and who represent the future of the Catholic community in the next century. This group, Jones states, is crucially important to monitor and understand, because the U.S. today, shudder at the thought though we ought, is what and where much of the world will be tomorrow. U.S. Catholicism is the harbinger, the precursor, of much that happens in the early decades of the new millennium.
Beginning with Evelyn Waugh’s report on the American church published in Life magazine in 1949, Jones looks back to the Second Vatican Council, the changes in the liturgy on the parochial level that defined the final 25 years of the 20th century, and then offers an insightful chapter on the Pastor and Parish Today, in which he records field reports from various Catholic parishes around the United States at the beginning of a new century. New Catholics, he observes, will have grown up with the changes that occurred in the parish in our time. An obvious change is not who does the sacramental ministry, but who does just about everything else.
As Jones deftly points out, this Generation X of believers, who will constitute the core of the Catholic community 40 years from now, is claimed by both the left and the right in contemporary theological battles, but it is a mistake to portray them as either liberals or conservatives. Their experience of church is so fundamentally different from the current generation’s that Cardinal Ratzinger and Richard McBrien have more in common with each other and their experience of church than either have to do with the New Catholics of 2040. What these new Catholics want to do, Jones quotes from one of his sources, is change the terms of the debate. These younger Catholics, he reports, have an ambivalent attitude toward Vatican II, agreeing with the democratization and participation unleashed by the Council; but they also want traditions and a relationship with God: we want somebody to teach us how to pray.
Much of the second half of the book reports Rome’s growing dis-ease with U.S. Catholic culture in the years after the Second Vatican Council, especially U.S. Catholicism’s independence and desire for more democratization and participation at the local level. Inculturation, he argues, should imply inculturation for the West, too.
Jones predicts that if Rome cannot reconcile itself to, and find some ease in what he terms the American Epoch, it will be even less able to cope with the expectations of the next onethe epoch of the Catholic People of Color. That epoch, he predicts, will be making waves even before the American epoch crests. A generation from now, the Epoch of the Catholic People of Color will be coalescing around the energies of a people who have even less connection with a Eurocentric Rome than do American Catholics.
Jones is now required reading.