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College of Arts and Sciences

Cambridge Publishes Professors’ Companion to American Catholicism  

Photo of Professor Thomas RzeznikCambridge University Press has published the Cambridge Companion to American Catholicism, co-edited by Professor Thomas Rzeznik of the Department of History at Seton Hall University and Professor Margaret McGuinness of La Salle University.

The opening paragraph of the new Cambridge Companion to American Catholicism reminds readers that the Catholic Church has been "the largest single religious denomination in the United States since at least the mid-nineteenth century, shaping the development of the nation in myriad ways." The two co-editors note that "Catholicism is also one of the nation’s most internally diverse religious denominations, encompassing members of all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, and ideological perspectives." Catholicism, they conclude, both "captivates and confounds," making an ideal subject for scholarly attention.

Written for those seeking to know more about as the history of American Catholicism, the book is the latest in the prestigious Cambridge Companions to Religion series, which is designed to provide non-specialists with an introduction to major topics and key figures in theology and religious studies.

Recognizing the need for a volume on American Catholicism, Cambridge University Press approached Professor Margaret McGuinness and Professor Rzeznik to undertake the project. They came to the attention of the Press because of their work as editors of American Catholic Studies, the award-winning journal that Rzeznik has co-edited since 2013.

The book consists of nineteen chapters, all specially commissioned for the volume. The first three provide chronological overviews of American Catholicism in the colonial era, immigrant era, and twentieth century. They are followed by a set of thematic chapters that look at Catholic worship and thought, as well as the impact of American Catholicism on various aspects of society, including education, social welfare, and art and culture. The volume then offers chapters on the "many faces of Catholicism," including Black, Latinx, Asian-American, and cultural Catholics. Together, they highlight the dynamism, distinctiveness, and diversity of the American Catholic experience.

As co-editors, Rzeznik and McGuinness developed a plan for the volume, laid out the chapters, recruited authors, and read through multiple drafts of each submission, working to ensure a consistent style and tone throughout the volume. "It was an honor to work with such a distinguished group of scholars," Rzeznik remarked. "The fact that each is an accomplished author and teacher shines through in the book. The material is both erudite and accessible."

In total, the project took about three and a half years to complete. "We were very fortunate that work on the project began before the Covid-19 outbreak," Rzeznik noted. "The authors were in place and already working on their chapters before the rhythms and routines of research and writing were interrupted."

The book has already proven useful to students. "I was delighted to be able to refer students in my ‘Catholic Church in the U.S.’ course to the book. It helped several select research topics and provided them with the foundation they needed."

A member of the Seton Hall faculty since 2006, Dr. Rzeznik regularly teaches courses on the history of American Catholicism and American religion. He is currently working on a history of St. Vincent’s Hospital and Catholic health care in New York City.

Members of the Seton Hall community can access the e-book version of the Cambridge Companion to American Catholicism via the University Libraries here.

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