Spotlight on Researchers Studying Catholicism
Date of Publication: June 26, 2012
Rich Wood is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico and founding director of the Southwest Institute on Religion and Civil Society. His research has focused on faith-based community organizing and intersections between religion and democracy. He describes himself as a practicing Catholic embedded in a public university, and spoke of the enormous opportunities afforded him to mediate between secular academic life and the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Originally from New Mexico, Rich’s dad worked at the nuclear lab in Los Alamos, and he describes his parents as New Deal Democrats who converted to Catholicism. For Rich, a turning point in his own life was learning of Archbishop Romero’s assassination in El Salvador. Rich was about 20 years old at the time, and nothing in his own middle-class Catholic background made sense of the event. This incongruity forced him to investigate, and the Church helped him to interpret the reality of this event, “The Church helped to make Archbishop Romero’s death meaningful, by interpreting it in light of the faith that does justice”.
Rich’s investigation brought him into contact with Base Communities in Latin America where poor Catholics were meeting together reflecting on scripture. Rather than the Church and the faith being an escape from the hard dynamics of life, these people were bringing the faith to bear on the real world that we live in and were engaging in conversation! As Rich noted, “God doesn't just call us to a certain set of behaviors but to deeply meaningful relationships...it's easy to live on the surface, but there is a yearning for a deeper life and the Catholic tradition can help us discover that in our own life.”
Throughout, Rich spoke of a “conversation model” for intellectual and spiritual growth. He suggested this model as a basis for the Jesuits and pointed me toward a book, “The First Jesuits” by John W. O’Malley. He noted how the early Society of Jesus drew people into conversation with each other and observed that in his current efforts at mediating secular academic life and the Catholic intellectual tradition, he tries to do the same.
Alongside conversations with academic colleagues, he mentioned ongoing conversations with those within the Church. Rich spoke of several important mentors including Bill Spohn, who taught him scripture, and Don Gelpi, a Jesuit who“taught me to write, and to stay healthy amidst academic work.” Rich said he discovered the “vast promise of the Catholic presence in America” while earning his Master’s degree in theology through the Franciscan school at the Graduate Theological Union. He also mentioned KC Young and Dolores Diez de Sollano, both spiritual directors and members of religious orders, who helped him combine adult maturity and faith commitment. “The Catholic tradition values authority and this is counter-cultural in America, where all authority is suspect. While the deep authority within the Catholic Church is a great strength, if misunderstood it can freeze Catholics in an adolescent Catholicism where we don't take full responsibility for our Church or our world. Instead of leaving things to bishops and priests, we need to understand that we are co-responsible with them.”
Rich studied for his doctorate in Sociology at UC- Berkeley, and the sociologist with the biggest intellectual impact on him was his mentor, Bob Bellah, a deeply committed Episcopalian. As a sociologist, Rich has left his own distinctive mark on studies of faith-based community organizing. For Rich, community organizing is about accountability to the whole community. It is not just about changing the political world or wider community, but bringing a community to life, by connecting them to the wider world. Inspired by the social teachings of diverse faith communities and by American democratic traditions, it can help make community more meaningful.
In his current research, Rich asks, “How can we make parish life better by connecting it to public life? How can we imagine a more vibrant parish?” His book project, entitled “Faith and the Fire of Public Life” explores the impact of public engagement on religious congregations in the United States. He says that pastors too often see civic engagement as a drain, but it can actually be a source of renewal and vibrancy. In our discussion, he provided many great examples of how organizing can revitalize parishes. He spoke of Fr. Dan Finn in Dorcester, Mass whose diverse ethnic parish was completely balkanized at one point, but after he brought in community organizers Andrea Shepherd and Julia Green to develop relationships between groups, the parish has become more collaborative. He mentioned Notre Dame d'Haiti, a very poor Haitian parish in Miami that has used community organizing successfully. He highlighted a parish in southern Texas, where Fr. Bart Flaat started base communities and brought in community organizer Sr. Judy Donovan to link these groups—with Our Lady of Guadalupe as the linking vision. All of these examples involve transforming parish life from below in powerful ways. Rich is enormously excited about his new book and is hoping to help Catholic pastors (but also Rabbis, Lutheran Pastors, Black Baptists, etc.) to see how their parishes can be more alive and more effective by linking worship life to public engagement. He believes spirituality that addresses adult lives can be born out of that engagement.
Rich spoke with pride of his time as faculty senate president at UNM, when he and other concerned faculty took a stand to reassert the academic mission as the ethical core of university life. But he is probably most proud of having brought the intellectual resources of the university to bear on the real world struggles of poor people to deepen democracy in America and to have brought those ideas into the Church as it thinks about its position in America.
Finally, he had some great advice for younger scholars interested in studying Catholics and Catholicism sociologically. He said, “Use whatever sets of skills you have, but in doing that, be sure that you get close enough to actual Catholic lives that you get a real sense of what you are studying. And try to study a little theology along the way.”
