Redefining the Public Discourse at the Local Level: A Look at Two Catholic Parishes and their Attempts to Define Church Discourse

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] – 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.[2]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] This is a direct image used at St. Mary Magdalene Parish in the a homily on Palm Sunday 2012

2 thoughts on “Redefining the Public Discourse at the Local Level: A Look at Two Catholic Parishes and their Attempts to Define Church Discourse

  1. Lucas, I think you have an interesting MA project. In reading your post, one thing that struck me was your surprise at the focus both parishes had on human sexuality. I’m curious why this reaction. Given your cases -one seems to be a liberal parish and the other a more traditional parish – I would think that language involving sexuality would be present at both, especially given the polarizing issues we see in the Catholic Church today.

    Also, having attended a variety of parishes myself, I’ve seen both liberal and traditional ones mentioning the “culture of life,” though the culture of life at liberal parishes seems to be more expansive and includes social justice issues besides abortion/contraception. I get the impression that “consistent ethic of life” and “seamless garment” language is used more frequently at liberal parishes. Have you noticed anything similar in your ethnographic research?

    • Linda, thank you for your comment and your kind feedback. Your question about sexuality and my surprise is a good question. When I began the project, I didn’t anticipate that “social justice” would be present at the social justice church. I assumed that the projects would be focused on helping the poor, and on working for nonviolence in the world. However, when I began the fieldwork and interviews at the parish, I soon found that a neighborhood shift prompted the parish to adopt an “all are welcome” message for people who are gay and lesbian. This was a surprise for me because I had a narrow vision of what I thought social justice would probably mean for St. Mary Magdalene Parish.

      I did think that the Respect Life group at St. Pius would incorporate sexuality into their discussion, but did not anticipate that it would so strong. Specifically, I did not think that such a passion for Respect Life issues would lead the group to want to change the conversation of the parish to be around “Theology of the Body.” This surprised me again because I assumed that the projects would be focused only around politics and if they stretched in the moral realm, they would only be about protecting unborn children, not stretch into greater discussion of God’s vision of sexuality. However, this is the way that members of the Respect Life committee communicated their work, both in my observations and in my interviews.

      Your point about the seamless garment and the “culture of life” is an interesting one. What interests me is that at the social justice church, St. Mary Magdalene, there has been no talk of the seamless garment. In fact, in developing the all are welcome and collective narrative, I found that some projects (such as those that touched on abortion or would include a consistent life ethic) have been deemed outside the narrative. When Opal, a parishioner in charge of Respect Life spoke with me, she said that the group has been inactive for approximately five years because there is no institutional support from the pastor and there is no interest from the parishioners.

      Thank you again for your comment.