Bruce publishes book on diversity, personal parishes in U.S. Catholic Church

Bruce publishes book on diversity, personal parishes in U.S. Catholic Church

Sept. 15, 2017

With more than 77 million Catholics, the U.S. Catholic Church is, now more than ever, home to a variety of Catholics from different countries, racial backgrounds and ethnicities – and with a wide array of political, liturgical and social preferences.

With this in mind, Dr. Tricia Bruce, associate professor of sociology at Maryville College, set out to understand “just how America’s largest religious tradition was accommodating these myriad forms of difference, locally.”

Her research is published in her new book, Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church (Oxford University Press, 2017). Through in-depth interviews and national survey data, Bruce explains how the American Catholic Church is responding at the local level to unprecedented cultural, racial, linguistic, ideological and political diversification.

Personal parishes are focus of book

Parish and Place is the first book to explore the phenomenon of “personal parishes” – parishes formally established not on the basis of territory, but purpose. “Personal parishes,” a phrase from Catholic canon law, convene Catholics by reason of nationality, ethnicity, language or other purpose, said Bruce, who is also the author of Faithful Revolution: How Voice of the Faithful Is Changing the Church (Oxford University Press, 2014) and co-editor of Polarization in the US Catholic Church (Liturgical Press, 2016).

Her focus on personal parishes initially stemmed from a conversation in 2009 with a former graduate school colleague.

“His Mom – a Vietnamese Catholic woman living in Texas – worshiped at a large Vietnamese ‘personal parish’ mere blocks away from her ‘neighborhood’ Catholic parish,” Bruce said. “I knew (or thought I knew) that all Catholic parishes had territorial boundaries. Unlike other congregations, Catholics are ‘assigned’ to parishes based upon where they live (even if they choose to attend elsewhere). What I learned is that there is another form of organizing Catholics, too: parishes based not on territory, but on purpose.”

“Looking at the phenomenon of personal parishes allowed me to see one clear example of how Catholic leaders are accommodating diversity, locally,” she continued. “While personal parishes remain in the minority among parishes overall, they are notable in that they prioritize specialization. Territorial parishes serve all Catholics in a given territory; personal parishes intentionally serve specific purposes and populations.”

In the book’s introduction, Bruce noted that the book’s focus is especially on personal parishes established after the promulgation of the Church’s 1983 Code of Canon Law – which gave bishops more discretion and control over when and for whom to establish personal parishes – and those with earlier founding dates that remain open today.

The book “builds an understanding of institutionally managed organizational change from the top,” and in six chapters, Bruce explores this perspective through a variety of angles, including: parish, boundaries, decisions, difference, fragmentation and community.

In her research, Bruce found that the majority of personal parishes are ethnically- or racially-based. For example, there are personal parishes for Korean Catholics, Vietnamese Catholics, Portuguese Catholics and Black Catholics. Personal parishes serving Asian Catholics are especially common, she noted, adding that there are fewer personal parishes that serve Hispanic Catholics, despite larger proportions of Hispanic Catholics among American Catholics overall. Personal parishes devoted to the Traditional Latin Mass (a pre-Vatican II, older form of liturgy) are most common among non-ethnic personal parishes. There are also personal parishes devoted to serving college students, tourists or downtown dwellers, and there are those that bear a social mission, catering to the homeless or local poor, she said. 

Personal parishes and the future of the U.S. Catholic Church

Bruce cited three reasons why personal parishes are important to the future of the U.S. Catholic Church. First, personal parishes acknowledge the difficulty that territorial parishes have in serving all Catholics equally, she said.

“First-generation immigrant Catholics, for example, may prefer Mass and other sacraments in their native language,” Bruce said. “College-age Catholics might be looking for more programming geared toward young adults and singles. Still others may prefer the sound of Latin to guitars. Doing all of this in one large, shared parish is hard … if not impossible. Personal parishes strategically devote resources to one area of focus, making sure that those needs are met.”

Second, personal parishes give local bishops – who lead the diocese – the flexibility to respond as they see fit to the needs of Catholics in their area. While some bishops do not use personal parishes at all, others view them as a creative way to organize Catholics, Bruce said. In her book, she writes about how these kinds of decisions are negotiated “from the top.”

Finally, Bruce said personal parishes are important to the future of the U.S. Catholic Church because they test the limits of unity in diversity.

“They raise questions about how much the Catholic Church can or should foster like-minded, homophilous parish communities rather than integrated, heterogeneous parish communities,” Bruce said. “Is it okay to separate some Catholics by identity or preference? Or, does this risk fragmenting Catholics, exacerbating the very social boundaries of race, class, politics, and so forth that already divide them? My book tackles these kinds of questions in-depth.” 

Research includes MC students

In conducting research for Parish and Place, Bruce used data from the National Survey of Personal Parishes, an original, national study of personal parishes fielded to all U.S. dioceses (which she sent to 178 U.S. dioceses). Using that data, Bruce then conducted a number of in-depth interviews with personal parish pastors and diocesan representatives in 12 dioceses across 11 states.

A number of Maryville College students served as research assistants for Bruce as she gathered data to inform the book, helping compile lists of personal parishes, information about specific parish types and logistical details for field site visits. Some students accompanied her on case study visits. Some attended, conducted and transcribed interviews, while others discussed findings with her, “considering how they fit within broader sociological trends and theories,” Bruce said.

“As professors, the scholarship in which we engage provides a wealth of examples (from researching, collaborating, writing, and presenting) to draw upon in our teaching,” Bruce said. “This kind of work breathes life into my classes in introductory sociology, research methods, immigration, sociology of religion, and more.” 

Beyond the Catholic Church

While Parish and Place uses the U.S. Catholic Church as its primary lens, Bruce said the book’s premise extends “to all institutions and organizations looking to balance unity and diversity.” For example, chapter six (titled “Community”) draws parallels between personal parishes and what’s happening in workplaces, neighborhoods, schools and public settings.

“The book also underscores the pivotal role of institutional leaders and authorities (here, bishops) in shaping organizational outcomes,” she said. “Cultural change on the ground is not sufficient: formal regulations and laws matter, too, in (re)orienting how Americans encounter diversity.”

Parish and Place invites reflection upon how, why, and when we as Americans inhabit communities alongside others who look/act/speak/think the way that we do,” Bruce continued. “This ‘sorting’ carries both advantage and disadvantage: spaces of similarity are often easier and more efficient to run, for example, and may better serve those who belong to them (especially those always in the minority, otherwise). On the other hand, partitioning ourselves into like-minded groups means that we may be not talk to each other across lines of difference. Fragmentation runs the risk of perpetuating social inequality, discrimination, unshared privilege, or a lack of empathy. I hope that Parish and Place gives readers additional tools and examples to help debate these kinds of questions. How do we accommodate diversity, while not undermining unity?” 

Book signing set for Sept. 30 in Knoxville

A “meet and greet” and book signing event for Bruce will be held on Sat., Sept. 30 from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. at the Paraclete Catholic Books and Gifts (417 Erin Drive, Knoxville, TN).

During the event, which is free and open to the public, Bruce and local author Monica Kimutis will field questions about their work and sign books.


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 2017 semester is 1,181.