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A Church in Search of Itself by Robert Blair Kaiser
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A Church in Search of Itself

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A Church in Search of Itself by Robert Blair Kaiser
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Apr 10, 2007 | ISBN 9780307278142

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“An exceptionally informative, candid, evenhanded description of the congressional process.” —Choice

“Mr Kaiser depicts the gruesome business of legislating in the wickedly honest fashion only a journalistic veteran, liberated from the restraints imposed on daily reporters, could get away with…[he] names names and spares no one.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Like [Robert] Caro, Kaiser has a gift for writing a legislative page-turner…This should be a book on every informed voter’s reading list.”
New York Journal of Books

“If you want to know how Washington really works, read this book. It’s the ultimate inside story of a major piece of legislation that will affect the way the country does business for decades to come. Robert G. Kaiser, who knows the terrain like few others, was given unique access to the key players as they pasted this complicated package together. Kaiser shows us the personalities, the politics, and the process.”
-Cokie Roberts, political commentator, NPR and ABC News
“It’s wonderful to read a story about how Congress can actually get something done. This is an exclusive behind-the-scenes tale of how an important bill became law. It’s a book we really need now.”
-Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs
 “Kaiser writes with the clarity of a world-class journalist, the depth of a scholar, and the evocative style of a novelist. His latest book about Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, and financial reform is a master class in understanding the modern Congress.”
-David Maraniss, author of Barack Obama: The Story

“Robert Kaiser knows so much about how Congress works, and writes so well about it, it makes me—as a former legislator—both uneasy and grateful. He spots our limitations but leaves every reader with a much better understanding of ‘America’s least understood important institution.’”
—Lee H. Hamilton, former member of the House of Representatives

“Robert G. Kaiser’s Act of Congress is the most detailed, fascinating and sophisticated case study of congressional law making to appear in years. It shows how thoroughly polarized partisanship has reshaped the entire process, but also how exceptionally skillful politicking can nonetheless still occasionally produce landmark legislation. It will be ideal for courses on Congress (I’m adding it to my own syllabus) and the policy making process, but it will also enlighten anyone who wants a better understanding of how present-day national institutions work—or fail to do so. It’s a great read.” 
—Dr. Gary C. Jacobson, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego

Act of Congress captures the story of the historic assertion of federal power known as Dodd-Frank in all its complexity, with its lasting implications for the balance of power between Washington and Wall Street. Robert Kaiser’s triumph is to make this complex subject an intimately human tale. Thanks to reporting and insight, the story of Dodd-Frank is revealed not simply as a collision of public and private interests on Wall Street, but as a kind of case study in the anthropology of modern Washington. A great story by a journalist singularly well-equipped to tell it.”
—John Harris, editor in chief of Politico

“We have been waiting for this. Robert G. Kaiser, one of our most skilled and thoughtful journalists, has written the inside story of one of the most important legislative measures of the last decade. Kaiser weaves a compelling story of institutions, parties, personalities, and strategy. This book is essential reading for students of Congress and national policy making, for everyone interested in the policy response to the Great Recession, and for citizens who care about the dysfunction of American national government.”
—Steven S. Smith, professor of political science at Washington University

Act of Congress is easily the best book on Congress I have read in decades. It is a stupendous achievement—richly informative, a pleasure to read, wise in its assessments of why Dodd-Frank was able to succeed and how this case is more exception than rule in these difficult governing times.  Congressional scholars have much to learn from the book (I certainly did) and generations of students will find it their favorite and most rewarding assigned reading in classes.  A classic.” 
—Thomas E. Mann, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution

“Richly detailed…Remember that old saw about making sausages and making laws—that you don’t want to know too much about either one? Kaiser disproves it with this lucid…book.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Bob Kaiser has written a captivating and insightful account of the Dodd-Frank reform of financial services regulation. He convincingly explains both the successes of key actors and why, in the current Congress, such successes are increasingly rare.”
—Congressman David E. Price

“Today’s Congress is not yesterday’s Congress. The rules may seem the same, but new players, bigger campaigns, more partisanship and less civility means more time raising money, fewer hours in session, minimal socialization across the aisle and more delegation to committee staffs. Act of Congress is the first book to describe in detail what it takes to legislate in the ‘new’ Congress. Robert Kaiser was present at the creation of the Dodd-Frank Act. His reputation as a straight-shooting reporter earned him open access to the staffs of Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd, and extensive interviews with the key players in both parties. The result is an enlightening, sobering, tour de force. Any teacher who hasn’t read this book should have his syllabus examined.” 
—Samuel L. Popkin, author of The Candidate
“Robert Kaiser’s Act of Congress is a great read. He makes a complex issue and an arcane process understandable and interesting. Readers get a real sense for the interplay of politics and policy and of personality and structure that goes into passing major legislation. Not just for Congress junkies, Kaiser’s book is a fascinating ‘How Done It.’”
—Barbara Sinclair, professor emerita of American politics at UCLA

