Parish and Place

Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church

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Tricia Colleen Bruce
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The opening hymn we sing at my parish is frequently “All are welcome in this place,” which may be considered the anthem of the territorial parish at its best. Tricia Colleen Bruce’s book, Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church, provokes questions about the reality of that inclusive welcome, and examines the structured, canonical ways that personal parishes accommodate diversity so that all are in fact welcome and can find a parish home—a place—in every diocese. 

Territorial parishes and personal parishes are the two ways in which Catholic parishes are organized under Canon Law. Every Catholic is assigned to a parish by territory, using maps that cover every inch of the American landscape. But the US Catholic Church also has communities that don’t easily map onto the territorial parish structure, and Catholics themselves are mobile, and don’t always adhere to their territorial assignations. Bruce’s study takes up the question of the institutional management of that diversity and mobility through personal parishes, which are parishes that exist for specific purposes, and draw from dioceses irrespective of territory. In the 19th century, the US Catholic Church responded similarly to the diversity born of various immigrant communities through the creation of national parishes. The formation of national parishes ended as a practical option in 1917, with the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law. Throughout most of the 20th century, immigrants did not have the option of forming national parishes; new immigrants had to join territorial parishes, which may or may not have welcomed them. That began to change with the revised Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983, which provided the option for bishops to form personal parishes “by reason of rite, language, or nationality…or even for some other reason” (Canon 518).

Bruce’s book provides the first comprehensive sociological study of personal parishes in the United States since their establishment as a canonical option in 1983. Her study is both quantitative and qualitative. Bruce developed the National Survey of Personal Parishes, which was sent to all 178 (arch)dioceses in the United States. Those surveys garnered an 80% percent response rate, giving her work a solid, quantitative base of data on the history, distribution, and makeup of personal parishes in the US. She followed up the broad survey with nearly seventy interviews with representatives from twelve (arch)dioceses, including bishops, priests, and diocesan personnel, whose work interacts directly with personal parishes. Those interviews constitute the rich ethnographic portion of the study.   

Bruce deftly manages multiple axes of inquiry and data across six chapters, probing how place and purpose—the two organizational principles shaping the experience of American Catholic life—interact. In the first three chapters of the book, Bruce traces the history, organizational structures, tensions, and processes that shape parishes, both territorial and personal. In the first chapter, Bruce outlines the history and meaning of “parish” in Catholic life. Chapter 2 discusses the nature of boundaries, how the boundedness of parishes functioned to create hubs of belonging for Catholics, and how the experience of boundaries changed after Vatican II as Catholics began crossing territorial boundaries in favor of choosing a parish they liked better. Personal parishes are one institutional response to the grassroots reality that more and more Catholics were looking for a parish that met their needs. Chapter 3 examines the process and criteria by which bishops choose to make a new personal parish in response to petitions from communities within the Church.  

In chapters 4 and 5, Bruce examines the complex cultural terrains of parish life, asking how issues of difference (chapter 4) and fragmentation (chapter 5) drive the need for parishes with a specific purpose, and how personal parishes meet those needs. The chapter on difference is a challenging investigation into how territorial parishes have often failed to create welcoming, multicultural communities, in spite of the cultural and linguistic diversity within American Catholicism. In response to this failure, personal parishes provide meaningful structures for vibrant community life that support immigrants (for example) in the transmission of language and culture, as well as in critical acclimation to US culture. The chapter on fragmentation (chapter 5) takes on the diversity in American Catholicism that emerges through other kinds of distinctive Catholic subcultures. Bruce explores how personal parishes can institutionalize fragmentation, while they also meet very specific real needs of Catholics. Her study examines the inherent tensions involved in the existence of parishes, like those dedicated to the traditional Latin Mass or to a social justice mission, in which one must not only be Catholic to belong but also commit to the purpose of the parish. Yet therein lies the reason people look to personal parishes in the first place: they were not able to find belonging in territorial parishes. 

Across the study, Bruce points out how Catholic parishes are different from congregationally constituted (exclusively grassroots and voluntary) communities. Religious elites (bishops and chancery staff) operate from the top down to organize and integrate Catholic faithful across dioceses. In chapter 6, Bruce examines how the top-down organization of the institutional church works to support communities across dioceses, and not only within parishes. She argues that for bishops, the vision of diversity and inclusion in the church takes into account a diocesan-level view. Personal parishes give bishops flexibility in working towards the goal of making everyone welcome within the diocese.

The work of Parish and Place opens up a door for important further pastoral and ecclesiological investigation. In these fragmented times, it is genuinely difficult to discern how best to support people and communities across differences while also building inclusive communities. Bruce’s study provides valuable information and interpretative frameworks for continuing conversations about how best to deal productively with diversity and fragmentation within the Catholic Church. Readers interested in the promise and problems involved in personal parishes will be provoked to think more deeply and critically about these important issues.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Julia H. Brumbaugh is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Regis University in Colorado.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tricia C. Bruce is associate professor of sociology at Maryville College, whose books include Faithful Revolution and Polarization in the US Catholic Church. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California Santa Barbara, and has conducted research for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


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