Research on Priestless Parishes

Project Number: 
Start Date: 
Thu, 06/01/1989
End Date: 
Fri, 08/31/1990

In the past thirty years changes in Catholic canon law and practice and in American society have gradually created opportunities for women to exercise leadership in Catholic parishes. The Second Vatican Council called lay people to more active participation in the life of the Church, while the 1983 revised code of canon law stipulated that non-ordained persons could administer Catholic parishes. During this same period, the Catholic population of the United States increased and the number of ordinations to the priesthood declined. As a result of the convergence of these and other factors, American bishops have slowly begun to appoint women as administrators of parishes without resident pastors, often called "priestless parishes." Recognizing the significance of this growing phenomenon, sociologist Ruth A. Wallace of George Washington University designed a study to explore the experiences of women who administer parishes without resident priests. In 1989, she arranged to visit twenty of the then approximately eighty Catholic parishes led by women. The chosen parishes were located in various regions of the United States, but mainly in rural settings. Wallace spent a weekend as an observer- participant in each of the parishes. She attended functions such as liturgies and baptisms, and interviewed four persons from each parish: the woman "pastor," the priest who served as sacramental minister, and one male and one female parishioner. She also gathered additional information about various parishes by consulting parish histories and newspaper articles.