Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century

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Charles E. Zech, Thomas P. Gaunt, Mary L. Gautier, Mark M. Gray, Jonathon L. Wiggins
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For centuries, the Catholic experience in the United States has been characterized by a constant dynamic of disruption, transformation, and settling. As new waves of immigrant Catholics make the US their home, the cycle repeats, although with varying nuances depending on the historical moment. Deeply ingrained in the Catholic consciousness is the desire to build communities where people are initiated in the faith, the sacraments are administered, Catholics of all ages learn and appropriate the faith, and entire families discern how to live their lives inspired by their faith values.

By the early 1990s, after nearly two centuries of migratory waves mainly from Europe, US Catholics had built one of the largest networks of parishes in the entire world: about 19,600. This is a major accomplishment, indeed, given that Catholics barely constitute a quarter of the US population and most lived over these centuries in the Northeast and the Midwest.

The end of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first was marked by another cycle of disruption, transformation, and settling in Catholic parish life. This is the main story that Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century tells. This insightful and informative work is the result of a collaboration among a team of sociologists of religion and an economist dedicated to studying parish life. The story they tell is grounded in recent research projects whose data aim at tracking important changes in how Catholic parishes operate and how demographic transformations affect parish dynamics.

In the early 1980s, the University of Notre Dame conducted a Study of Catholic Parish Life, the largest of its type until then. Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century uses this Study of Catholic Parish Life as a starting point to make comparisons and trace important trends. More recently Catholic parish life has benefitted from a significant array of research efforts, many under the leadership of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). The book builds on data sets resulting mainly from projects in which CARA has participated.

The book has ten chapters. Chapter 1 serves as the introduction, laying out the plan for the book. A key chapter in the book is chapter 2, which highlights important changes that have taken place in the US Catholic landscape during the last quarter century, the key to understanding emerging models of ministerial life, pastoral leadership, and the needs of an increasingly diverse Catholic population. Worth noting are the geographical and ethnic transformations redefining US Catholicism. Most Catholic structures in the country were built in the Northeast and the Midwest to serve a mainly Euro-American population during the last two centuries. Today about half of the Catholic population lives in the South and the West thanks to the influx of Hispanic and Asian Catholics in these regions. The authors also mention a growing disparity in terms of fewer leaders and resources and the emergence of larger and multifunctional parishes, particularly in the South and the West. They conclude the chapter with a brief analysis of the practice of “parish shopping,” common among about 30% of US Catholics and even more common among those in the millennial generation.

The following chapters walk the reader through the intricacies of how geographical, cultural, and generational changes are redefining different areas of Catholic parish life in the United States. Among the themes addressed in the rest of the book are parish leadership changes, administrative reconfigurations, finances, and life in culturally diverse parishes, among others. The penultimate chapter introduces an interesting variation. Drawing from recent surveys, the chapter gives voice to Catholics in the pews. One may imagine that amidst the many transformations and disruptions that Catholic parishes have experienced in recent years, including scandals and ideological tensions that often make the news, Catholics would be severely critical of their parishes. The data actually reveal a more positive and hopeful attitude. US Catholics, at least those who frequent their churches on a regular basis, are usually satisfied with what happens in their parishes on matters of worship, their pastoral leaders, and opportunities for outreach.

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century offers a twofold service to the study of Catholic parishes in the United States. On the one hand, it is the most complete work available that traces important changes in Catholic parish life during the last three decades. The work excels at summarizing large sets of data and offers enough information to get a good sense of each particular dynamic it describes in its chapters. Although the work exhibits academic rigor in the research it presents, the authors did not write it primarily for an expert readership. Any educated person involved in ministry in the Catholic church in the United States will be able to understand and appreciate the book. On the other hand, the work names important trends that beg for further research. Chapter 10 presents these trends in a very succinct way. Scholars of religion interested in Catholic parish life should not find themselves short of ideas.

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century is an excellent resource for understanding the most recent iteration of the “disruption-transformation-settling” dynamic shaping Catholic parish life in the United States. The analysis can certainly be strengthened with recent research on Catholic parishes with Hispanic ministry, parishes serving Asian and Pacific-Islander Catholics, personal parishes (i.e., parishes canonically established to meet specific needs such as rite, language, or nationality, among others), and the rich instances of congregational life in non-Catholic communities that parallel realities similar to the ones described in the book.  

Catholic parishes are ultimately communities where the baptized come together to discern their experience of faith and encounter God. Consequently, the informative sets of data and rich conversations available in Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century beg for further study that goes beyond social scientific analysis. The book provides an excellent background for scholars of religion, pastoral experts, and theologians to bring the best of our methodological tools to weigh on the information available. We ought to be grateful for the groundwork done in this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hosffman Ospino is associate professor of theology at Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles Zech is a professor of economics in the Villanova University School of Business and the Director of Villanova's Center for Church Management. He is the author or co-author of over 50 articles and 12 books on the topic of church management.

Mary L. Gautier is a sociologist and senior research associate at CARA. She specializes in Catholic demographic trends in the United States. She edits The CARA Report, and is the co-author of eight books on Catholicism.

Mark M. Gray is the director of CARA Catholic Polls and a senior research associate at CARA. A political scientist, he specializes at CARA in attitudinal and polling research. He teaches in Georgetown University's Catholic Studies and Liberal Studies programs.

Jonathon Wiggins is a CARA researcher whose primary focus is helping parishes to plan for the future through Parish Life Surveys. He teaches part-time at Georgetown University, where he once served as a chaplain-in-residence. 

Thomas P. Gaunt, S.J. is the executive director at CARA. Prior to CARA, he served in Jesuit governance on the national and province level for sixteen years, and earlier on was a pastor and director of planning in the Dioces of Charlotte for ten years.

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