Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith

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The image of the "cafeteria Catholic" — one who blithely picks and chooses those doctrines that suit him — is a staple of American culture. But are American Catholics really so nonchalant about how they integrate the ancient devotional practices of Catholicism with the everyday struggles of the modern world?

For Sense of the Faithful, Jerome Baggett conducted 300 intensive interviews with members of six parishes to explore all aspects of this question. The book is an act of listening that allows ordinary Catholics to speak for themselves about how they understand their faith and how they draw upon it to find purpose in their lives.

Many American Catholics, Baggett shows, do indeed have an uneasy relationship with the official teachings of the Church and struggle to live faithfully amidst the challenges of the modern world. But Baggett finds that it is a genuine struggle, one that reveals a dynamic and self-aware relationship to the Church's teachings. Moving beyond the simplistic categories of national surveys and the politically motivated pronouncements of pundits, Sense of the Faithful ultimately paints a more complex — and more accurate — portrait of what it is like to be Catholic in America today.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Jerome Baggett is now required reading for all of us seeking to understand the contemporary situation of the Catholic community in the United States...Go out and buy this book."—American Catholic Studies

"Cutting through clichés like 'cafeteria Catholics' and going beyond the false dichotomies like 'spiritual versus religious,' Jerome Baggett's sensitive probing yields great insights into the different ways of being Catholic in America-ways that manifest depth and richness, but which also show severe limitations. Essential reading for those who would understand rather than pontificate."—Charles Taylor, Northwestern University, author of A Secular Age

"As everything from extremist cults to right-wing religious crusaders occupies the attention of newscasters and many scholars, American Catholics remain understudied and poorly understood. Jerome Baggett's fine book changes that. Now at last we have an authoritative and engagingly written study of practicing Catholics at the grassroots and close up. Readers who thought religion was waning except on the margins will have their views challenged again and again." —Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University, author of After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion

"American Catholicism is undergoing dramatic cultural and demographic changes. Yet we know far too little about what that looks, sounds, and feels like on the ground among ordinary Catholics — much less what it all means. Sense of the Faithful helps to remedy this problem, offering a well-informed and enlightening view of Catholic faith viewed from the grassroots. It will stimulate important conversations." —Christian Smith, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, co-author of Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money

"I highly recommend Jerome Baggetts Sense of the Faithful. It is a gem." —

"Sense of the Faithful provides useful information, wise insights and a 'conversation piece' for pastoral ministers and parishioners." —The Evangelist

"Important and insightful...Sense of the Faithful is an innovative and probing work. Consider this a must read for those following the 'messiness' of post-Vatican II 'lived' Catholicism, and for scholars probing the complexities of America's ever-zany free market religious economy."—Sociology of Religion

"Important reading for those who are in parish ministry and planning."—The Catholic Review

"This is a fine book that stands at the end of a series of books about American Catholics and lived religioni." —Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

Publishers Weekly

Baggett, an associate professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, Calif., takes on the term "cafeteria Catholic" in this study of American Catholics. He dislikes the description, commonly applied to liberal Catholics who select which church teachings they will accept, because of the suggestion that such choices are made casually. His findings, based on interviews with 300 Catholics at six Bay Area parishes, show that most Catholics make similar selections and that they do so thoughtfully. He says Catholics live their faith by "negotiating with the broader tradition," reframing it through use of "evocative symbols" to create religious truths and refreshing it by mingling Catholic symbols with cultural ones. Baggett quotes extensively from the interviews he and his team conducted and tallies the results in a series of charts, often comparing what he learned with the work of other researchers, especially sociologist Thomas O'Dea. His rather academic presentation will primarily interest other scholars and perhaps reform-minded church leaders, rather than the Catholic layperson. (Dec.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

How do rank-and-file Catholics think about, negotiate, and live out their faith today? To probe for answers, Baggett (religion & society, Jesuit Sch. of Theology, Berkeley, CA) conducted a sample survey at six San Francisco Bay Area parishes, interviewing some 300 active parishioners. The author uses a careful sociologist's approach, considering historical and cultural changes in the Church in America as they impact persons of serious faith. Of the six parishes, two congregations are in poorer areas and one in an affluent area; of the three middle-class congregations, one is largely Anglo, one is very traditional with Latin masses, and one ministers to a gay population. The author reflects on the need for parish discourse on the Church's social-justice teachings (a "best-kept secret") and concludes that parishioners are no less religious today than their predecessors. Statistical tables and quotes from the interviewees, along with substantial references to academic studies, support the text. This study may be complemented by James O'Toole's recent The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America. Recommended for sociology and religious collections.
—Anna M. Donnelly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195326956
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 12/9/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,144,095
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Jerome Baggett is Associate Professor of Religion and Society at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and a member of the Core Doctoral Faculty at the Graduate Theological Union. He is the author of Habitat for Humanity: Building Private Homes, Building Public Religion.

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Table of Contents

Pt. I Getting Situated: The View from Afar

1 Context: Past Changes and the Present Conversation 3

2 Framework: A "Cultured" Look at American Catholicism 33

Pt. II Leaning Closer: Examining the Brushstrokes

3 Self: Rooting and Uprooting 59

4 Institution: Dilemmas of Authenticity and Authority 89

5 Community: Narratives for Belonging 125

6 Civil Society: Private and Public Good 169

Pt. III Stepping Back: Thinking about the Big Picture

7 Paradox: Tradition in a Posttraditional Society 205

Appendices 241

Notes 247

Index 273

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