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The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work and Religion among American Catholics

My recent book The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work and Religion among American Catholics, was the product of a comparative ethnographic project which began with the simple question:  Why are contemporary conflicts about the family—such as abortion, women’s social roles, same-sex marriage, and contraception—so emotional, and so resonant among American Catholics?  We know that the media and public politics play a role, but I wondered:  How are people’s everyday lives, and the ways they understand them in the light of their faith, related to these conflicts, which so often divide us?  While such polarization is by no means exhaustive or all-embracing, it is a nevertheless significant contemporary concern in both church and society.

In order to answer these questions, I explored the relation of religion and family life in two parishes: Assumption Church, which is religiously conservative, and St. Brigitta Church, which is theologically progressive (both pseudonyms).

My first example is from an interview with June Schweickert, whom I met at Our Lady of the Assumption.  At the time, June was a homeschooling mother of five children (at last report, June and Chris, her husband, who do not believe in using artificial contraception, now have eight).  Prior to becoming a stay-at-home mom, she was a Montessori school teacher.  When I asked her what she would do when she was finished raising her children, she said that along with tending to her family when they needed her, she “would like to be more involved in community service somehow…to do pro-life work.”  She explained,

“Growing up, I was pro-choice.  ‘It’s a woman’s body, and she should have the right,’ that argument made sense to me.  But with the experience of pregnancy, I had such feelings of protectiveness toward my children.  And with abortion, there’s no one protecting this baby.  I don’t think that’s right.   (141)

My second, contrasting example, is from an interview with Maggie McNeill, who belongs to St. Brigitta, the theologically progressive church in the study.  Maggie and husband Rick had two small children when I interviewed her; now they have three.  Like June, she is a full-time stay-at-home mother.  Prior to having children she was a social worker at a home for children with developmental disabilities.  About being a stay-at-home mom, she said, “I put my professional life on hold.  It’s the hardest thing about motherhood…It doesn’t feel very equal [in my marriage] but it’s fine for now.” (221-2) When I asked Maggie about Catholic teachings prohibiting artificial contraception, she explained that she and Rick struggled with the church’s teachings on sexuality as a whole.  She said,

“This isn’t smorgasbord Catholicism, at least I don’t think so.  I think that what I believe can all fit together.  We’re pro-life, and it’s always a struggle, finding your place in that.  I think of abortion along with issues like the death penalty, as a part of a consistent ethic of life.  It’s not as cut and dried for us as church teaching.  [But using artificial] contraception is just not an issue for us.” (132)

June’s and Maggie’s words both illustrate and are underlain by differences in ways of thinking about marriage, sexuality, and children that are profound and often polarized.  This is true even though they share class, educational and professional backgrounds, they are both stay-at-home mothers, and both intensely identify with their Catholic faith.  Why is this so?

In my book, I examine two social processes in Catholic parishes—one involving congregational metaphors, and the other involving religious identity construction—that contribute to different cultures and structures of family life among Catholics, which can foster polar ways of approaching faith and family represented in June and Maggie.

First, central church metaphors matter for each woman’s family life. Central metaphors for the church express what it means to be church, and they are expressed in varied ways in parishes. These metaphors are important because they are the central image for social life in the church, and because they have consequences for the social organization of the family, since they can be used to imagine family life and solve problems in the family. We see these images cultivated and reinforced, for example, in the ways in which Sunday masses are celebrated and religious devotions are practiced.

At Assumption, where June and Chris Schweickert belong, the central metaphor for the church is that of a family: a nuclear family with paternally oriented authority relations, religiously modeled on the holy family. An element of this image at Assumption is the valorization of motherhood, and the centrality of nurturing and protecting children as a part of women’s vocations.  This image supports June’s feelings about motherhood, her role as a mother in the family, and also, her beliefs surrounding the contentious issue of abortion—which changed, she said, with the actual experience of pregnancy and motherhood.

By contrast, at St. Brigitta, the central metaphor for the church is not family, but community. This image of church as community is one of equals, and entails norms of autonomous authority, service, and justice—as well as in the imperative to build community beyond the church, in the wider world. In fact, Maggie’s marriage is supported by the ideal of a community of equals in service to others, which may be why she feels vaguely unequal in her marriage now that she is a stay-at-home mom. Moreover, she dissents from church teachings prohibiting artificial contraception, since as a member of a community with a flattened, more autonomous understanding of authority, she understands this to be a private moral decision within her purview.  But significantly, while Maggie holds a similar position on abortion to June’s, since they are both pro-life, the logic of Maggie’s opposition to abortion differs dramatically from June’s.  For this reason, Maggie says that “it’s always a struggle, finding your place in that, [the abortion debate,]” since the central arguments in the pro-life movement share the logic of Assumption’s religious metaphor of the church as family.

The second social process that is intertwined with family life is the construction of Catholic identity. Catholic identity is a combination of bonds—what people in each parish hold in common—and boundaries, that is, how people identify themselves as belonging to a particular group and not others. Identity against is particularly important here, since it can foster emotions of antagonism toward others.

At Assumption, Catholic identity is both assertive, for example, on the defense of the nuclear family, but is also defined against others: as we see in what June says against those who espouse feminism, and against secular cultures more generally. At Assumption, Catholic identity is also defined against Catholics who are not perceived to be “Catholic enough,” for example, in aspects of family religious practice such as Sunday worship, reception of the sacraments, and prayer, as well as in stands on these cultural conflicts—for example, against those who do not follow church teachings prohibiting artificial contraception.

Similarly, Catholic identity at St. Brigitta is defined positively by the importance of service, compassion, and justice—and negatively against those that promote deleterious forms of hierarchy, inequality, and injustice that are understood to inadequately respect human dignity.  Thus, Maggie’s opposition to abortion is not rooted in a sense of motherhood.  Instead, it is supported by the image of the just community, defining itself against injustice in a consistent ethic of life that connects abortion to other life issues both within and without the family.

These examples, then, briefly show how parishes can become implicated in family life in different ways, and  places where moral polarization around the family can be fostered.  In fact, these processes  can create fragmentation of the Catholic tradition by unintentionally  emphasizing — only some of the religious beliefs and practices that speak to contested issues about the family, rather than paying attention to the tradition as a whole.  Doing this may make a complicated issue, like abortion, seem less complicated, but such practices  often also inintentionally increase antagonism between polarized groups.  And in so doing, they diminish the vitality of religious groups, as members of the same tradition oppose each other, feel antagonism toward one another, resulting in and disengage from one another instead of engaging in respectful dialogue.

Mary Ellen Konieczny
About the Author
Dr. Mary Ellen Konieczny is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago in 2005. Her book The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics (Oxford University Press 2013) is an ethnography of liberal and conservative Catholic parishes that examines how religion and family life support and shape Catholic Americans’ moral and political polarization.