I am currently working on a Master’s Thesis project at Loyola University Chicago examining parish cultures around politics. The study focuses on two ethnographies in the Archdiocese of Chicago – 1) an ethnography of St. Mary Magdalene Parish, a self proclaimed social justice parish with a collective narrative of “All are Welcome,” and 2) St. Pius Parish, an active parish in the Archdiocese working on issues regarding respect for life. A finding I am currently working through is an unexpected focus at both of the parishes on human sexuality.
When I began this study, I assumed that this would be a study of two parish outreach projects – one about social justice (helping the poor) and the other about respect life (anti-abortion). Wrapped up in both of these parish understandings, however, is a deeper discussion of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.
For Catholics, teachings on sexuality are stated, and the Archdiocese of Chicago under Cardinal George has followed the company line. For Catholics of the Respect Life Group at St. Pius, these teachings are met with open arms and a desire to explore and deepen their understanding of them. At St. Mary Magdalene, however, members of the parish continue to feel outrage and hurt that their church promotes a limited view of human sexuality, which excludes anyone who is not heterosexual. Instead, parish members turn to a Gospel that emphasizes love and the redemption of Christ on the cross. The message here is clear – even here, Jesus promotes a message of love and forgiveness, even on the cross.
For members of St. Mary Magdalene, a focal point of the All Are Welcome collective narrative they have established is a central focus on inclusivity – here, written into the narrative they read during their 2011 Easter Vigil Mass, they include sexual orientation as central to the changes of the 80s: “New neighbors brought a diversity of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation that enlivened the conversation. The benefits are still felt today as new ministries are established to respond to the needs of our dynamic and evolving community. Together we strive to make our motto true – All are Welcome.”
For the members of the St. Pius Parish Respect Life committee, sexuality is infused throughout their work and it is linked to a search for Truth. Tad, a white man in his fifties involved in the parish and Respect Life ministry, describes this search for “the truth of the dignity of the person and the wholeness of the person in the womb from conception – this is an important truth that is avoided in the culture of death if not denied.” Members of the Respect Life ministry argue that abortion is merely the tip of the iceberg because the culture has a disordered view of sexuality that promotes a culture of death, “a materialistic and utilitarian devaluing of human dignity.” Rather, what is truly needed is a return to the Church which offers us the vision of human sexuality God intended for us. To achieve this vision, I am observing an active attempt to redefine the discourse of the parish. Through a weekly bulletin comment about Respect Life, flyers located at every entrance to the Church, an essay contest about life for middle school students, and many other projects, the committee is trying to develop what they believe would be a “culture of life.”
Thus, in the parish cultures of both St. Mary Magdalene and St. Pius, I am observing an attempt to define the public sphere. Cassanova (1994) argued that religions such as Catholicism sought to leave their privatized sphere and reenter the public sphere, (re)defining the political culture of their given nation. I wonder if we are seeing something similar – an attempt by two Catholic parishes entering the public sphere within Catholicism with a hope of redefining the discourse of the parish around human sexuality. For St. Mary Magdalene parishioners, I believe they succeeded – they created a shared collective narrative and most parishioners across the parish have embraced it. For St. Pius, the Respect Life ministry is only five years old and they are still actively working to redefine the discourse in their parish to more authentically relay the truth they see the Church as promoting.
Cassanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
 While the study took place in the Archdiocese of Chicago, the names of the parishes and any names of parishioners in this blog post are given pseudonyms to keep confidential the actual identities of the individuals and groups in this study.
 This is a direct image used at St. Mary Magdalene Parish in the a homily on Palm Sunday 2012