The 1983 Code of Canon Law describes parishes as stable communities of the faithful. In their own ways, each of these far-flung parishes was just that, or seemed to be at the time. They were places—rooted and untransferable, woven recognizably into the fabric of their neighborhoods and geographies. Entering into the lives of these communities taught me that holiness has a fundamentally local character. They were holy because they were there, ordinary and unspectacular, each its own peculiar embodiment of the Communion of Saints.
My lifelong enchantment with the eccentricities of Catholic parishes prefigured my eventual vocation: I became a theologian. As a graduate student, I worked with Hosffman Ospino on the National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry. The work I do now is in what I call lived ecclesiology. Through ethnographic research in parish communities, I examine how lay people use ritual to negotiate cultural difference and experiences of suffering. This work relies on the conviction that attending to the messy particularities of parish life helps us read the unfolding story of the church, not just sociologically but also theologically. The parish is a locus ecclesiologicus—a space for deep reflection about the meaning and mission of the church in a changing context.
Today, the story that U.S. parishes tell is one of displacement on a massive scale. Parish closures and consolidations are reshaping territorial boundaries, throwing once-disparate communities together, scattering others, and leaving many in affected dioceses feeling pastorally abandoned and spiritually homeless. Meanwhile, the borderlines within parishes are also being reconfigured. As the church becomes increasingly diverse, cultural communities coalesce and coexist in “shared parishes.” In rarer cases, they establish personal parishes, akin to but much less common than the national and ethnic parishes of the past—a pastoral strategy most common among Asian-American Catholics.
Shifting, too, are boundaries of belief, affiliation, and practice. An increasing number of U.S. Catholics locate themselves on the peripheries of the church. Disagreement with church teachings, dissatisfaction with the role of women and the treatment of LGBTQ persons, and disillusionment wrought by the sex-abuse crisis have caused many to reevaluate their relationship to the institutional church and, in turn, to their parishes. Such displacements are harder to quantify—statistics on Catholic disaffiliation tell only part of the story—but they are supremely evident to anyone who has spent time in Catholic communities recently. In a particular way, the relentless tide of abuse revelations has exposed the fragility of authority, the deceptiveness of charisma, the insufficiency of Catholics’ formation on issues of sexuality, and the dark consequences of patriarchy and secrecy. The crisis has forced lay people, many for the first time, to wrestle in a sustained way with the reality of the church’s sinfulness and the limits of their own power. Some have chosen to leave altogether. Together, these transformations are upending perceptions of the parish’s storied stability. Parishes today are spaces of ambiguity, uncertainty, and change—unstable communities of the faithful.
At the macro level, the geographical center of gravity in the U.S. church is shifting under our feet. Dioceses throughout the upper Midwest and Northeast are closing, merging, and clustering parishes in an attempt to maintain viability in the face of declining Mass attendance, worsening clergy shortages, and a surfeit of aging church buildings too costly to repair. In New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago—once urban centers of U.S. Catholic life—two decades of restructuring efforts have shuttered or consolidated hundreds of parishes and Catholic schools.
Meanwhile, in the South and West, parishes are overflowing more quickly than they can be built. America’s largest parish is in Charlotte, North Carolina—historically one of the least Catholic regions in the nation. Nearby, in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Catholic population increased by 259 percent between 2000 and 2010, in part due to immigration. Two years ago, I moved to Atlanta to teach at Candler School of Theology, the United Methodist seminary and theological school at Emory University. In 2018, Candler inaugurated a program in Catholic Studies, a response to the explosive growth of Catholics in the region and the paucity of institutions here dedicated to forming them for ministry. In Atlanta, half of the archdiocese is Latinx. Black Catholic students are a defining presence at Candler. In other words, this is a region that looks a lot like the church itself.
Geographical transformation has coincided with sweeping demographic change. In the 1980s, the landmark Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life offered a comprehensive portrait of U.S. parish practice two decades after Vatican II. Unparalleled in its scope at the time, the results of the study definitively shaped collective understandings of what was happening on the ground in U.S. Catholicism for decades to come. But excluded from the study were Spanish-speaking and other non-English-speaking parishes and parishioners. Unsurprisingly, the picture that emerged was of a church that was normatively white, largely assimilated, and primarily English-speaking. That wasn’t fully the case then, and it’s even less the case now. People of color—Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and others—make up more than half of U.S. Catholics born since Vatican II. Latinos alone account for 71 percent of the U.S. Catholic population’s growth since 1960. Today, they compose about 38 percent of U.S. Catholics, and well over half of Catholics under the age of forty.