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  • Studying Parishes in Studies of American CatholicismIntroduction
  • Tricia Colleen Bruce1, Guest Editor

Catholic parishes embed and foretell a diverse and evolving American Catholic culture. Parishes influence individual Catholics’ behavior, and individual Catholics in turn shape parishes, collectively. Distinguished from many of their congregational counterparts, parishes connect together as nodes within dioceses and structures spanning the globe. Their geographic spread encompasses every corner—urban and rural, north and south, majority and minority, densely and sparsely Catholic. Depicted in canon law no. 515 as (1) a people (2) in a place (3) entrusted to a pastor (4) under the authority of a local bishop, a parish means much more than the church building it occupies.2

Why should sociologists (and others) pay attention to Catholic parishes today? What aspects of parishes are least understood by (and most important to) sociologists of religion? These questions animated a Fall 2016 panel of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Atlanta, Georgia. Three participants in that conversation—James Cavendish, Mary Ellen Konieczny, and Carol Ann MacGregor—codify their thoughts here, derived from wide-ranging experiences in and around sociological research on contemporary Catholicism. The topic springs from a broader, multi-year initiative led by myself, Gary Adler, and Brian Starks: “The American Parish Project.”3

I am no stranger to parish studies, myself. My first book, Faithful Revolution: How Voice of the Faithful Is Changing the Church,4 traced [End Page 1] the emergence of the lay Catholic movement Voice of the Faithful in response to the crisis of child abuse in the church. That movement arose from the basements, social halls, and parking lots of parishes throughout the United States. My recent book, Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church, the focus of a review symposium in this same issue, considers bishops’ use of “personal parishes” (i.e., non-territorial parishes) as a way to accommodate niche purposes and populations of Catholics.6 Field research informing this book took me into parishes around the country. On one particular Sunday in a Midwestern diocese, I attended eight Masses in almost as many languages. I stood; I kneeled; I exchanged the sign of peace; I breathed in the depth and variety that is the local American Catholic experience.

What many fail to appreciate is that sociological studies of parishes are not merely about parishes. On that busy day conducting field research, for example, each church door I entered dawned a world of inquiry: about culture, race, immigration, community, cities, social movements, family, gender, generation, aging, education, authority, politics, civic engagement, inequality, and more. Even to the extent that some sociological studies ask specifically about parishes, what rich entre into an increasingly rare brick-and-mortar form of modern community. There are, after all, still some 17,000 plus parishes throughout the United States, one variety of nearly 400,000 congregations that dot the contemporary American landscape.7 No matter how prominent a narrative of declining religiosity, parishes continue to matter substantially in the lives of millions of Americans. While this is especially true for the four in ten American Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, parishes nonetheless shape the relationship that even infrequent attendees feel to the church.8 Parishes are Catholics’ primary point of contact with Catholicism. Changing contexts, compositions, and counts do not imply inconsequence.

In the pages ahead, James Cavendish sets the scene by assessing the current state and promise of sociological literature on parishes. [End Page 2] Parishes share many functions similar to other types of congregations, Cavendish tells us, but are set apart by their highly centralized authoritative structure and levels of internal diversity. Cavendish nonetheless challenges an overly limited focus on parishes by noting that American Catholics attend Mass less frequently than they once did. And yet, even this trend introduces local dynamics worthy of attention, such as greater parish interdependence and diocesan-level programming. These reasons and more lead Cavendish to conclude that Catholic parishes boast myriad reasons for sociological study, even by scholars not specifically focused on the Catholic Church or religion.

The late Mary Ellen Konieczny next draws upon her self-described “insider-outsider” perspective as both...


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