Extracts from reviews

What God Allows

by Ivor Shapiro

(Doubleday, New York, 1996)

Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Stacy Mattingly, Sun Mar 10'96)

"...The goings-on in the lives of the parish members serve as a springboard for wider discussion about the issues dividing Catholics today.... The result is a lively tapestry of storytelling and analysis....

"While it may be the case that conservative priests are not in evidence at St. Paul's, the fact that we don't come to know such a priest from a neighboring parish - or even the bishop - makes for a lopsided account of the liberal-conservative divide among the clergy. Still, Shapiro's discussion of the crisis in the priesthood, while it adds nothing new to the subject, is provocative, if disturbing....

"What seems clear to Shapiro is the extent to which a sense of 'belonging' among parishioners might at least heal some of the wounds caused by the rift - a sense of belonging that is, first and foremost, God-centered and, therefore, perduring."

Newsday (Paul Elie, Sun Mar 31'96)

"Shapiro is far from the first writer to take the everyday life of a church as his subject, but What God Allows is an unusually balanced, subtle and stylish book of its kind....

"In an artful stroke, Shapiro begins his story at the end, as eight `catechumens' ... are welcomed into the church at Easter-time. Not only does this approach give the book genuine drama, as the candidates move haltingly toward baptism; it also serves to counter the familiar rhetoric and statistics about the church's waning appeal for the baby-boom generation.... Again and again, he captures the idiom of religious life with literary grace....

"'How does God speak such contrary truth to each of us,' Judy asks at one point. That gets to the root of the problems amongst the `people of God' today, and although this book can offer no good answer to the question, it honors the contrary truths with notable fairness and artistry."

New York Times (Peter Steinfels, New York Times on the Web, August 17, 1997)

"Last year produced two remarkable book-length studies of individual Catholic parishes. Jim Naughton... wrote "Catholics in Crisis" (1996), a blow-by-blow account of parish conflicts in the elite liberal Holy Trinity Parish in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood. Ivor Shapiro, the editor of a Canadian magazine, wrote "What God Allows" (1996), a similarly detailed profile of a year in the life of a working-class parish near Buffalo, New York.

"Both books read like novels, yet the names are real, and the struggles, from the petty to the cosmic, put flesh and blood on all the statistics and poll data about American Catholicism.

"Naughton's leanings are strongly liberal, and it shows in his quick journalistic renditions of theological contoversies. Shapiro, not a Catholic, is less easily pinned down. But both authors' portraits of searching and mutinying parishioners and of floundering pastors are so rich and poignant that they can be mined for ammunition by the ecclesiastical militants of both camps - or possibly make some militants rethink their preconceptions."

Toronto Star (Philip Marchand, Sat Mar 23'96)

"What God Allows ... is a narrative, written in a dispassionate, scrupulously factual and at times dryly humorous tone, that conveys, for all its low-key style, some compelling human drama. Shapiro starts with a certain disadvantage in this respect. There is no villain in the piece, no stark contrast between pleasant and obnoxious individuals. Everyone in this book is trying to become a better human being.

"What God Allows has much of the impact of good realistic fiction, with revealing dialogue, a carefully observed setting, and searching portrayals of human personality. ... Some of the conflicts between these individuals seem astonishingly trivial... but most of the conflicts are rooted in deeper controversies that have wracked the church since Vatican II.... "

The Globe and Mail, Toronto (T.F. Rigelhof) Sat May 4, 1996

"Shapiro has sharp eyes, sensitive ears, an open heart and writes a clear prose that's generally free of the breathlessness of much lifestyle journalism. He's neither a Church-thrasher nor a Pope-basher and that's another strength in his even-handed report....

"What God Allows is Ivor Shapiro's first book and it's as genial, quirky and quietly subversive as a Garrison Keillor monologue about the folks in Lake Wobegon. Shapiro's attack on complacency is all the stronger for being so understated."

Ottawa Citizen (Janice Kennedy, Sun Mar 31'96)

"Against all odds, Ivor Shapiro's unique journalistic investigation... emerges as a triumphant affirmation of a much-battered institution.

"Shapiro... is a former Anglican minister. It is a weakness of the book that this pertinent background is never made clear.... All the same, he turns it into unexpectedly compelling reading.

