Sociology Catholicism
Tricia C. Bruce
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0045


The sociology of Catholicism, like the sociology of religion more broadly, examines how individuals, communities, and organizations engage with religion in social contexts. Its emergence in the late 1930s came in response to perceptions of anti-Catholicism in sociology and academe as a whole, combined with a rejection of strict positivism. Though a number of contributors have themselves been priests, nuns, or lay adherents, the sociology of Catholicism is distinct from a “Catholic sociology” with allegiance to church teachings. Focus in the sociology of Catholicism lies not only on “official” doctrine, teaching, and authority, but also (and even more so) on the ways in which everyday Catholics adhere to or dissent from these formal components of Catholicism. Tension with modernity and individualism emerges as a common theme. Scholarship encompasses the study of culture, social arrangements, and characteristics of Catholic populations. This study also translates into explorations of immigrant and racial groups, as well as regions where Catholicism predominates. Sociologists who study Catholicism employ a variety of methods, including surveys, field observation, interviews, content analysis, and historical comparisons. This article maps the field in relation to race, class, immigration, gender, sexuality, youth, family, modernity, and religious pluralism. It also identifies scholarship focused on church professionals (priests, nuns, and lay leaders), parishes, education, social movements, organizational change, and politics.

General Overviews

There are no textbooks in the sociology of Catholicism. Greeley 1979 comes closest to a review of the field, but its publication date makes the summaries largely outdated. General overviews tend to present a multifaceted analysis of Catholic demographics and behavior, often relying upon national surveys. Reflecting the field overall, these works tend to have an American focus. D’Antonio, et al. 2013 reports on attitudes and behavior from a survey of Catholics nationally, the latest in a line of surveys now spanning twenty-five years. Likewise, Davidson, et al. 1997 presents an overview of key characteristics and points of unity and difference among American Catholics on the basis of a survey and interview data. Surveys are useful in the sociological study of Catholicism as a means of assessing how widely particular beliefs and behaviors are shared. Adding ethnographic depth to survey breadth is Baggett 2009 on the lived religious experiences of parish-going Catholics. Dolan 1992 contextualizes Catholic devotional practice in the social and cultural history of ethnic America. Dillon 1999 and Greeley 2000 both offer overviews of Catholic identity and distinguishing Catholic characteristics. Dillon 1999 is more grounded in social theory; Greeley 2000 is written for a largely popular audience. The 2007 multi-author devoted issue from the U.S. Catholic Historian offers an overview of the sociological study of Catholicism as a field of study. It discusses both the sociological approach to Catholicism and the Catholic approach to sociology, as shaped by its major players.

  • Baggett, Jerome P. 2009. Sense of the faithful: How American Catholics live their faith. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Bringing ethnographic depth to the breadth of survey research on Catholics, this book describes the faith lives and communities of practicing Catholics at six parishes in Northern California. Paints a picture of lay Catholics as actively engaging with, disrupting, and reframing Catholic tradition.

  • D’Antonio, William V., Michele Dillon, and Mary L. Gautier. 2013. American Catholics in transition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    This book reports the latest findings from five surveys of American Catholics, spanning twenty-five years. Chapters highlight differences among Catholics along the lines of gender, generation, and levels of commitment, with particular attention to the growing Latino Catholic population. Prior survey years also resulted in overview books on American Catholics; this is the most recent installment.

  • Davidson, James D., Andrea S. Williams, Richard A. Lamanna, et al. 1997. The search for common ground: What unites and divides Catholic Americans. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division.

    This book results from an eighteen-member research team of academics and Catholic Church professionals seeking to understand unity and diversity among Catholics. Combines survey, interview, and focus-group data. Focuses on faith and morals, generational differences, gender, race, parish participation, and other dividing characteristics. Contains practitioner-oriented commentary.

  • Dillon, Michele. 1999. Catholic identity: Balancing reason, faith, and power. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511752728

    Describes how Catholics reconcile commitment to the faith with dissent from church teachings. Focuses especially on pro-choice Catholics, gay and lesbian Catholics, and Catholics who support women’s ordination. Makes several connections to social theory.

  • Dolan, Jay P. 1992. The American Catholic experience: A history from colonial times to the present. Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press.

    Traces Catholicism in America from the year 1500 to the modern day, attuned to the influence of immigration and establishment of Catholic-specific neighborhoods, parishes, and schools. Written from a social history—rather than purely sociological—perspective.

  • Greeley, Andrew M. 1979. The sociology of American Catholics. Annual Review of Sociology 79.5: 91–111.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Dated but nonetheless useful point-in-time overview of the sociology of Catholicism as a field, written by one of its most prolific contributors. Summarizes and cites much of the most important work at the time, organized thematically. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Greeley, Andrew M. 2000. The Catholic imagination. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

    Written for a popular audience and therefore light in referencing specific sociological literature. Lays claim to a Catholic sensibility that is distinctive from that of Protestants and characterized by an interest in the fine arts, community orientation, concern with social justice, and awareness of social structure and grace.

  • Special issue: American Catholics and the social sciences. 2007. U.S. Catholic Historian 25.4 (Fall).

    Describes the relationship between sociology and Catholicism from the perspective of several who have long participated in this line of study. Highlights tensions that exist at the intersection of social science and the church. Summarizes several landmark studies, contributors, and historical changes in the sociological approach to Catholicism (and a Catholic approach to social science). Articles available online by subscription.

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