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A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America [Hardcover]

Peter Steinfels
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 29 2003

In A People Adrift, a prominent Catholic thinker states bluntly that the Catholic Church in the United States must transform itself or suffer irreversible decline. Peter Steinfels shows how even before the recent revelations about sexual abuse by priests, the explosive combination of generational change and the thinning ranks of priests and nuns was creating a grave crisis of leadership and identity.

This groundbreaking book offers an analysis not just of the church's immediate troubles but of less visible, more powerful forces working below the surface of an institution that provides a spiritual identity for 65 million Americans and spans the nation with its parishes, schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, clinics, and social service agencies.

In A People Adrift, Steinfels warns that entrenched liberals and conservatives are trapped in a "theo-logical gridlock" that often ignores what in fact goes on in families, parishes, classrooms, voting booths, and Catholic organizations of all types. Above all, he insists, the altered Catholic landscape demands a new agenda for leadership, from the selection of bishops and the rethinking of the priesthood to the thorough preparation and genuine incorporation of a lay leadership that is already taking over key responsibilities in Catholic institutions.

Catholicism exerts an enormous cultural and political presence in American life. No one interested in the nation's moral, intellectual, and political future can be indifferent to the fate of what has been one of the world's most vigorous churches -- a church now severely challenged.

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From Amazon

American Catholicism "is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation," according to author Peter Steinfels, veteran religion reporter and writer of the "Beliefs" column for the New York Times. In the face of the Church’s daunting sex scandal, few could argue with Steinfels’ dramatic assessment. But what makes this book especially unique and controversial is that Steinfels believes that the American Catholic Church would still be grappling with impending decline or a serious overhaul even if the heinous acts of sexual misconduct had never occurred.

Steinfels—a practicing Catholic—nostalgically speaks to the positive ways the church once influenced and guided American Catholics. "Sacrament, edifice, art, doctrine, parental example, youthful devotion, adolescent romance, a teacher here, a mentor there—all part of passing on the faith from person to person—generation to generation," he writes. Indeed, a generation ago, the Church weighed in heavily when American Catholics made decisions about work, sex, marriage, and raising children. Nowadays, the younger generation of Catholics may go to church, but are far less likely to integrate the Church into their daily lives. Steinfels cites polls showing how Catholics are deeply divided on seemingly non-negotiable issues, including the use of birth control and the legality of abortion. He also examines crumbling institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and religious orders, showing how the innate divisiveness in the Church has created the current decline. Other topics of intense scrutiny include the shape-shifting Catholic schools and the resistance to ordaining female priests. Rather than pontificating on solutions, Steinfels offers an intelligent expose that is bound to create waves among the "people adrift." --Gail Hudson