"With novelistic verve, Shapiro gives real texture to the people and events.... What God Allows probes nothing less than the very foundations of today's church. This it accomplishes by examining reactions to varied papal positions, and the fundamental clash between liberals and conservatives.

"But it is anything but dry and dogmatic. Warm and brimming with humanity, Shapiro's portrait of today's Catholicism reads like a novel with a sprawling cast of characters. By introducing readers to real-life parishioners, he underlines the difficulties faced by people of good will all along the spectrum -- and, interestingly, paints a relatively optimistic picture of inclusiveness.

"With brisk narrative pacing and a compassionate eye, Shapiro ... is scrupulously faithful to Catholic realities -- tradition, ritual, sensibilities, jargon, liturgy, dogma, canon law, even in-jokes -- and the fact that not a note rings false is tribute to his careful research and reporting, and his insistence on rigorous expert verification.

"This is what makes some of his negative revelations so much more jolting. Accounts of child sexual abuse by priests, of horrific and sordid breaches of trust, even of breathtakingly mean- spirited and petty parish politics -- all have a nasty ring of indisputable truth about them. Even long-standing practising Catholics will learn some things here....

"What God Allows is an unusual book. It should have all the appeal of a dry homily heard dutifully on a hard wooden pew -- except that it is too lively, too compassionate, too nicely crafted. That makes it fascinating reading for non-Catholics curious about the strange attraction this ancient institution exercises. It also makes it compelling reading for Catholics past, present and recovering."

Publisher's Weekly (March 11'96)

"Shapiro... faithfully represents the struggles of various parishioners to weave the dogma of their beloved faith into the fabric of contemporary culture. Moreover, he demonstrates that the crisis of religious identity that characterizes many of these believers arises not out of institutional practice but out of the extent to which Catholic faith and doctrine are embedded in the conscience of the believers themselves. Unfortunately, Shapiro's often condescending tone, which gives the impression that he is silently laughing at his subjects for their inability to relinquish what to him are antiquated views, compromises his narrative. Even so, his story is one of the few to examine honestly the ongoing identity crisis in the American Catholic church."

Quill & Quire (Carolyne A. Van Der Meer, April 1996) [Starred review, denoting a book of "exceptional merit"]

"What God Allows is a thought-provoking, reflective look at the present state of affairs in the Catholic church. Shapiro is a fair and effective writer and reporter, presenting all sides of these complex issues with a sense of respect and understanding. Readers of this book will no doubt come away quietly assessing the foundations of their faith, no matter what their religion."

Dallas Morning News (syndicated, Sat Apr 6/96)

"In just a little more than a year, three exemplary chronicles of congregational life have appeared. Each takes a `novelistic' approach to the stories of real people and their sometimes painful relationship to their faith and fellow believers. The first book documented a year in the life of a Jewish congregation in Massachusetts; the second took a yearlong look at a Connecticut Protestant church.

"This latest effort, by Shapiro, may be the best. The former Anglican priest writes about conflicts and challenges that are particularly Catholic and that involve his real-life `cast of characters' - parishioners in an upstate New York church. All the elements are present for a sort of ecclesiastical soap opera, but Shapiro is too good a writer to let that happen."

Maclean's Magazine (Michael W. Higgins, April 22/96)

"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.... 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 inchoate nature of the community. This is flesh-and-bones journalism.... Shapiro presents the muck and more of catholic life with full-frontal immodesty.

"Shapiro juxtaposes what he perceives as the doctrinal and disciplinary rigidity of the current papacy with the fluid morality and easy approach to orthodoxy of the ordinary Catholic. He uses [extracts from papal documents] to highlight the widening chasm that exists between the official teaching authority of the church and the faith of the ordinary believer. This is too pat. Shapiro collapses in cliché and caricature. The sensitively realized cameos of ordinary parishioners-Shapiro at his best-are compromised by the facile juxtaposition of official utterance with common living. Although he avoids editorializing and is scrupulously fair to all his `characters,' he does on occasion exhibit a subtle bias against the higher clergy.

"The book has other flaws. Shapiro's dialogue is ponderously faithful to the transcripts of his tapes-some judicious editing would have been in order. And his own descriptive prose is, on occasion, saccharine or melodramatic. But the author's deep sympathy for human suffering is genuine and compelling....

