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  • The Parish as the “Missing Middle” Unit of Analysis in Catholic Studies
  • Carol Ann MacGregor45

Why should someone who studies Catholic schools study parishes? On the surface the answer seems obvious. Historically, schools, and particularly elementary schools, have been organizationally linked with local parishes. And, yet, as an early career scholar of contemporary Catholic schools, parishes have not played the prominent role in my own scholarship that they might have. Why?

As background, my research on contemporary Catholicism focuses primarily on K-12 schools. I wrote a dissertation on the causes and potential consequences of Catholic school closures. In addition, for much of the last two years I’ve been in the field interviewing teachers, administrators, students, and parents at eight high schools around the country for a large comparative study of moral and citizenship formation across school sectors.46 As a starting point for this essay, I begin by considering whether the ways parishes have been absent from most of my work to date could provide a useful starting point for thinking about where we are in the study of parishes and where we might go in an alternate world where data availability was not a concern. I argue that, at present, it is much easier to find data on individuals or dioceses and as a result the parish remains the “missing middle” unit of analysis in the study of contemporary Catholicism. While there are some excellent ethnographic and interview based accounts of parish life in the social sciences, recent quantitative work is more difficult to find and there are cultural and methodological reasons this is the case.47 One notable exception is the recent work of Charles Zech and colleagues.48 I conclude by noting some of the ways in which having better data on parishes might inform our understanding of a host of other social and political phenomena including academic [End Page 21] achievement and volunteering and civic engagement as well as help clergy better serve those in the pews.

Why We No Longer Study Catholic Parishes and Schools

One of the foundational works in the sociology of Catholicism is Father Joseph Fichter’s Parochial School which is an ethnographic account of life at an elementary school that also gives some quantitative attention to the beliefs and behaviors of students at the school.49 It was one of the first things I read when I began my dissertation research. If my experience is any indication, other scholars will find it easy to cite respectfully in many contexts but will find the data itself is no longer all that relevant beyond its historical value. Much has changed in the sixty years since the data was collected. Fichter wrote about a tightly coupled, nearly inseparable, set of institutions with a shared mission and shared leadership and staff and a large overlap in the population served. In the contemporary era, school closures and consolidations mean that the dominant organizational form for most schools today is management by a diocese, religious order, or network of feeder parishes, not a single parish located in close proximity and governed by a single priest.

Fichter also wrote at a time when parishes were still territorially bound and when many Catholics lived their lives via a cradle-to-grave system of institutions often just blocks from where they lived. Schools today are often not “neighborhood schools” in this traditional sense—something that raises questions about how we study them as part of a larger organizational ecology and about the nature of school community in a time of school choice. The parish school now draws students from many parishes to say nothing of the fact that it also increasingly draws many of its students from Protestant congregations, synagogues, and mosques and from families who do not practice any religion.

In many ways, then, parishes and schools in the contemporary era seem to be separate organizations. This idea is also born out in some of my own recent interviews with parents at eight Catholic high schools around the country. In the school communities where I have spent time, parish life largely seems confined to Sundays and is separate and distinct from the Monday to Friday grind...


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