Sociological Research on Liturgy

So, where can we find relevant empirical research on liturgy?  Since Mike McCallion was the very first person to comment on this blog, I decided that I would highlight some of his previous research on liturgy, and I am hoping that he will write about his current research in a later post.

McCallion’s dissertation research examined the implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) within the Archdiocese of Detroit.  In a later book (co-authored with his dissertation adviser, David Maines of Wayne State), the lens was broadened to depict the general implementation processes that followed Vatican II liturgical reforms.

Since his dissertation specifically examined RCIA, I’ll reiterate some useful context information regarding RCIA.  McCallion noted that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) promulgated in 1963 during Vatican II ordered that the catechumenate for adults be restored, but it was left to a smaller liturgical committee to actually revise the sacraments of initiation, and this commission did not finish its work until 1972, with the English translation finally approved in 1974.  So, it was a decade long process from promulgation to revision to translation.

We might imagine that liturgical change ends when the above process is completed—but McCallion showed that there is wide variation in how different RCIA coordinators implement the rituals outlined by the RCIA text.  As he notes, “Policies may well originate in powerful decision making groups like the Second Vatican Council or the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions or Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy, but they must flow through contexts and networks of social relations in order to have any effects.  In flowing through these contexts, they invariably are changed to one degree or another.”  Thus, implementation at the ground level is just as important for sociological study as policy development by elites.

In his research, McCallion found that suburban parishes tended to have text-adhering coordinators, whereas urban parishes more often produced text-adapting ones.  What did he mean by “text-adhering” and “text-adapting?” And why were these differences associated with location?

In general, text-adhering liturgists were adamant about sticking to the RCIA text.  It was their primary source for defining “proper” and “improper” implementation of the RCIA.  Such coordinators are caricatured in the common joke:  What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?  Answer:  You can negotiate with a terrorist.

Text-adapting liturgists, on the other hand, readily adapted the RCIA text and sometimes bypassed its rituals all together.  One example of this involved the dismissal rite.  A text-adapting coordinator told McCallion, “The candidates come to Mass but we don’t kick them out (use the dismissal rite) or anything like that.  People interpret that as being rude here and so we just don’t do it.”  Rather than adhering to the text, these coordinators adapted it to their parish understandings and circumstances.

So, why was location important for understanding who was text-adhering or text adapting?  Part of it was education, and how liturgical training embedded folks within liturgical social networks.  Coordinators who were liturgically trained and rooted in liturgical social networks tended to be text-adhering, and they also tended to work in suburban parishes.  Not just education, but race and other social factors impacted social networks.  But most importantly, these social networks were mechanisms for transmitting a particular “definition of the situation.”  According to McCallion, “this liturgical definition of the situation claimed that Americans do not appreciate ritual, indeed Americans are anti-ritualistic.  Moreover, priests have not been trained in liturgy and so are basically inept to lead liturgical ritual.  And then to drive all of these claims home, another claim was repeated, ad nauseum, that stated the RCIA and other liturgical rites were being implemented in the most individualistic context imaginable- North America.”  Thus, text-adhering coordinators held a basically negative (or at least highly critical) view of existing culture.

Notice how the text-adhering definition of the situation fits Nathan Mitchell’s “high church” narrative in which liturgical critique quickly shifts to cultural critique.  But it focuses on a different cultural critique.  Whereas I noted concerns related to secularism and the lack of transcendant imagery as important for the new translation in my previous post, McCallion argues that the post-Vatican II high church group was initially most concerned with individualism.  Consequently, ritual (as a public, communal activity) was seen as a means of “pushing back” against the individualistic contemporary American culture.  Liturgy shaping culture.

In a blog post, I cannot do justice to an entire dissertation and a follow-up book.  So, I will not try to enumerate all of the interesting findings in this work.  Let me note, however, that McCallion recognized himself in the caricature of the “text-adhering” liturgist.  Formed by his training in theology and liturgy, he had a highly critical view of enactment of liturgy in most parishes and he wanted to study RCIA sociologically to substantiate his convictions.  But his sociological investigation indicated otherwise—thus his research forced himself to reevaluate his own deeply held understandings and to become more critical of his own previous views.  Consequently, McCallion abandoned (perhaps too strong a wording) the high church camp and developed ideas and themes more consistent with the second of Mitchell’s three theoretical approaches- emerging ritual.  Theories of emerging ritual developed as a critique of the “classic” consensus and argued that rituals always emerge organically from communities.  Instead of a “ritual wasteland,” modern society is in fact chock full of meaningful ritual, but you must be willing to find it on its own terms.

As a result of this shift, McCallion was able to recognize and highlight some key sociological ironies that have played out in the implementation of Vatican II liturgical change.  For instance, he notes the ironic growth of bureaucracy in order to “implement community.”  He also suggests that we can view liturgical workers as a new knowledge class and profit from seeing the liturgical movement as a social movement, but one that, ironically, in its quest to implement community often finds itself at odds with the laity.  Thus, he argues that implementation of liturgical change has led to the rise of a professional class of church professionals, including professional liturgists, who have contributed to divergences between professional diocesan/parish workers and the laity.

Consequently, he sees liturgists as too often forces of chaos and disruption.  Michael McCallion’s work does not pull punches, but it is important to recognize that he sees himself in the image that he critiques.  So, he is being as hard on himself as he is on others.  His work is well worth reading.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to buy all of his conclusions.

In the end, his research points to some key questions that sociologists studying the new translation’s impact should be asking…How is change being implemented?  Who is implementing it?  Is there variation in how parishes are implementing the new translation?

Inquiring minds want to know:  How has your parish gone about implementing the changes?  Who is charged with implementing changes in your parish?  How did they prepare parishioners?  How have they responded to parishioner concerns?

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