My heart fluttered when I unwrapped my copy of Brandon McGinley’s book-length debut, The Prodigal Church, and saw his inscription. It reads, “22 July 2020. St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!” I had ordered the book with both an acute hope and a healthy skepticism regarding its premise—that it would offer a plan for the renewal of a faltering Church against the backdrop of an antagonistic society. I was not disappointed. The enthusiastic reference to Mary Magdalene, a favorite saint, struck me as an intervention of the Holy Spirit, but the unselfconscious dedication to a saint that is frequently held up as a feminist icon also reflects a refreshingly non-partisan approach that McGinley carries throughout his prose. In one characteristic juxtaposition of secular and religious views, he compares Bernie Sanders and John Paul II on solidarity, taking the good from both and unflinchingly critiquing the errors of the secular. As McGinley articulates his vision for a renewal of the church, it is “not conservative or liberal but following the way of integrity.”
McGinley’s narrative is focused on the American context—in his words “Yankee Catholics”—but his articulate and engaging plan for Church renewal has far wider-ranging applications, even if his description of it remains one that relies on American cultural touchstones. Even in places where the Church is currently subsisting or growing, McGinley calls for a return to what is most important in Catholic Christianity—saintliness. He opens with a call from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for a smaller and purer Church. By this, he proposes a vision that does not advocate for piety as a bar of entry but a richness that asks for deep commitment in exchange for the most beautiful thing that could, and indeed does, exist in this world.
McGinley makes it clear that the Prodigal Church is not a return to a mythical golden era of the past but the creation of something entirely new. Our patrimony has been squandered, and the pre-Vatican II period that has often been idealized is not the goal. The 1950s may have been the height of Catholic culture, but the Church’s focus had already shifted toward respectability at the expense of authenticity. McGinley’s opening discussion of this historical trajectory also sets the tone for the rest of the book’s argument—rich in language, detailed in argument, and compelling in its carefully chosen examples. It left me wanting more both because it so adeptly encompassed the history of the nineteenth and mid-twentieth century periods it covered and because it never seemed to complete its narrative arc. McGinley points out that the Church had already drifted from its core teachings by the 1950s, but he omits any exploration of the early twentieth century Americanist controversy and the proceeding liturgical movement that might explain or complicate the trajectory that led to this separation.
A renewed Church, McGinley argues, would need to be something different, something we do not yet have a pattern for. There will not be neighborhood churches; there simply is not the density of Catholics to support it. A true return to Catholic teachings would be so divergent from modern social norms that it would not be expected to attract such a populace. That, McGinley argues, following Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, should not be the goal. “To this day our assumption that we must belong, that by right we are and must remain in the American mainstream is the highest barrier we face to genuine renewal,” he writes. Success comes not in popularity but in the pursuit of beauty and truth.
The sacraments are central to his vision for the future and integral to the path to reclaiming Catholic patrimony. Most importantly, the Mass connects members of the Church on earth to those worshipping alongside us in heaven. While on we struggle to root out sin—and the recent sins of the Church are not minor—the Church triumphant provides a perfected model to inspire and console. Liturgy in the form of the Mass, the liturgical calendar, and communal prayer, McGinley also argues, acts as an organization fulcrum for our lives. Choosing to live without them is not neutral. It means that civil-corporate liturgies like Superbowl Sunday and New Year’s Eve take the place of God-oriented rituals. And yet, choosing Mass and the sacraments is more than a cultural choice. It means choosing the real presence of God on earth.
Ultimately, it is people who will make these changes, if they are to be made, and McGinley compellingly lays out how families, friends, and parishes will play the central role. The Catholic Church teaches that Christianity is not merely belief—it is a lived reality. Catholicism must be lived at home, in community, and in everyday decisions. This is not a partisan Catholicism but one that asks for an openness to life that is boundless, incorporating the inseparability of the Church’s teachings on sexuality and social issues. In so doing, it also necessitates the embrace of a countercultural commitment to deep friendships that knit families into communities. McGinley calls on parishes to support these families and friendships by providing the sacraments, offering their priests as moral leaders, and opening their buildings as third places where diverse community can flourish. McGinley speaks to all of this from lived experience, offering examples of how this has worked in his own Pittsburgh neighborhood. He also speaks to inclusion of a socially and economically diverse populace in this Catholic community, one that supports economic redistribution, intermixes without regard for secular status, and advocates for social justice. Still, he lays out no means for those whose free choice has been essentially eliminated by poverty and other injustices to opt into a community that is, centrally, one of choice rather than a presupposition.
In sum, however, McGinley manages to expertly employ his vision for a renewed Catholicism as he illustrates it. That is, he manages to be attentively orthodox, assertively apolitical, and captivatingly articulate as he describes a vision for a Catholic community that is all of those things even more fully. The vision McGinley shares is one he and anyone grounded in our broken, sinful reality would admit is tryingly aspirational, yet he remains optimistic throughout. Again, this is a central aspect of his vision-crafting as he writes, “we have to want it, and we have to believe it is possible.” Certainly, he made me want to believe.
Reba Luiken is a historian with a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on both public gardens and the intersection of science and the Church. She is currently investigating botanist nuns in the first half of the twentieth century. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and infant son.