Church Life Research Initiative

Overview of Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life


By Larry Curran

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The study had its inception in 1981; its final report was published in 1989

"Our study is different from general population surveys that examine Catholic subsamples..
We began with a sample of Catholic parishes. Only after identifying the major differences among
U.S. parishes did we move to probability samples of parishioners and their identified leaders to
understand in microscopic manner their interactions within the local parish. Thus it is important to
identify this as a study of parishes and parish-connected Catholics."

Phase I, 1981-1982: The Broad View

Phase I of the study "began with a broad probe, 1981 - 82, to discover how a comprehensive, systematic, and in-depth analysis of American parish life as a whole could be undertaken. Ten percent of the nation's 18,500 parishes (at that time) were mailed questionnaires asking about membership, staffing, organizations, programs, etc. Of the 1,850 parishes receiving this request, 1,099 parishes returned usable responses."

"These responses showed general but uneven adaptation locally to the sweeping wave of change brought by the Vatican Council II, and that the 1,099 parishes differed greatly by region, by religious majority/minority status, by urban/rural location, by ethnicity, size and organizational complexity, and by dynamism of programs and level of loyalties."

Phase II, 1983-1985: In-depth Study through Multiple Approaches

"In order to examine parish life much more deeply as a dynamic community of leaders, members and programs, Phase II of the Study, 1983-85, focused on thirty-six parishes chosen among the 1,099 - six parishes from each of the six socio-cultural and ecclesial regions of the country. These 36 parishes were selected as representative of their region, according to criteria of rural, small-town, suburban, and urban; of size and ethnic composition; and by organizational complexity, dynamism of activities, leadership and participation. Parishes with dominant Hispanic membership were not included in the intensive study, because their religious culture merits its own study by its own specialist. Such research has already begun."

"After a training session at Notre Dame for sixteen field staff chosen from the six regions, a team composed of a sociologist and a liturgist together visited each parish over a weekend for 31/2 to five days. They observed liturgical practices and rated sermons during two weekend Masses, made plots of sanctuary and church floor plan changes since Vatican II, interviewed decision-makers regarding liturgy planning, preparation for sacraments, devotions before and since the Council, and diocesan guidance..They also collected parish publications, prepared ethnographies and histories of each congregation, photocopied samples of parish bulletins and newsletters, conducted interviews with lay leaders and described the parish's place in the life of the larger local community."

"Simultaneously, a major history project was underway. Six historians researched and prepared monographs on the history of Catholic parishes in each of the six US regions: Northeast, Southeast, South Central, Midwest, Intermountain, and Pacific. These regional histories of Catholic parish life, stretching back to the 1850's, have been published in two volumes. A second history project, also done with Lily Endowment support, was designed to fill a historical gap. It traced demographic trends and reform initiatives in the US prior to Vatican II, specifically among priests, sisters and laypersons, dating from the 1930's, then placed conciliar reform of parish and ministry in the broader context of changes in American culture."

Phase III, 1984-1988: Pastoral Interpretation and Applications

"During its final phase, 1984-89, the Study's findings were analyzed and communicated to church bodies and leadership, scholarly circles and the media. This third phase has also fostered interpretation and application of the Study findings in pastoral planning and ministry formation, liturgical creativity and theological reflection."

These reports are in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format. To view them, download the Adobe Acrobat Reader.

  • REPORT 1 THE U.S. PARISH TWENTY YEARS AFTER VATICAN II: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY
  • REPORT 2 A PROFILE OF AMERICAN CATHOLIC PARISHES AND PARISHIONERS: 1820s TO THE 1980
  • REPORT 3 PARTICIPATION IN CATHOLIC PARISH LIFE: RELIGIOUS RITES AND PARISH ACTIVITIES IN THE 1980s
  • REPORT 4 RELIGIOUS VALUES AND PARISH PARTICI PATION: THE PARADOX OF INDIVIDUAL NEEDS IN A COMMUNITARIAN CHURCH
  • REPORT 5 THE CELEBRATION OF LITURGY IN THE PARISHES
  • REPORT 6 OF PIETY AND PLANNING: LITURGY, THE PARISHIONERS, AND THE PROFESSIONALS
  • REPORT 7 THE PEOPLE, THEIR PASTORS, AND THE CHURCH: VIEWPOINTS ON CHURCH POLICIES AND POSITIONS
  • REPORT 8 PARISH ORGANIZATIONS: PEOPLE'S NEEDS, PARISH SERVICES, AND LEADERSHIP
  • REPORT 9 PARISH LIFE AMONG THE LEADERS
  • REPORT 10 THE PARISH AS COMMUNITY
  • REPORT 11 CATHOLICS AND THE CIVIC ORDER: PARISH PARTICIPATION, POLITICS, AND CIVIC PARTICIPATION
  • REPORT 12 WHO IS A TRUE CATHOLIC? SOCIAL BOUNDARIES ON THE CHURCH
  • REPORT 13 PARISH LIFE IN TOWN AND COUNTRYSIDE
  • REPORT 14 CATECHESIS, RELIGIOUS EDUCATION, AND THE PARISH
  • REPORT 15 POST-VATICAN II PARISH LIFE IN THE UNITED STATES: REVIEW AND PREVIEW