"What emerges from the book is an understanding of the difficult and complicated duality of classic Catholicism. Shapiro shows again and again that the members of St. Paul's parish are constantly juggling skepticism and belief, trying to achieve a balance in which `reason and faith are Siamese twins.'"

The Catholic Register (Canada) (Joseph Sinasac) April 15, 1996

"Almost every Catholic will recognize a fellow parishioner in this tale of a year in the life of a typical suburban U.S. parish. And nearly every Catholic will find something to provoke a cringe....

"Shapiro's touch is sure. Despite his own liberal leanings, he is sympathetic to all the players, realizing that they are all seeking to know their God in one church. He sticks to basic reporting, building detail upon detail in a way that lets the inherent conflict reveal itself. The result is a compelling narrative, filled with the human drama of real people struggling with real questions."

"The resulting story is a microcosm of the U.S. church today, fraught with conflicts between liberals and traditionalists, men and women, young and old."

The Montreal Gazette (Jean-Luc Plat) Sat. Apr. 6, 1996

"Written in a breezy, conversational style, What God Allows combines narrative and documentary journalism to recreate the tension between liberals grappling with the authority of Rome and conservatives decrying a culture marked by individualism and moral relativism....

"Shapiro doesn't target the church and even points out that, contrary to a popular stereotype, forgiveness rather than guilt is at the heart of Catholic spirituality. Nonetheless, the voice of liberal parishioners tends to be louder--perhaps because they account for a majority at St. Paul's and are representative of the church at large in North America....

"Shapiro notes: `When reason fails to make sense of a confusing world... faith opffers a finishing line, a place to end the innate endlessness of doubt. Doubt untempered by faith is a road to insanity. But the same is true of faith untempered by doubt.' In What God Allows, the taut and sometimes delicate balance between these two basic instincts is always palpable."

Booklist (Steve Schroeder) March 15, 1996

"Looking at the life and conflicts of a typical parish at the time of the encyclical is an excellent way to gain insight in to the questions and their local reality. More to the point, it is an excellent way to encounter the Catholic Church as something more than an abstraction at the end of the twentieth century. With sensitively and sympathetically drawn characters and an engaging and eminently readable narrative, the book should prove valuable to Catholics and non-Catholics alike."

Commonweal (R. Scott Appleby) March 14, 1997

"Shapiro periodically interrupts his engaging account of the lived faith at Saint Paul's with pointed excerpts from Pope John Paul II's 1993 encyclical, Veritatis splendor, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, or some other recent official statement of the church's moral teaching. Dropped into the text like lead weights, these excerpts are a heavy-handed but effective device for contrasting the ambiguous, complex, plural, and shifting mores and experiences of the people with the unambiguous, univocal, tightly reasoned, stylistically aloof, and absolutist pronouncements of the Vatican. Rather than suggest connections or points of possible rapprochement between these two worlds, however, Shapiro is content, in a kind of postmoderny way, to let the disjunction have its benumbing or puzzling effect.

"Benumbed and puzzled, one may nonetheless garner at least two impressions about the white American Catholic parish of the 1990s.... It has nary a clue what to do with gifted lay women, who enjoy neither the status nor the protection of the ordained priesthood, but who are called upon increasingly to play the role of mediator between competing factions within the parish and to organize and lead whatever spiritual enrichment or social outreach programs the parish offers. Despite the predictable charges that they foment "radical feminism" and watered-down catechesis, the Judy Nices of the Catholic world seem its best hope for preserving continuity, at the parish level, with the historic Christian practices of hospitality, personal and communal prayer, theological education, and spiritual formation...."

Christian Century (James P. Wind) Sept. 25, 1996

"Shapiro takes us into the settings where the struggle to teach occursmost mividly in the parish's adult instruction classesand where conservative and liberal versions of Catholicism contend with each other. With a fine journalistic eye, he describes one especially important coping strategy. Quoting the parish's direcrtor of adult instruction, he points to an unwritten rule which guided the diverse mix of inquirers through difficult theological waters: "Keep it light, be nice." In most cases this conflict avoidance helps people agree to disagree as they struggle with issues of Catholic identity. But occasionally there are painful eruptions....

"For those interested in how Catholicism works, who want to watch the process of teaching and learning the faith in modern America, Shapiro provides vivid notes from the front lines. He demonstrates that parish life is anything but boring. There is drama in abundance, and great matters are at stake."

[Updated:February 2, 1998]

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