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  • Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church by Tricia Colleen Bruce
  • William A. Clark SJ, Tia Noelle Pratt, and John Francis Burke
Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church. By Tricia Colleen Bruce. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 264 pp. $24.95.

The Catholic Church stands at the forefront of an emergent majority-minority America. Parish and Place tells the story of how America’s largest religion is responding to unprecedented cultural, racial, linguistic, ideological, and political diversification. Specifically, it explores bishops’ use of personal parishes—parishes formally established not on the basis of territory, but of shared identities and preferences. Tricia Bruce uses in-depth interviews and national survey data to examine the rise of and rationale behind new parishes for the Traditional Latin Mass, for Vietnamese Catholics, for tourists, and more. Featuring insights from bishops, priests, and diocesan leaders throughout the United States, this book offers a rare view of institutional decision making from the top. Parish and Place demonstrates structural responses to diversity, exploring just how far fragmentation can go before it challenges unity.


Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, once warned that if the church arises “from below,” “held together by her internal agreement” rather than by “the episcopal principle,” then “her catholic dimension crumbles away” (Called to Communion, 82). The argument is unexpectedly corroborated by the detailed sociological analysis throughout Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church, by Tricia Colleen Bruce, associate professor of sociology at Maryville College in Tennessee. Although Bruce studies the recent reappearance of personal (i.e., non-territorial) parishes in U.S. dioceses, she deliberately chooses a “view from the top.” The Introduction announces “a story of organizational change amid internal diversification . . . Personal parishes enable the U.S. Catholic Church [End Page 53] to reconcile voluntary association with authoritative hierarchy” (10). Bruce’s examination of six essential themes in this story (parish, boundaries, decisions, difference, fragmentation, and community) leads the reader on a surprising and stimulating tour of questions at the very heart of parish as a fundamental church institution.

The method is evident from the opening chapter, with a thumbnail history of “Parish” (perhaps a bit too reliant on two or three secondary sources), statistics from Bruce’s own nationwide survey of diocesan policies regarding personal parishes, and interview excerpts (the majority from clergy) and photographs from follow-up visits to twelve representative dioceses. This research revealed 192 new personal parishes established in 44 percent of U.S. dioceses since the revision of Canon Law in 1983. Bruce sees in the history a recurring pattern of lay agency balanced by hierarchical control. Interviews indicate the satisfaction of groups who long petitioned for the status, but Bruce underscores a larger significance: “Parish status is the most clear regulatory marker of the institutional church, and the most transparent measure of an emergent organizational form” (43, emphasis added).

Discussing “Boundaries” and “Decisions,” Bruce analyzes the importance of parish territory for diocesan administration, and the challenge presented by the emergence of a “parish marketplace.” Diocesan administrators have had to scramble to make sense of a system in which “parishes stayed immobile, but people were moving” (50). Some have turned to personal parishes as a partial response. Bruce emphasizes bishops’ exclusive authority to bring such parishes into existence, writing of subsidiarity as if it pertained only to bishops, but also considering the view of the petitioning and negotiating processes “from below.”

“Difference” and “Fragmentation” present parishes’ apparently losing battle for an all-embracing catholicity. “Generalist” territorial parishes, long understood as integrating diverse Catholics into unified communities, usually fail to do so—especially racially—given both “parish shopping” and boundaries that tend to reflect extant socioeconomic ones. Yet just as readers conclude that “specialist” personal parishes are the only just solution, Bruce reminds us that “personal parishes consciously fragment American Catholicism” (138), encouraging another type of “us vs. them” behavior, nurturing isolation and even antagonism toward other sectors of the church. (Strong examples come from non-ethnic parishes: urban social action, Latin Mass, Anglican Use, etc.) “Personal parishes,” she comments laconically, “offer an imperfect model of...


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pp. 53-62
Launched on MUSE
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