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  • Studying Catholic Parishes: Moving beyond the Parochial
  • Mary Ellen Konieczny33

My interest in the sociological study of Catholic parishes is both scholarly and practical, based in two very different professional experiences that together make me something of an “inside-outsider” to this world. I introduce my comments on the value of studying parishes by discussing these two experiences, since each orients me differently vis-a-vis American Catholicism and its parishes, and they inform each other.

The first lens is institutional, and reflects an “insider” role in the Catholic Church. Before my graduate studies in sociology, I pursued and received a Master of Divinity degree and worked in the Archdiocese of Chicago for nine years. Seven of these years were spent working in Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s administration, where I had the opportunity to visit and/or work closely with between one-third and one-half of the archdiocese’s parishes (which then numbered over 350). During these years I got to know Chicago’s parishes well. But more than this, immersed in the world of archdiocesan administration, I was exposed to the structure, networks, and politics of a large and complex bureaucracy that was often tightly coupled with its parishes.

The second lens is rooted in my graduate training in sociology at the University of Chicago. When I entered graduate school, my mentors encouraged me to study Catholicism. Consciously choosing an “outsider” status that I didn’t have previously, I saw the parish ethnographies I conducted for my dissertation research as not only a way to contribute to sociology, but also as useful to American Catholics. The result was my first book, The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics.34 In that book, I sought to understand why cultural conflicts surrounding the family (such as those over abortion, homosexuality, and women’s roles in church and society) are so resonant among contemporary Catholics, and how parishes may contribute to moral polarization in larger civic and ecclesial arenas. I still see this as a crucial challenge for U.S. Catholics [End Page 13] as well as for American society writ large. But just as important, Chicago’s internationally-oriented environment trained my scholarly gaze in a way that is surprisingly compatible with Catholic thought: it directed me toward the variability and interconnectedness of the larger human community, seen through local manifestations of the Catholic Church.

These twin perspectives—as both insider and outsider—shape the way I think about Catholic parishes and inform the comments that follow.

Studying Catholic Parishes—Beyond the Parochial?

“Why should sociologists, and other scholars, pay attention to Catholic parishes today?” is an important question for those of us who study Catholicism. I think it is particularly important because—like any empirical topic we are invested in—we may find ourselves inadvertently forgetting that, because many of our colleagues may not be as captivated by the subject matter as we are, we may actually need to work to convince them of the significance of what can be learned by engaging parish studies. In fact, the “why” of studying parishes is perhaps especially pertinent today in the contemporary United States, where the decline in religious affiliation, including among Catholics, along with the recent accelerated rise in the percentage of religious “nones,”35 has been interpreted by some as rendering religion generally, and Catholicism in particular, as lacking relevance in contemporary Western societies.

Thus, the “why” question ultimately does scholars of American Catholicism a service, because it has the potential—perhaps ironically, given that we are talking about parishes—to move us beyond the parochial. What do I mean by parochialism here? Poulson and Campbell, in assessing parochialism in the sociology of religion, define it as “a tendency for sociologists to focus on issues being debated in their own society.”36 And in fact, there is an older criticism that sociological research on religion, especially institutionally-oriented research, tends toward parochialism. In particular, some strains of denominationally-oriented [End Page 14] research on religion have neglected to consider the larger theoretical significance of its empirical findings.37

Of course, there is a tension here for scholars who care about making a public or...


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