MC sociology professor leads study of Asian Catholics in U.S.

MC sociology professor leads study of Asian Catholics in U.S.

Dec. 5, 2014

Dr. Tricia Bruce, associate professor of sociology at Maryville College, is assisting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) with a project that will help inform the development of a broader national pastoral plan for Asian and Pacific Island (API) Catholics.

Bruce is working with the USCCB’s Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Island Affairs and the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church to conduct a nationwide assessment of the pastoral needs of API Catholics. Maryville College is the “home” for the project, said Bruce, who is leading the assessment.

Bruce, whose research interests include the sociology of religion, social movements, Catholicism, immigration, organizations and applied sociology, was asked by USCCB to lead the project because of her research on “personal” parishes in the U.S. Catholic Church.

“In the last 30 years or so, there's been a subtle resurgence of what are now called ‘personal’ parishes, or non-territorial parishes that serve particular groups,” Bruce said. “Of the personal parishes that do exist, most of them still serve ethnic groups – and of those, most serve Asian and Pacific Islanders.”

Changes in immigration law after 1965 introduced higher numbers of migrants from around the world, and the U.S. Catholic Church has seen a rise in Asian migration.

“In more recent years, the rate of Asian migration has surpassed the rate of Latino migration, so this is a moment that is introducing new challenges for the church,” she said. “While the U.S. Catholic Bishops have acknowledged the numerous and diverse contributions of Asian and Pacific Islanders, they would like to move from awareness to action with a national plan identifying strategies to meet the needs of API Catholics. They need social scientific research to help identify those needs and new demographic realities.”

After agreeing to take on the project, given the scope and timeline, she has involved Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Dr. Jerry Park of Baylor University and Dr. Stephen Cherry at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Park, associate professor of sociology and an affiliate fellow of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, has conducted research on API evangelicals and Cherry, assistant professor of sociology, recently published a book about Filipino Catholics, Bruce said.

The three formulated questions for the survey, which has been translated into 14 languages and was recently launched online. In the spring, the team will follow up with focus groups and interviews with key leaders as a means of bringing a mixed method approach – both quantitative and qualitative – to give the USCCB “the best grassroots information they can get,” Bruce said.

“We’re not doing it as a means of assessing in terms of ‘what’s right’ or ‘what’s wrong’ about what’s happening,” Bruce said. “We’re just taking a picture to tell them what it looks like, and then they can process it, adding a theological and ministerial perspective to shape a path forward.”

Bruce will submit a report to USCCB in August 2015, and the team will present its findings during the USCCB conference in Baltimore in November.

“The USCCB will take the results and get a sense of how best to minister to this community, and they’ll write the pastoral plan from there,” Bruce said. “That’s the end goal of this project.”

Bruce said there are several reasons why it is important to conduct research like this.

“The Catholic Church is a hugely diverse church in the same way that the United States is an extraordinarily diverse country, and the Catholic Church desires to best meet the needs of all its members as a means of building unity,” she said. “Social science offers a way to better understand communities in terms of their basic characteristics and their demographics. The social science that we would offer would help the church see what happens in parishes, what happens in dioceses, what social service needs are being met or not, and other areas. This knowledge enables Catholic leaders to understand and respond to challenges that API Catholics face. It helps the Church focus its efforts.”

Student involvement

Bruce often provides her students with opportunities to assist with her research. In 2012-13, she was awarded competitive grants from the National Science Foundation and the Louisville Institute, which facilitated collaboration with students on a project that examined personal parishes in the U.S. Catholic Church.

For the USCCB project, she intentionally integrated the project into some of her work at Maryville College. Maryville College sophomore Halle Hill ’17, who is double majoring in sociology and religion, has assisted with the development of the survey, online survey entry and outreach efforts.

“Working with Dr. Bruce on this research project has been a wonderful, informative and encouraging experience,” Hill said. “Seeing that I am studying religion and sociology, being able to see first hand how to two co-exist in this research is such a rare and awesome experience, and I am very thankful. I am encouraged to see that what I am passionate about and love to study has serious application in the real world, and is much needed.”

Bruce has also enlisted the help of Maryville College international students and alumni, who have assisted with the survey translations.

 “Their insider/outsider perspective has been an immense help,” Bruce said. “The survey is the best way to draw the broadest participation possible, but the translation of it was difficult. It’s not just the translation of the words; it’s translations of meanings. For example, it’s terribly difficult to ask questions about race in other languages.”

Students in Bruce’s research methods course helped enter the survey into Qualtrics, an online survey platform, and helped field test it. Bruce said the project has also come up in her immigration class and has served as a useful example in discussions about immigration and religion. 

Future research

After the research is complete, Bruce said that she hopes to use the data to co-author a book with Park and Cherry.

“There's just not a lot out there about API Catholics,” she said. “This study carries the potential to be transformative, with relevance to scholarship and application beyond the U.S. Catholic Church.”

Bruce is also working on another project called the American Parish Project, on which she is collaborating with sociologists from the University of Southern California and Kennesaw State University. The three have put out a national call for papers that look at the Catholic parish in different ways.

“We're trying to understand and reinvigorate parish studies - what is the Catholic parish in Catholic life and in communities more generally, and how does it tie into other areas of sociology,” she said. “There are some pieces of the Asian and Pacific Islanders project that connect with that, too.”

By Chloe Kennedy, Assistant Director of Communications


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,154.