- Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century by Charles E. Zech et al.
This slender volume represents the culmination of years of work by the staff of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University to update the findings of the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life, completed in 1987. That iconic study long provided the most comprehensive data available on Catholic parishes, but has now been in use for thirty startlingly eventful years. Many smaller, specific studies have since suggested the magnitude of the changes taking place in the U.S. church. The opportunity for another broad-based study, however, did not arise until 2009, when cooperation began between CARA and the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project (a collaboration of several national Catholic organizations and the Lilly Endowment). Together they envisioned a study large enough to build on the Notre Dame data, to examine trends that have unfolded since the turn of the century, and to add data on new questions emerging with those trends. To achieve this, they designed a general survey of a large sample of parishes, with follow-up surveys of representative sub-samples of both parish leaders and “in-pew” Catholics.
A series of reports has already been issued by CARA as the various phases of the research were completed and analyzed. These will remain valuable for the detail they provide on particular aspects of the study. This is the volume, however, designed to bring it all together. The authors skillfully weave the most relevant material from the Emerging Models study with information gained through various other recent [End Page 63] CARA projects, to produce a lucid, coherent, and very readable narrative of U.S. parishes today. The picture that emerges is of an institution whose practical reality is being radically reshaped by powerful demographic, social, cultural, and economic forces, even while most of our presuppositions about what parishes are and how they operate lag noticeably behind.
The book is organized in short chapters on specific key topics in contemporary U.S. parish life. The authors first detail some of the most striking changes since the Notre Dame study concluded. These include demographic shifts toward the South and West, an increasing number of multicultural parishes, the growing dominance of post-Vatican II and Millennial generations, the decrease in number and increase in size of parishes, and changes in parishioners’ loyalty to their “home parish.” Chapters follow on the demographics of pastoral leadership, strategies for reconfiguration of parishes, administration and finances, parishioner demographics, cultural diversity, and “The View from the Pews.” Each chapter gives a straightforward presentation of trends, illustrative statistics, and coherent discussion of implications. In a few instances—primarily in certain statistical notes and in the Appendix on Data Sets Used—the jargon employed might send some readers to consult a reference work. These moments, though, do not detract noticeably from the admirable clarity with which the data is presented, both in the narrative and in the many user-friendly graphs and tables. All of the concluding sections, also, contribute to making the book valuable to a variety of readers: a neatly presented summary of the trends in parish life over the last thirty years, and the specific impact they have had; the aforementioned list and descriptions of the data sets mined for the book; a substantial reference list including documents, studies, and books essential for anyone interested in U.S. parishes; and a good, detailed index of names and topics.
CARA’s consistent modus operandi in its reports, as Marti Jewell reminds readers in her Foreword, requires that “the interpretation and application of these findings are left to the reader.” Although there are odd moments of advocacy for specific policies (this is notable, for example, in the “Parish Administration” chapter), Catholic Parishes by and large retains this standard. This may stir some initial impatience in readers who quickly start to see the enormous and varied implications of this data...