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  • Why Should Social Scientists Care about Catholic Parishes Today?
  • James Cavendish9

Catholic parishes and their role in the lives of Americans have intrigued sociologists of religion since at least the 1950s, when two pioneering Jesuit priests and Harvard-trained sociologists conducted studies of Catholic parishes in both the South10 and the Northeast.11 It was not until the 1980s, however, when an interdisciplinary group of researchers at the University of Notre Dame undertook the expansive Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life,12 that social scientists first gathered data from a nationally representative sample of Catholic parishes. In many ways, this was a seminal moment in the study of Catholic parishes, and I was fortunate to be a part of the team that analyzed the data gathered from that project when I was a graduate student at Notre Dame in the early 1990s. The Notre Dame Study was a first of its kind in that it entailed not only a survey of over a thousand Catholic parishes throughout the United States, but also a survey of the parishioners who attended a sample of those parishes, thereby allowing investigators to understand how the parish context itself influenced parishioners.

Now, approximately thirty years later, another expansive study of U.S. Catholic parishes has been published—Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century.13 Based on more than a decade of research drawing on national polls of Catholics, national surveys of parishes, and thousands of in-pew surveys administered to parishioners as part of the Emerging [End Page 4] Models of Pastoral Leadership Project, this study documents significant changes in the lives of U.S. Catholic parishes and their members over the last few decades. The authors describe new demographic and structural changes in Catholic parishes, uncover details about parish administration and finances, and shed light on pastoral models that can serve diverse populations.

Although the findings from these studies are certainly beneficial for Catholic bishops, diocesan administrators, pastors, and lay leaders within the Catholic Church, less obvious is how these studies and their findings can be beneficial—or of interest—to those outside of these circles. This is understandable because pastoral leaders were a primary intended audience for Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century, and most of its authors work for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a national, non-profit research center whose mission is “to increase the Church’s self understanding, to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers, and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism.”14

The questions I seek to answer in this essay deal less with issues of concern to church leaders and more with issues of concern to social scientists. Specifically, why should social scientists pay attention to Catholic parishes today? In what ways are Catholic parishes sociologically significant? Are they significant in ways not frequently observed in other types of religious congregations? Why might some people argue for their declining significance? As I hope to illustrate, there are a variety of reasons why sociologists in general, even those who are not particularly interested in religion or the Catholic Church, should be interested in what takes place in Catholic parishes and the influence they have on the lives of their parishioners.

Why Are Catholic Parishes Sociologically Significant?

In many respects, Catholic parishes are sociologically significant in the same way that other congregations are significant. In his book Congregations in America,15 Mark Chaves points out that “no voluntary or cultural institution in American society gathers more people more regularly than religious congregations.” There are over 300,000 religious congregations in the United States,16 and at least 17,000 of them are Catholic parishes serving an estimated 70 million American [End Page 5] Catholics.17 In fact, given the number of people who attend religious services in the United States, no other modern industrial society has as much congregation-based (or, in the case of Catholics, parish-based) religious activity as the United States.18 The Pew Research Center’s 2015 survey of U.S. Catholics shows that 39 percent of self-identifying Catholics report that they attend Mass at least once a week.19 Clearly, therefore, Catholic...


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