“Intricate [and] incisive…Kaiser…finds the drama in arcane parliamentary procedure and paints extraordinary fly-on-the-wall scenes of legislative sausage making…His absorbing true-life political saga exposes the good, the bad, and the ugly in Congress.”
Publishers Weekly

“Act of Congress is a tour de force, an unparalleled account of the difficulty of legislating in an intensely polarized political era.  Robert Kaiser brings decades of experience to the task, deftly showing how lawmakers balanced policy goals and political risk to build bicameral majorities for landmark Wall Street reform.  I look forward to assigning this masterful work to my students in the years to come.”
—Sarah Binder, professor of political science at George Washington University

“Congress is the most powerful, and least well understood, branch of the American government. Luckily, Robert Kaiser is here to explain it to us. Required reading for anyone who is affected by Washington, which is, as Kaiser demonstrates in this book, all of us.”
—Ezra Klein, columnist, The Washington Post
“The great value of Robert G. Kaiser’s Act of Congress is its refusal to accept the Washington cliché that the Dodd-Frank legislation represents a moment when Congress worked the way it is supposed to . . . It uses the passage of the most far-reaching piece of financial reform legislation since the New Deal to show not how Congress works, but how it doesn’t, even when a result is attained.”
—Michael Tomasky, The New York Review of Books
“Riveting . . . Kaiser offers an insightful primer on how laws are made, from conception to passage, as well as the characters and culture of the U.S. Congress, observed from an astonishing perspective most citizens never see.”

“Certain to become a classic, this rich and beautifully crafted book tells the story of a rare moment of congressional success. Who would have thought such a thing possible?”
—Lawrence Lessig, professor at Harvard Law School

“One of the best books on the [legislative] process in a long time.”

“A crackling page-turner…Kaiser…delivers a clear understanding of the issues as well as the exhausting, exhilarating and often appalling political process. His extensive original reporting and deep research lend both richness and authority to the lively text.”
The Plain Dealer

“Informative, incisive and timely, Act of Congress provides essential lessons in civics about how business is done in Washington, D.C.”
The Boston Globe

“For those interested in the legislative process…[Act of Congress] is essential reading.”

“Instructive [and] colorful…a classic study of how Congress works. You don’t have to be a wonk to want to read on.”
National Catholic Register

“An exceptionally informative, candid, evenhanded description of the congressional process.”

Author Q&A

Q) How long have you been writing about the Catholic Church?

A) Since 1962, when Time magazine sent me to Rome to cover the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. That gave me a front row seat on one of the most significant events in the history of religion. I watched as the delegates at Vatican II tried to bring the Church “up to date” —to rethink many of the things that 20th century Catholics had always taken for granted, and then work out a new charter for what I call a “people’s Church.” For four years, the Church had a high, world-wide credibility as the Fathers of the Council tried to make the Church less Roman and more catholic, less a Church of laws and more a Church of love.

Q) How did the idea for A Church in Search of Itself come about?

A) In the fall of 1999, when it looked like the pope’s health was failing, I got a Rome assignment from Newsweek along with a book contract from Knopf to cover the drama of John Paul II’s demise and the election of his successor. I soon found out that Church politics was trashing Vatican II’s vision of a people’s Church. I started looking for cardinals coming to the next conclave willing to revise the revisionists.

Q) Your work looks more like a book on politics than a book about religion.

A) Yes, it analyzes the politics of power that’s a fact of life in every organization, even in the Church. It’s also a book about the condition of the Church that John Paul II left behind. And, on a third level, it’s a blueprint for some radical changes the Church at large is already making.

Q) What kind of Church did John Paul II leave behind?

A) If you take a global view, you’d have to say this thousand-year-old system is crumbling.

Q) A thousand-year-old system? Wasn’t the Church founded two thousand years ago?

A) I am not talking about faith in Jesus, something apparently as strong as ever, and growing in the least likely places. I am talking about the papal absolutism that was set up in the eleventh century. In 1086, claiming “divine authority,” Pope Gregory VII set up a rigid system, one that may even be more rigid today. For centuries, after the so-called Gregorian Reform, Catholics selected their own bishops in one way or another, sometimes by nomination of the prince or the king, sometimes by a vote of the people, or the priests. John Carroll, the first American bishop, was elected in 1789 by the new nation’s priests. It wasn’t until 1829 that Pope Pius VIII began to centralize everything in Rome. He started appointing all the bishops, making all the laws, interpreting all the laws, enforcing all the laws, and handling all the appeals. Now, popes don’t seem to understand the word “accountability,” and they give a bad example for the world’s bishops, and many priests, too. Many of them feel they are unaccountable.

