Books

An intimate portrait of a Catholic parish

WHAT GOD ALLOWS: THE CRISIS OF FAITH AND CONSCIENCE IN ONE CATHOLIC CHURCH

MICHAEL W. HIGGINS April 22 1996
Books

An intimate portrait of a Catholic parish

WHAT GOD ALLOWS: THE CRISIS OF FAITH AND CONSCIENCE IN ONE CATHOLIC CHURCH

MICHAEL W. HIGGINS April 22 1996

An intimate portrait of a Catholic parish

Books

WHAT GOD ALLOWS: THE CRISIS OF FAITH AND CONSCIENCE IN ONE CATHOLIC CHURCH

By Ivor Shapiro

(Doubleday, 307pages, $32.95)

Part oral history, part social portrait, part spiritual search, What God Allows is a peculiar hybrid. But it is also an engaging and surprisingly uplifting book. Written by journalist and Chatelaine managing editor Ivor Shapiro, a former Anglican priest, What God Allows documents a year in the life of a Roman Catholic parish in the Buffalo, N.Y., suburb of Kenmore. For one year starting in May, 1993, Shapiro—having been given carte blanche by rectory officials—closely followed goings-on at St Paul’s Church. He attended a full range of activities, extensively interviewed clergy and parishioners alike and became an honorary member of the congregation. What God Allows is an earnest chronicle of an ordinary Roman Catholic parish in the turbulent days of the fin de siècle. But Shapiro also attempts to portray St. Paul’s as a microcosm of the larger conflicts, contradictions and crises of the universal church, and only partly attains that goal.

Wisely, despite his grander ambitions, Shapiro has not turned St. Paul’s into an abstraction nor his book into a theological disquisition. The parish is a living reality composed of a fully “catholic” range of individuals, and the author has expended every effort to capture the eclectic and in-

choate nature of the community. This is flesh-and-bones journalism. Shapiro presents an untidy array of characters: the troubled, the anxious, the devout and the ambivalent. There is federal investigator Ken Monaco, the more-Roman-than-Rome layman ever eager to sniff out the stench of heresy. There is housewife Judy Nice, the enlightened laywoman outraged by the abusive nature of clerical power. There is Father Don, the sexually tortured priest hell-bent on liberation. (He now lives in Baltimore, Md., with his partner,

Steve, and still considers himself a Catholic, although he no longer functions as a priest.) There is Mike Merrill, the agonizing medical student eager to embrace faith but not at the cost of reason. They are all here, stock characters out of a novel by American priest-author Andrew Greeley, master craftsman of Catholic soaps.

Precisely because his book captures a year in the life of an ordinary Catholic parish and not that of a theological faculty, monastic enclosure or chancery office, Shapiro presents the muck and mire of Catholic life with full-frontal immodesty. The mystery of marital annulments, the dispiriting yearly struggle to balance the books, the quiet dignity of those alienated from the sacraments, the messy collisions of the new teaching styles with the old, the nasty turf wars native to any institu-

Chronicling a year in the life of an ordinary congregation

tion, are all here for inspection.

Shapiro juxtaposes what h; perceives as the doctrinal an; disciplinary rigidity of the cur rent papacy with the fluid mora] ity and easy approach to ortho doxy of the ordinary Catholic The author quotes chunks o Veritatis Splendor (The Splendo of Truth), the heavyweight papa tome affirming the value of uni versal moral absolutes pertain ing to contraception, abortion euthanasia and other issues Shapiro also includes excerpt: from the Catechism of thi Catholic Church. He uses those extracts to highlight the widen ing chasm that exists betweer the official teaching authority o the church and the faith of the ordinary believer.

This is too pat. Shapiro col lapses in cliché and caricature. The sensi tively realized cameos of ordinary parish ioners—Shapiro at his best—art compromised by his facile juxtaposition o official utterance with common living. AÍ though he avoids editorializing and is scrupulously fair to all his “characters,” hi does on occasion exhibit a subtle bias against the higher clergy. Shapiro’s treat ment of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, thi Archbishop of Chicago who was accusée and later exonerated of the sexual abuse o: a seminarian, borders on the smug anc self-righteous, although it has the appear ance of fairness. Shapiro is too coy by half.

The book has other flaws. Shapiro’s dia logue is ponderously faithful to the tran scripts of his tapes—some judicious editing would have been in order And his own descriptive prose is, on occasion, saccha rine or melodramatic. But the author’s deep sympathy foi human suffering is genuine and compelling. What God Al lows often seems like c Catholic EastEnders, sharing with the popular British soap compassion, honesty ane3 rugged defiance.

What God Allows offers little in the way of profound analysis. It is a magazine-length feature article straining to be a book. But it is not a paltry thing. II engages the reader with its humanity What emerges from the book is an understanding of the difficult and complicated duality of classic Catholicism. Shapirc shows again and again that the members of St. Paul’s parish are constantly juggling skepticism and belief, trying to achieve ; balance in which “reason and faith art Siamese twins.”

MICHAEL W. HIGGINS