In spring 2004 the Archdiocese of Boston announced its plan to shut down (or "suppress") eighty-two of its 357 parishes. While most of these closed relatively uneventfully, others were taken over and occupied by groups of "resisters," disgruntled parishioners who mobilized themselves to save their parishes by petitioning church leaders, garnering public support, and essentially keeping their churches open by dint of their presence (typically including all-night vigils). In his probing and thoughtful analysis, John Seitz tells the story of these parishioners, focusing especially on why and how they chose to resist church leaders as well as on what their activism might tell us about modern Catholicism.
To do so, he relies on three research methods. First, he conducted three and a half years of fieldwork among resisters at two primary parishes – Our Lady of Mount Carmel in urban East Boston and St. Albert the Great in suburban East Weymouth – and also at several others scattered within and around Boston proper. Second, he conducted in-depth interviews with more than fifty resisters at these parishes. And, finally, he complemented these sociological methods with historical research, which enables him to show again and again how the claims of both the resisters and church hierarchy are founded upon very different retrievals of Catholic identity and practice rooted in the past.
Woven throughout his analysis is this abiding sense that the past is very much present amid this controversy that undergirds Seitz's central theoretical contribution. Resisting the tendency to frame modern Catholics as being on an inexorable and linear path away from traditional norms, deference to religious authority, and so forth, he espies a far more "tangled reality" whereby the very meaning of individual agency among Catholics is constituted in negotiation with the traditional norms and deeply redolent symbols to which they have [End Page 91] access. "Catholics took up ways of thinking about parish practice that developed after the Second Vatican Council," he observes astutely, "and added them to rules they had been taught or that had lingered on in parish life from before the Council" (223). In other words, resisters spoke often about individual conscience and a more collaborative model of church, ideas they learned in the wake of Vatican II. Tangled among these, though, were much older conceptualizations of the local church – as sacramental, as site of cultural resistance, as product of communal sacrifice, and so on – that proved to be even more salient for framing their resistance to church closures.
What on the surface might seem like a simple story (i.e., bishops v. resisters), Seitz never ceases to remind us, is actually fraught with complexity, nuance, and more than a little irony. There are places where this story could have been told more clearly in terms of better organization and less repetition. And, especially with respect to his claim about the past as present in Catholic discourse and identity, the story could have been even more compelling if he had provided a better sense of who these resisters are (demographically, ideologically, etc.) so we could know how representative they are vis-à-vis American Catholics as a whole. Nevertheless, Seitz has told a story that anyone interested in American Catholicism, as well as in the nexus of religious tradition and modernity more generally, should take time to read.