Study of Catholic Parish Life

Project Number: 
Start Date: 
Sat, 01/01/1983
End Date: 
Thu, 01/01/1987

By the early 1980s students of American Catholicism had become keenly aware of the need for a reliable, social scientific interpretation of the contemporary parish since the upheavals associated with the Second Vatican Council and concurrent developments of the 1960s. Change has, for most of the American Church's history during the twentieth century, been kept to a minimum, yet there is hardly an institution of comparable size that has gone through as widespread and deeply felt change in as short a period of time as the Catholic Church since Vatican II. Church leaders and scholars alike are asking numerous questions: Why are certain parishes more lively and vital than others? What can be done to revitalize dying congregations? What happens in the parish without a resident priest? How do regional variations contribute to the shape of parish life? How can national Church leaders better understand and support Hispanic parish life? Sociologist David C. Leege of the University of Notre Dame intends to answer these and other questions by assembling a team of researchers who will develop an interpretation of the dynamics of the local Catholic parish. The goal of the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life is to gain a perspective on parish life that will comprehend the parish's structure, its ministry, the needs, perspectives and expectations of the parishioners, and also environmental factors, so that the interplay of these factors, as well as their relative importance in shaping the structure and activity of parish life, can be determined. This comprehensive analysis of Catholic parish life during this complex period of transition was expected to be useful to a wide range of leaders, including Bishops, Church professionals, priests and seminarians, and scholars, journalists, and other observers. The study used three research methods: 1. An exploration of the historical dimension of parish development in six regions of the United States. 2. A social scientific survey that sampled the views of parishioners in thirty-six parishes, in order to relate parishioners' views and practices to parish structures and patterns of ministry. 3. On-site observations by a team of social scientists and liturgists collecting information through interviews, observing practices, and measuring leadership style. This project differs from other social scientific studies of Catholics in the U.S. in that it focuses not on individual Catholics but on parishes. The parish is viewed as a local community of faith, made up of pastors, staff, lay leaders, and parishioners. By paying close attention to the parish as a critical unit in the life of the larger institution, the researchers hoped to gain a more adequate understanding of the interplay between demographic and ecclesial forces as they shape the Catholic Church in the United States.