Volunteer fire departments, bowling leagues and fraternal orders live on in much the same way the American elm has: Once a feature of the American landscape, their presence is increasingly vanishing — with important ramifications for the Church in the United States.

Social scientists have been calling attention to the weakening of American community life for more than a decade, and a new research group in the U.S. Senate, called the Social Capital Project, has been established to investigate the causes of that decline.  

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, established the Social Capital Project to examine American associational life, or “the web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors — namely, our families, our communities, our workplaces and our religious congregations.” Its first report, “What We Do Together,” examined the current state of associational life in America.

The findings show families are started later and have fewer children; a little more than 40% of Americans attend a religious service monthly, while around 20% report having no religious preference; less time gets spent with neighbors, and fewer people mix across class lines; less time gets spent with co-workers, and men with a high-school degree or less education have less work available.

The report concludes that “rising affluence has made associational life less necessary for purposes of gaining material benefits,” but adds that, as a consequence, “we have lost much by doing less together.”

In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Lee said, “The destruction of community life is a spiritual crisis for millions of our fellow citizens.”

“These Americans ... have been severed from local institutions that give meaning and repose to the soul.”

Scott Winship, director of the Social Capital Project, told the Register: “The declines we see have many causes —some good, some bad — including rising affluence, greater centralization and consolidation at nonlocal levels (including the expanding role of the federal government), increasing secularism, and greater economic opportunity for women.” But their negative effects on separate aspects of American society, he added, “probably did reinforce each other.”

 

Changes in Church Life

Catholic parishes have not escaped the diminishment of associational life. Around 40% of self-identified Catholics say they go to Mass at least once a week, but many people raised Catholic no longer participate in the Church at all. According to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute, “nearly one-third (31%) of Americans report being raised in a Catholic household, but only about one in five (21%) Americans identify as Catholic currently.”

A 2016 study found that the Church has been hemorrhaging Catholics. Brian Starks, associate professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University, told the Register that Catholics continue to be a large segment of the American population, but their unchanging proportion — estimated between one-fifth and one-quarter of the population since the 1970s — hides the fact that many Catholics have disaffiliated from the Church.

“In terms of Catholic identity,” Starks said, “demographically Catholics should have been increasing as a percentage of the U.S. population, but they haven’t been.”

Even “strong Catholics,” he added, are becoming a smaller percentage among those who self-identify as Catholics.

Starks said sociologists’ knowledge about parishes is limited, and they would like to know a lot more about parish life than we do.”  The significant differences between a mission church in New Mexico, for example, and an urban parish in Chicago, in resources, populations and challenges, presents difficulties in discussing “the Catholic parish.”

Starks said that parishes have not suffered as much as other forms of associational life, but they have transformed in significant ways.

In general, he said, “we’ve seen a trend toward larger parishes.” While these tend to have smaller on average participation rates, they can be “pretty vital in terms of programming” because of their larger populations.

That can lead to divergent views of the health of a parish: Looking at it from the top, the parish seems vibrant, with plenty of ministries and services for parishioners. But in the pews it can sometimes seem to be a church where mostly strangers exchange the sign of peace.

 

Church and Community

Local churches not only face challenges to their parish life, but also to their relationships with their immediate communities.

“People are less and less connected to brick and mortar associations or organizations, where they actually go and show up and build relationships with one another,” Tricia Bruce, associate professor of sociology at Maryville College, told the Register.

Another trend in American Catholicism has been the breakdown of the territorial parish. Canonically, every Catholic belongs to his or her local geographic parish, but Bruce explained that Catholics in the U.S. increasingly choose to “worship where they want to” and may even register at those parishes instead.

As a result, parishes can become less connected to their local community, simply because their parishioners don’t come from the surrounding neighborhood. Because the parish may not draw people of different socioeconomic backgrounds from the same territory, she explained, this can lead to the parish becoming more socially stratified as more people of similar backgrounds congregate together and have less opportunities to connect with people from different demographics.

“Churches are great networks for finding a job or someone to date and marry,” said Bruce. But climbing the social and economic ladder becomes more difficult, she explained, if the parish’s members are largely drawn from the same socioeconomic strata.

Parishes, as community associations, not only bond together people who share a common trait, but also bridge differences among people, allowing connections to be made from which come new social opportunities.

Brian Starks, on the other hand, explained that Catholic parishes can still provide high levels of community engagement.  

“Generally, Catholics tend to be pretty engaged in civic life,” compared to other religious groups, he said.

Starks added the research shows parishioners who are more engaged in their parish are also more active in their community. And there is also a link between sacramental participation and social participation in the community.

“As one increases, on average, the other increases,” he said. Because of that link, Starks added, “If people want to see changes in the larger cultural sphere, the parish is an important element in that larger transformation.”

 

Going Forward

Bruce, as the author of Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church, has studied the concept of “personal parishes” as one response to American parish life. Instead of being organized along a territorial basis, personal parishes are dedicated to a particular focus of a community, like the extraordinary form or a common ethnic background. Doing so can provide more unity and sense of community than a territorial parish often provides, though she said the concern is that they “codify the fragmentation” in the U.S. Church.

Starks said that the reasons for the decline of American parishes are “multicausal,” and competing theories abound. In the absence of knowing the “key factor,” he said, parishes could impress upon their members the uniqueness of the community encountered through church. Religious life suffers, or disappears, when it is seen as “just an additional obligation” that competes for time.

“Parish life isn’t just some add-on,” he said. “It’s actually crucial for living a good life.”

 Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.