Date of Publication: December 30, 2011
Mark Regnerus is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and also a faculty research associate of the university’s Population Research Center. His research explores family, sexual behavior, and religion. He will also be contributing to CSPRI’s The Catholic Conversation blog.
Mark lives in Austin with his wife Deeann and their three children (aged 12, 11, and 3). He used to think of himself as a Michigander, but says that Texas feels like home now. He likes life in Austin and the entrepreneurial spirit of Texas. In line with that Texan spirit, Mark speaks plainly and he’s certainly not afraid of taking a risk.
Mark and his family became Catholic in 2011. Raised a Dutch Calvinist, and a pastor’s son, he completed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) last Easter.
Speaking of his kids and highlighting his new Catholic identity, Mark joked that his three children put him just at the edge of Catholic respectability. He suggested that two might have left him suspect and merely one child would surely have left him deficient as a Catholic. More seriously, Mark alluded to the fact that his academic interest in family formation trends and processes had arisen while still an evangelical and his recent entrance into the Catholic Church has shaped his own thinking about fertility and family life. While only a brief exchange, his comments highlighted potential intersections between Mark’s personal engagement with his Catholicism and his research on sexual behavior. It also hinted at future contributions that his academic research could potentially make to the larger Catholic Church.
In 1998, I read Mark’s article on “Selective De-privatization in American Religion,” which highlighted evangelicals renewed engagement in contemporary public life. It was a revision of his Master’s thesis and was co-authored with Christian Smith. I asked Mark about that article and he reflected on the providence of arriving at UNC-Chapel Hill as a graduate student shortly before Chris’s national study of evangelicals got underway. According to Mark, it is not often that the intellectual and sociologist that you admire most is also your adviser.
Considering Chris Smith’s attraction to critical realism, perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Mark now sees his own mission as opening people’s eyes to what is true, however uncomfortable. As a sociologist, Mark wants to find accurate information. He feels that we need to operate in reality, and sociological data is a reality check. This was one of the reasons that he first decided to study sexual behavior. He was tired that both religious and intellectual dialogues on sex were almost entirely moral, with very little sense of what people actually do. Looking back at his career, he indicated that he was especially proud of his two books on sexual behavior because they opened conversations between parents and teens and deepened discussions about sex, relationships, and marriage among a broader public. Engaging the public is likewise fueling his excitement for newer projects, including blogging. He used to see blogging as entirely navel-gazing, but now he sees it as an example of public sociology—an opportunity to build bridges between academic sociology and regular people.
Mark also wants to be a bridge builder; not just between sociology and the public but also between evangelicals and Catholics. “Having lived in one world most of my life and having entered another, now, for a year, I want people in both worlds to see things as they really are and to help people overcome their current disinterest in knowing about each other.” He indicated that, earlier in life, he held many erroneous beliefs about Catholics. Even more than wrong beliefs, though, he noted a basic disinterest in finding out more about the other—from both sides. He hopes (as do I) that more curiosity and more reality-based information will provide firmer foundations for bridge-building of all sorts.
Date of Publication: October 20, 2011
Michele Dillon is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire and is currently Tipton Visiting Distinguished Professor in Catholic Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Surrounded as I am by paeans to the “Fighting Irish” here at Notre Dame, I am obligated to at least mention Michele’s Irish Catholic background, which is detectable on her CV through the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees that she earned at University College Dublin. But it is absolutely unmistakable on the phone (and in person) as one listens to the lilt of her Irish brogue, and she readily acknowledges this early on in our interview by noting the importance of growing up in Ireland for shaping her own Catholic sense of self. Also important are the current personal touchstones of her life—Paul Wink, her husband and occasional co-author, and their two high school age children.
Michele's book, “Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith, and Power,” was published in 1999, and I read it soon thereafter while taking a course on American Catholicism at Indiana University with Mary Jo Weaver. It was my first experience reading Michele’s work, but it left a deep impression and shaped my own research trajectory. So, I was pleased that looking back over her career, Michele mentioned this particular book in identifying what she was most proud of in her research career.
She argued that the book showed that Catholicism as a religious tradition is not monolithic and has pluralistic strands within it, which provide for its richness. She found that Catholics care deeply and are attached to Catholicism as a tradition, but they also exercise individual autonomy in interpreting their faith. There are ruptures within, but these ruptures (if you can call them that) are not breaks, but instead provide avenues for institutional change. In fact, she found that personal autonomy actually helped to maintain institutional commitment by allowing people to remain committed despite disagreements with the institution over some aspects of doctrine.
In discussing her current research, she highlighted a recent national survey of U.S. Catholics, which she helped conduct with Bill D’Antonio and Mary Gautier. Entitled Catholics in America: Persistence and Change in the Catholic Landscape, it is the fifth such national survey since 1987, but the first one on which Michele has worked directly. She felt that some of their most important findings related to the large numbers of young Latinos and how they are altering the character of American Catholicism. For instance, they found that Hispanics, who were 10% of Catholics in 1987, are now 30% of all U.S. Catholics and 45% of U.S. Catholics aged 18-31. For more information garnered from their study, you can check out these articles in the National Catholic Reporter.