From Publishers Weekly

What a challenging time for the Catholic Church in America, and what a challenge to write a comprehensive assessment of its past 40 years to draft a list of possible futures. But veteran New York Times religion correspondent Steinfels, also former editor of Commonweal magazine and teacher at Georgetown and Notre Dame, is ideal for the task. Steinfels is deeply knowledgeable through research and experience of his formidably vast subject, and he brings personal loyalty to his faith, moderated by the detachment of his profession. Blessedly, the sex scandal that shook the church in 2002 gets context from a man who wrote about the occurrence of abuse a decade earlier. Large institutional questions-primary and higher education, health care, worship, leadership, the priesthood, roles for laity and women-all are examined through Steinfels's own years of reporting as well as through the lenses of major studies by sociologists. If anything, the book is not big enough for so complex a subject. Steinfels sounds a call for a reasoned common ground that respects the richness of tradition and also reflects the reality of the practices and needs of more than 60 million American Catholics, rather than the agendas of any number of the small but vocal groups within Catholicism. This book will be hailed by many, and with good reason; it should not be ignored by Catholic officials.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Notes from a Catholic drifter Nov. 22 2003
By A Customer
Mr. Steinfels, formerly editor of Commonweal, draws on his years of reporting for the New York Times in offering his overview of the Catholic situation in America. A self-described liberal, he speaks chiefly to other liberals about what he views as the failures and successes of changes since the Second Vatican Council. Alternative accounts are, regrettably, ignored or derided but nowhere engaged. Steinfels' emphasis is on the institutional and sociological, "rather than," as he puts it, "the profoundly spiritual or theological." A chapter is given to the recent scandals, but he believes the deeper "crisis" of his subtitle is occasioned by the Church's failure to respond adequately to the demands of women, the reality of contraception, the acceptance of homosexuals, and related changes in the culture. He urges what he calls the "American Catholic Church" to be more independent from Rome, and asserts that the Magisterium is teaching falsely about, inter alia, the ordination of women to the priesthood, which he believes will happen "ultimately" but should be implemented cautiously. On the renewal of episcopal leadership, Mr. Steinfels' favored models are the outspokenly liberal Kenneth Untener of Michigan, the now disgraced Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, and, above all, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. Like embattled socialists who contend that true socialism has yet to be tried, Mr. Steinfels surveys the damages wrought by liberal interpretations of the Council over nearly four decades and recommends as a solution his somewhat tempered version of the same. Read more ›
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4.0 out of 5 stars Searching for Common Ground Nov. 20 2003
This is a surprisingly broad survey of the state of the Catholic Church in the United States which avoids focus on hot button moral or divisive doctrinal issues to instead examine nearly every major facet of Catholic corporate life. At first, I found this a little disappointing because I expected a dominant focus on matters of leadership and institutional structure. But upon getting deeper into the author's project, I was gratified by the breadth of perspective because it showed how widespread is the Catholic presence in American society, and in turn, how thoroughly Catholicism is affected and challenged by that society.
Steinfels begins with an account of the last years of Cardinal Bernardin in Chicago and his efforts to establish a dialogue between different wings of church opinion on fundamental issues defining the future of the church. The effort was called the "Common Ground Initiative." It was publicly criticized by several of Bernardin's cardinal colleagues on the basis that there could be no real dialogue, implying compromise, on church teaching in key areas identified by Bernardin.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful and thought-provoking Nov. 15 2003
By A Customer
Long standing New York Times journalist Peter Steinfels has produced in "A People Adrift" a very nuanced view of modern American Catholicism. As the title implies, Steinfels may be fairly placed in the liberal wing of the church, but his thoughtful analyses of various problems in the church and proposals for reform are as likely to disappoint radicals as they are to anger conservatives. Take his discussion of the sex scandal. While of course condemning the behavior involved, Steinfels casts a critical eye on his own profession, wondering whether the frenzy over the revelations was in part manufactured by the media's blurring of the time periods involved, lumping all of the crimes under the general category of pedophilia, and ignoring that this wasn't really new news but had been reported on 10 years earlier. But the church doesn't escape Steinfels' microscope either, as he details the public relations, legal and moral catastrophe the matter quickly became.
As a woman, I found Steinfels' views on women in the church particularly interesting. Although he neatly dismantles all the theological arguments for limiting the priesthood to women, he wonders if the problem isn't as much that decision-making and managerial power goes along with ordination. One wonders why the senior staff in many bishops' offices are all priests in what are often administrative jobs--especially given the priest shortage. He also proposes a dual solution, admitting women as deacons and into positions of authority. Perhaps then the power to say mass would be limited to just that, and seen as limited to men as a matter of tradition. Although this stance is unlikely to appeal to radicals in the church it represents a middle ground less fraught with theological problems.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars The book says much about Catholicism's irreversible ruin
It speaks not well when a book of this sort is written about an institution which is apparently getting the comeuppance it has long deserved. Read more
Published on Feb. 28 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars The shaky state of the Catholic Church
" A People Adrift", Peter Steinfels's new book about the crisis in the Catholic Church in America is as comprehensive a study as you will find about the church today. Read more
Published on Nov. 13 2003 by Jon Hunt
5.0 out of 5 stars A People Adrift - "Truth&Facts" Review
Folks, The 5 star rating speaks for itself. As always this review contains no opinions just the "Truth&Facts".
AUTHOR: See Peter Steinfels' Web site [... Read more
Published on Oct. 19 2003 by D. Brusiee
1.0 out of 5 stars I did read it
I did read the book. Just read the section where he advocates womens ordination. Sure he tries to appear a bit more objective then the usual dissenter. Read more
Published on Oct. 13 2003
3.0 out of 5 stars Crisis and Stability
While I may not agree with the author on each point about what needs to be done to reform the Church and gain a foothold in modern society, whatever that means, I see the question... Read more
Published on Oct. 13 2003 by matt
5.0 out of 5 stars A Sign of Hope
Unlike the "Catholic Lite" reviewer, I actually read this book, which is an eloquent, deeply thoughtful, objective, and cautiously hopeful analysis of the Catholic Church... Read more
Published on Sept. 17 2003 by Mary Naughton
1.0 out of 5 stars Not very good
Will the current crop of politically correct anti-Catholic writers such as McBrien, Cromwell, and Steinfels ever give up? Read more
Published on Sept. 3 2003 by Anthony Vogrincic
1.0 out of 5 stars More Catholic Lite
Another book that basically says the Catholic Church would be great...if only it was like the Episcopal Church. In other words if it wasn't so...Catholic. Read more
Published on Aug. 28 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Will Catholic Faith Flourish--or Fumble--in the USA?
A judicious, deeply thoughtful, thoroughly informed, and lucidly written analysis of the crisis that threatens to send American Catholicism, the largest faith community in the... Read more
Published on Aug. 20 2003 by Robert William DeMarco
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