parishes

Protesting Catholic Parish Mergers: A sociological investigation

For 4 years or so I’ve been working with colleagues and students on a study of parish changes and lay Catholic protest. The study considers attitudes about parish life and Catholic authority in a context of significant reconfiguration in the diocese. Recently, a paper written with my colleague Meg Ksander as part of the project was accepted for publication at Review of Religious ResearchIt is available now here, behind a pay-wall.

I’d like this paper to be read by lay Catholics involved in changes in their own parishes and dioceses, and by leaders who make decisions about the future of the church. So, I’m going to share a version of the paper here on my blog, hoping it might find some interested readers who wouldn’t find it in the journal. The abstract is below, and here is the paper.

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This mixed method study describes contention over parish reconfiguration in a northeast Catholic diocese, and a case study of one merged parish. Guided by social movement theories about collective action frames and political opportunities in mobilizatio0n, we outline the diocesan frame of reconfiguration and the counter frame developed by activists who organized to oppose the process. While the diocesan frame focused on a shortage of priests that officials believed demanded reconfiguration of financially burdened parishes, the lay counter frame shifted the debate to questions about the role of the laity in the contemporary Catholic Church and what they perceived as failed leadership from their bishop. Our case study of Resurrection Parish shows how the merged process and the activists’ opposition to their diocesan leaders resulted in a parish that works to ensure the involvement of the laity, and continues to publicly dissent from Catholic leaders.

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A diverse parish? What’s that mean?

What does it mean to be a diverse congregation? Most congregations aren’t very diverse, meaning the vast majority of American places of worship tend to be mostly folks of one race. For example, Emerson and Kim report that 90% of U.S. congregations are at least 90% one racial group (2003: 217).  They define a multiracial congregation as one in which no racial group makes up more than 80% of the membership, and find that less than 8% of U.S. congregations meet that standard. Yes, those data are a little old, but I’d be surprised if it has changed very much.

Over the last 5 years, or so, I’ve been paying attention to significant changes taking place in the Catholic diocese of Syracuse. Because of a lack of priests, the diocese has closed a relatively large number of parishes. One of the parishes that was closed was considered by many in the city to be the ‘Black Catholic Parish.’ The data I have on this parish, qualitative and quantitative, show that to be a semi-reasonable claim. Its members were more likely to be African American than at other parishes, and it probably did meet Emerson and Kim’s criterion for diversity. When I interviewed white people, they certainly thought of it as a ‘Black Parish,’ and they valued that diversity. African Americans I interviewed also valued the diversity of the place, but they were less likely to think of it as explicitly ‘black.’ They would point out that it wasn’t just a white and black place, but that there were other people of color there too. Not to mention worshipers from a variety of class situations.

When this parish closed as part of the changes in the diocese, it merged with a parish that was relatively progressive and considered by Catholics of color to be a welcoming place. But, it was a very white parish, and wouldn’t have qualified as diverse according to Emerson and Kim. It was definitely not as ‘multicultural’ as the closed parish, and this is confirmed with interviews I did with people who attended there after the merger. The merger, importantly, created a new place of worship inside the building of the mostly white parish. Some from the former ‘black’ parish said the new place was diverse because they brought that diversity with them. To them, the ‘diversity’ was the same faces from their old parish, and still they weren’t all African American. For the worshipers who didn’t have to go anywhere for the merger, this new community was “definitely” more diverse.

The new place is diverse according to the measure developed by Emerson and Kim, but the experience of that diversity is not the same for everybody. For some it was new, and an adjustment. For others it was much the same as before, but not exactly. Besides having moved to a new building, there was the fact that in the old parish they were simply being Catholic, but now, to some extent, they were ‘the diversity.’

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Emerson, Michael O. and Karen Chai Kim. 2003. “Multiracial Congregations: An Analysis of Their Development and a Typology.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42(2):217-227.