Mary Ellen KONIECZNY  The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics.  New York: NY: Oxford University Press, 2013, 294 pp. $29.95 (Paperback). ISBN 978-0-19-996579-3.  Reviewed by James CAVENDISH, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL 33620.

Anyone with an interest in learning how congregational settings can help create, maintain, and solidify local religious cultures that contribute to the “culture wars” evident in United States today will want to read this important work.  Drawing on data gathered during 20 months of ethnographic research in two Midwestern Catholic parishes – one that is theologically conservative and one that is liberal – sociologist Mary Ellen Konieczny documents how the religious cultures in these two parishes shape their parishioners’ religious identities, which in turn influence how they respond to issues that emerge in their lives with respect to their marriages and families.   Konieczny concludes that local religious cultures matter, and that today’s “culture wars” are constituted as much at the local level as they are among elites. 

Konieczny selects the cases of her study – Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Brigitta – using a theoretical sampling technique aimed at sampling on the extremes.  In other words, Konieczny intentionally selects these parishes because they are similar in many important respects, including their geographic and social locations, except that they are on polar opposite sides of the theological spectrum.  In describing these cases, Konieczny notes how each parish has a distinct congregational self-image that is summarized in a congregational metaphor.  The metaphor that applies to Our Lady of Assumption is the church as a “family,” and the metaphor that characterizes St. Brigitta is the church as a “community of equals.”  These metaphors are played out in the religious practices of each parish in a variety of ways.  At Assumption, the liturgy is more formal and structured, and the homilies and parish workshops accentuate traditional Church teachings with respect to marriage and sexuality.  At St. Brigitta, the liturgy is casual and highly participatory, with lay parishioners leading dialogue homilies that emphasize the social teachings of the Church and the preferential option for the poor. 

These distinct religious cultures, Konieczny argues, influence not only how parishioners in each setting reconstruct their religious identities but also how they respond to challenges in their marriages and families.  In particular, Konieczny finds in listening to the parishioners’ stories that, depending on which parish they attend, they have distinct views about the Church’s teaching about contraception and abortion as well as appropriate gender roles in the family with respect to child-rearing and career pursuits.  Assumption’s parishioners, for instance, are more likely to accept the Church’s teaching with respect to contraception, welcome unanticipated pregnancies, regard the stay-at-home mother as an ideal, and accept an unequal division of household labor.  Assumption’s parishioners are also more distrusting of the world, and in order to shield their children from the world’s sinfulness and guide them in the development of moral virtue, they often opt to homeschool their children.  St. Brigitta’s parishioners, on the other hand, are more likely to reject the Church’s teaching with respect to contraception, value an equal division of household labor, and regard their children as autonomous actors who naturally grow into moral human beings. 

Clearly, the major strength of Konieczny’s book is simply the level of detail she is able to provide into the lives of the parishioners in these parish settings.  Not only do readers get to appreciate the worldviews of these parishioners on their own terms, but they also, in the process, discover nuances about their beliefs and identities that survey research is unable to capture.  Using data gathered from her 38 open-ended interviews, for instance, Konieczny discovers that these parishioners’ views about abortion are more complex than what previous research has suggested.  Abortion attitudes among these Catholics are not merely a reflection of attitudes about gender and motherhood, as Kristin Luker claims, nor are they simply an expression of beliefs about when life begins, as Jon Shields argues.  Rather, according to Konieczny’s respondents, their disapproval of abortion stems from their belief in the sanctity of life, but this belief is made more fervent because of their experiences of motherhood.  This is a nuance that survey researchers cannot adequately observe.  To take another example, while survey researchers have typically examined the importance of religious homogamy among couples by measuring whether they share a common denominational affiliation or pattern of church attendance, Konieczny’s interviews reveal a more important dimension of religious homogamy among her respondents – namely, the degree to which they share a common religious style and identity.  

Some readers will undoubtedly be surprised to learn of the extremes experienced in each of these congregational settings.  For instance, at Our Lady of the Assumption, parishioners wait in lines outside of the confessionals to have their confessions heard while Mass is being “said,” some women cover their heads with chapel veils, and cassock-clad priests publicly proclaim the evils of abortion and homosexual relations.  At St. Brigitta, on the other hand, resigned priests are called upon to read the Gospel, lay parishioners lead dialogue homilies that focus on social justice, and the parish community warmly welcomes the divorced and GLBT families.  Because some readers might find these extreme cases to be relatively rare, they are likely to wonder just how common these types of parishes are among the full population of Catholic parishes.  Although Konieczny herself is unable to answer this question, one of the values of her book is that it raises such questions, and hopefully future research will provide some answers. 

Clearly, Koenieczny’s book makes a significant contribution to the literature on family, work, and religion among religiously committed Catholics.  In choosing to focus on two polar cases within the same religious tradition, she is able to provide insight into how local religious cultures contribute to moral polarization within the same denomination.  Because of its unique contribution in this area, The Spirit’s Tether will be a valuable resource for researchers and practitioners alike.