Parish Matters

August 3, 2015 at 9:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics, by Mary Ellen Konieczny. NY, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. Paperback, $29.95. 249 pp.

The Shared Parish: Latinos, Anglos, And The Future Of U.S. Catholicism, by Brett C. Hoover. NY, NY: New York University Press, 2014. Hardcover. $49.00. 237 pp.

These days, the parish is not exactly the focus of attention for many progressive Catholics. Some of us may belong to a parish, but more of our energy goes into reform groups like Call to Action, SEPA WOC, Dignity, etc. And small faith communities are often—though not always—at the center of our spiritual life.

Nonetheless, parishes influence the identities of many of the sixty-seven million Catholics in the United States. In 2014, in fact, there were 17,483 U.S. parishes. And as two recent books suggest, we can learn a good deal about the American church from studying them.

In The Spirit’s Tether, University of Notre Dame sociologist Mary Ellen Konieczny examines the impact of participating in one or the other of two Catholic parishes in a an unidentified Midwestern city. She does so to cast light on ways in which parish beliefs and practices underpin the polarization that she and other scholars believe characterizes contemporary U.S. Catholicism. Drawing on interviews she did at both parishes over nearly two years concerning the subjects of marriage, family, and work, Koneiczny argues that while secular political attitudes and elite discourse contribute to the culture wars in the U.S., “polarization is also constituted among Catholics through local level social processes.” (8)

Konieczny identifies a number of divergent beliefs and in the two parishes that she studies as expressed in metaphors for church, worship practices, and convictions about marriage and family. At “Our Lady of the Assumption” the first of the two parishes studied, the primary metaphor for church is “family,” with God the Father and the priests of the parish at the head of the church and husbands the head of a family. (My use of quotation marks indicates the likelihood that the author is not using real parish names). At “Assumption” clergy and members place major emphasis on natural family planning, opposition to abortion, and having large families; mothers, whenever they are financially able, stay home to raise the children and leave their secular careers behind. Worship is formal, and priests at “Assumption” hear confessions seventeen hours a week, including throughout Mass.

At “St. Brigitta,” on the other hand, the primary metaphor for church is community, and clergy and members place great emphasis on equality and social justice. Though there are several different forms of worship at “St. Brigitta,” Konieczny describes the Sunday Mass celebrated in the parish gymnasium, with lay readers (including former priests), a dialogue homily, popular music, and kids playing games at the edges of the gathering. She also interviews those who attend the “gym Mass”: members hold a range of opinions regarding abortion and birth control, and even when mothers stay at home for a period of time to raise kids, they still identify with their careers or professions, and families where parents both work struggle to attain the proper work-family balance. Konieczny concludes from her analysis of these two selected parishes that attitudes and practices in parishes make a significant contribution to polarization among contemporary U.S. Catholics.

In the second parish study, The Shared Parish, Brett Hoover, an assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, explores the complex relationship between two groups within one Catholic community, Latino and Anglo Catholics in the Midwestern parish of “All Saints” in the “Diocese of Port Jefferson” (Both of these names are pseudonyms, in the interest of privacy). Hoover documents and analyzes the specific ways in which these two groups do and do not interact and why this matters.

In the first three chapters, Hoover recounts the history of “All Saints,” from a tiny Catholic parish in a Protestant town beginning in 1860 to the contemporary ethically mixed parish he studied, and the various methods Anglo and Latino/a Catholics there use in their interactions with one another. He then explores different approaches to the idea of “unity” in each group. His account of the impact on the Latino community of the Anglo pastor’s washing his Chicano concelebrant’s feet during the Holy Thursday liturgy is deeply moving.

In the final chapters, Hoover explains that various more “Protestant” approaches to analyzing interculturalism in Catholic parishes don’t really work because Catholics don’t just “choose” their parishes; they “share” them. They do so because they are Catholic, something that motivates each group to negotiate and interact with one another. Finally, The Shared Parish explores visions and practices that move communities beyond what sociologists call “cultural encapsulation,” or perhaps, “polarization.” These include the U.S. bishops’ use of the term “multiculturalism” in place of the once-preferred language of “assimilation” or “the melting pot.” Even more effective, Hoover suggests, is for leaders to draw on the theology of communion, in which parish members can understand that they are celebrating the same Eucharist despite doing so in different languages. Such a transformation involves not just a change in thinking, but the modeling by leaders of different feelings, rights, and obligations.

It’s tempting to compare these two studies and to come down in favor of Hoover’s. This is so because of the “ideal types” methodology that Koneiczny uses to consider “Assumption” and “St. Brigitta.” “Ideal types,” invented by sociologist Max Weber in the early part of the twentieth century, focuses upon and simplifies two extreme examples of a social group so as to highlight the differences between them. Critics say this contributes to polarized conclusions. So Konieczny, in effect, uses a polarizing method to explain polarization in American Catholicism, a circular process.

Yet it would be a pity to dismiss The Spirit’s Tether on these grounds, because the author does, in fact, use a multi—or at least bi—disciplinary approach, integrating ethnography into her sociological analysis. And the interviews on which she bases her argument about parishes and polarization are, in themselves, quite interesting. A conversation on a particular subject between Konieczny and one or more members of “Assumption” and then “St. Brigitta” begins each chapter. Konieczny also uses parts of interviews to illustrate her arguments throughout the chapters. Although marriage, the family and work are not my favorite topics, I was quite intrigued, for example, by the experiences she describes of various couples negotiating work, family life and belief in the twenty-first century.

It’s a pity, though, that the author uses such rich material to illustrate what seems to me an unhelpfully binarized conclusion. Surveys indicate that only two percent of U.S. Catholic women use natural family planning, so at least some differences between Parish A and Parish B are perhaps better described as those between a tiny minority and a much, much larger group within the American church rather than between opposite poles.

Hoover’s methodology, using ethnography, sociology, Latino/Latina studies and theology, is far better suited to contemporary complexity and results in a richer and more helpful study than Konieczny’s. And, paradoxically, by introducing communion as a tool with which to approach differences between ethnic groups, Hoover suggests a solution to the problem with which Konieczny is primarily concerned but which her method seems to reinforce.

Lest I seem totally unbalanced in my preference for The Shared Parish, let me say that I consider it a limitation of both studies that they consider only parishes in the Midwest. I wonder what each author would make of my parish here in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where the population is a third Caribbean, a third Haitian, a third Latino, and two percent white, and where Pentecostal Catholics and Our Lady of Guadalupe devotés march with feminist theology professors and other professionals in a massive People’s Climate March?

(This review appears in the July-October 2015 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. My analysis of The Shared Parish also comprises part of a review of that book that appeared in the May 8-21 2015 issue of the National Catholic Reporter).

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