People don’t like this. Many American churches are half-empty. Few young people attend church, and even fewer young women. They don’t trust their bishops, who rule from the top down in a bottom-up kind of world, most of the time badly, and in secret. Catholics are falling away from the faith of their fathers, not because they disagree with the Church’s faith-doctrines, but because the Church’s politics don’t make much sense. When the Vatican sneers at phrases like “democracy in the Church” and “women’s rights,” it loses its most well-educated members.

Q)In 1999, you went back to Rome on assignment from Newsweek magazine. What did you find there?

A)I met a number of cardinals–the men who would vote for a new pope to succeed John Paul II–and found a few inside headquarters who had some vision of a Vatican II-style, accountable Church. Then I traveled to other parts of the world, and found prelates open to change who would more likely favor a papal candidate who might make the Church more of a servant Church to its people, and to the world at large. More importantly, I found a good many other Catholics who were creating a more vital Church on their own, without waiting for Rome, the pope, or their bishop to tell them what to do. I used them to set up a great drama in my book about the changing of the guard in the Church, with the people on one side representing a party of change, and the clerics on the other side who had a personal stake in the status quo.

Q) In the book, you profile six cardinals on the way to the conclave to vote for a new pope. What was the reason for including them, and what do you say about them?

A) I wanted to show that the Church is so different in its various enculturations in different parts of the world, yet consistent with its message of Jesus Christ. In each chapter, I introduce a variety of people whose actions suggest different ways of “being Church”–North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Asian Catholics, I found, are much more open to those of other religions. They’ve learned to live with, and learn from, their Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim neighbors, without thinking they need to fear them, or convert them.

Q) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, is one of those six cardinals. Did you see him as a probable successor to John Paul II?

A) As the Vatican’s chief heresy-hunter, Ratzinger was the most prominent and articulate spokesman for the forces of no-change in the Church, perhaps even more conservative than Pope Paul II. I never thought the conclave would choose him. I imagined the conclave would do battle over a host of divisive issues that had been put on hold during the very conservative reign of John Paul II. As it turned out, there was no battle. 89 of the 115 cardinal-electors (all but two of them appointed by John Paul II) would go along with the candidacy of Joseph Ratzinger, who promised them the same kind of Church favored by John Paul.

Q) What can you tell us about the priest-sex-scandal in the United States?

A) Under John Paul II, the men in the Vatican tried to deny it. First they said it was just a story concocted by the secular press. When they couldn’t deny it any longer, they said it was an American problem, and ordered an investigation of the American seminaries, with a particular focus on candidates for the priesthood who were gay. In the process, they scapegoated a great many priests who were gay, but faithful and chaste.

Q) How do American Catholics get an accountable Church?

A) They shouldn’t leave it. We all need to bring updated answers to the basic question that faces every family (and every organization): “Who’s in charge, and how will they exercise their authority?” American Catholics need to make a move toward an autochthonous Church.

Q) What is an authochthonous church?

A) Autochthony, pronounced “aw-TOCK-thu-knee,” is an ancient model of Church governance. It describes churches loyal to the pope that glory in their own governance, their own married clergy, and their own liturgies. The pope has the power to approve such churches. Autochthony doesn’t mean autonomy. It means local control. It’s a way for American Catholics to take back their church.

Q) How can autochthony work in America?

A) Some American Catholics are pushing now for a national synod (or convention) in order to write a charter for a democratic Church. The delegates could follow a U.S. constitutional model–a three-part government: an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch. They could call for the popular election of two parliamentary bodies–a Senate of Bishops and a House of Commons. They could call for an elected president (or executive board), and a judiciary appointed with the advice and consent of both houses.

Q) What will this accomplish?

A) It will give the people a sense of ownership, as well as a sense of citizenship. Once Americans have the right to vote in the Church, they will feel like first-class citizens with a voice they can exercise, not on questions of doctrine, but on questions of discipline. Once they have this power, the churches will fill up again.

Q) Is this likely to happen?

A) Never underestimate the power of public opinion. The people’s Church is on the march. I know some American bishops willing to see how they can create the kind of Church their people demand. They hope Rome will listen and grant that permission. If Rome doesn’t, there could be a battle, part of a drama that will unfold as American Catholics try to grow up American.

Q) What is your next book about?

A) I’m writing a novel that shows an American cardinal-archbishop leading the American Church into autochthony at the Fourth Council of Baltimore in 2008. It’s an imaginative foreshadowing of the next step in the natural evolution of our Church. The characters are everyday people, fighting for new possibilities in a people’s Church.

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