Those who responded enthusiastically to Bokkenkotter's A Concise History of the Catholic Church (1990), an intellectual tour de force that reduces to major themes the historical development of the Church, thereby shedding light on the powerful cultural forces that brought the Church to the crisis of the Second Vatican Council, may be disappointed to find none of Bokkenkotter's impressive historical sweep, though you will still encounter his characteristic insight, clarity, and conciseness, in this book. The book is in large measure a series of engaging biographies of "Social Catholics," key figures who exemplify the transformation, ever so gradual, of the Church from an institution that stood for the status quo to one that has become a progressive force for social and political justice. Bokkenkotter states that he does not intend to repeat the historical analysis of the development of social consciousness in the Church, which he believes is already well settled in the scholarly literature, so that "the overall lines of development are pretty well agreed on."
There is little in the book to explain Bokkenkotter's selections. For those who are unfamiliar with the development of social Catholicism, and even for those who are familiar, the preference for one personage over another is not easily explained. Why, for example, does Bokkenkotter feature the Irishmen Michael Collins and Eamon de Vera, yet ignore important Catholic figures in the post-colonial world who also struggled for political liberation? Or why does he devote a chapter to Jacques Maritain, the philosopher of personalism, yet neglect other significant Catholic intellectuals, including those who represent vital sources in the emergence of the theology of liberation? And why no popes? I do not dispute Bokkenkotter's choices, but I am disappointed with the absence of an overview satisfactorily explaining the criteria for selection. All we have is a cross-reference to another book by a different author, Paul Misner.
The selection of personages also suggests a palpable Eurocentrism, with French, Irish, German, English, and Italian figures who do not evoke universal recognition in other parts of the Catholic world being covered. While Lech Walesa or Oscar Romero may be familiar names to Catholics of the developing world, probably because they are both associated with events of recent history, Daniel O'Connell or Konrad Adenauer most likely find little or no resonance.
Notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, with a special liking for the chapters on Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero. Despite Bokkenkotter's perhaps too frequent reliance on secondary sources, he demonstrates in this book the surpassing qualities of his earlier work on the history of the Church, namely, his ability to identify the most significant events in a story and to join them together in an eminently engaging, admirably limpid narrative. Those who wish to learn why a particular figure is important in the history of social Catholicism will be well satisfied with the biographical introductions furnished by Bokkenkotter.
Because the book is essentially a series of concise biographies, I think it would be helpful to the reader for me to list in order all the individuals covered, chapter by chapter: Lamennais, Lacordaire, Montalembert; Daniel O'Connell; Frederick Ozanam; Karl Marx; Henry Edward Manning; Albert de Mun; Monsignor Benigni; Don Sturzo; Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera; Maritain and Mounier; Dorothy Day; Konrad Adenauer; Oscar Romero; and Lech Walesa.
As in Bokkenkotter's first much acclaimed book, there is little or no theology here, only history, or more accurately, biography. Here we come across Bokkenkotter at his best, which is to write good history. If you want a clearer understanding of what social Catholicism is, read another book, or several.