American Catholicism

Religion in itself is difficult to define. It holds many complexities, one being how readily people turn to it in times of need. They go to religion both in happiness and sorrow. American religion is even more unique in this way. Kenneth Pargament would argue that this is a natural step in coping. In Catholicism, Pargament’s theory can be seen in their conservation of significance and seeking of religious support. Through their beliefs, practices, and boundaries both the church and the parishioners are preserving significance.

Kenneth Pargament believes religion is natural to the process of coping. He believes that when confronted with change or stress people turn to religion. Through religion people attempt to conserve significance. They try to find not only their place but also maintain what they believe is significant. Although boundaries set in religion try to retain significance, beliefs that remain unchanged go beyond boundaries in conserving significance.

Pargament says that coping like religion is a process. They are both a search for significance. During stressful times both good and bad people try to find or keep significance. It is part of a duality found both in coping and in religion. What is coping? Coping is very simply the act of getting through a stressful situation. Significance on the other hand can mean different things for different people. Pargament, generally defined significance as feelings and beliefs associated with worth, importance, and value. Certain objects material, physical, psychological, social, and spiritual become significant. The Catholic Church holds many objects to be significant. Some of these things cover all the aspects of significance. They include but are not limited to family, death, life, and belonging.

In conservation, the emphasis is on attempts to protect and maintain what is of significance. People cling to their religion in times of stress because it tells them what is significant. With Catholicism, it outlines that which is significant and that which needs to be upheld or protected. To many Catholicism is an instrument of conserving their own significance. Many adhere to the Catholic way of life that has been taught to them through their life. They wish to hold onto this lifestyle no matter the cost. They tend to hold onto a very old set of boundaries. These boundaries tend to have never changed. They may be reframed but many others have remained firmly intact. American Catholics tend to be unique in their boundaries and beliefs.

The first element of American Catholicism is voluntarism, which is a metaphysical term which explains the universe through will. It can lead to a psychological form called pragmatism. Through many of the beliefs and rituals in Catholicism, voluntarism is shown. The followers will themselves to the church, following and obeying the teachings conveyed through mass. The second element is separation of church and state. This is more a government concern but many issues fought over have ties to religion. Catholics at one time were rare in the United States’ government; however, John F. Kennedy broke down the barrier with his term in Senate and his presidency. The church also began to take a more proactive role in the government’s concerns. One government entity that they extended to is the school system. Catholics believe that their role as a parent is to teach Catholicism to their children. Based on this principle, many Catholics schools were opened in the United States. When the schools do not provide enough, Catholic parents turn to homeschooling. Lastly, in regard to government, George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli, Catholics are a large swing vote. They are a large population moved by their beliefs, which comes to circle the last part of American Catholicism, ethnicity.

The last part of American religion is ethnicity, which is also a boundary. Many American Catholic churches were established based on ethnicity. Many new Americans during the country’s huge immigration boom after the Civil War were eastern and southern European. Many of those immigrants were Catholic and set up churches in their ethnic neighborhoods. Currently there is a large influx of Latino Catholics. They are a group that believes religion is very important. Many churches once established by other ethnic groups now offer Spanish mass times. Although many African-Americans are not Catholic, the church has a deep concern for their issues. During the height of the Civil Rights movement, the Catholic Church sent out clergy to help in the south. Protestant churches did send out clergy but not in the numbers that the Catholic did.

Another boundary that can be seen by attending a church is money or class. Different socioeconomic classes seem to attend different churches. Churches in more well off areas tend to have fancier buildings. They have not only fancier but larger modern buildings. They also tend to be on larger lots, so even have serenity gardens with statutes of saints. The churches in poorer neighborhoods are much older. Not as much money is going into them because the parishioners tend to represent the community the church is in. Usually they are set between groups of row homes or are on small lots.

The boundaries set up by the Catholic Church are slowly reframing. One changing boundary is ethnicity. With the lack of funding many churches have to close or merge. Recently, in Pennsylvania, many ethnic churches founded by European ethnic groups had to close and join together. This ethnic division was no longer a necessity; it was more of a tradition now. Unifying was an emotional process but it was made with no trouble.

Another boundary held by the Catholic Church is religious. Since the earliest days of Christianity, Islam has been greatly disliked. The Crusades and the Inquisition were both enacted to eradicate Islam. This religious boundary is still with the Catholic Church. The religious boundary prior to the Ecumenical movement, extended to other religions aside from Islam. The Ecumenical however opened communication between Protestant religions and Catholicism. These boundaries are set in place are an attempt to preserve significance.

The church in their beliefs tries to preserve significance. They try to uphold the family through their beliefs on conception and marriage. They try to uphold the sanctity of life through their views on abortion and death. Finally, they provide the sense of belonging that so many long for through baptism, communion, and mass.

Family is how many Catholics describe all persons of the domestic circle. It includes parents and child both birth and adopted. It also describes what is formed by the union of a man and a woman. At one time this is what distinguished Catholicism from tribal religions.

According to Catholicism, Christ restored the family. He returned it to something holy, permanent, and monogamous. The family is holy because it is to cooperate with God by procreating. Also, it is holy in that the family prepares the offspring for God. The family is permanent in that the union between a man and woman is to be lifelong. Men and women today must meet with the priest prior to getting married. They must be approved for marriage to wed in the church. To this day the Catholic Church does not support the union of homosexual couples.

Marriage in accordance with the Catholic Church as said prior is to be between a man and a woman. The purpose of this is to procreate and education the offspring. Catholic scripture says man and woman were created for each other. The couple is to wed in the presence of God and traditionally feast on lamb. The couple is to remain chaste and pure until marriage. They must go through the process of consent and in some branches of Catholicism they are to wed during holy mass.

There was a time that Catholics who did not marry within the church guidelines were pushed out. Today this is not the case over all. Things happen where a couple does not always marry in the church or can marry in the church. A good reasoning is that many times people move away and must find a new church to join. Only some more strict rites still fully uphold all these rules of marriage. Divorce has also become slightly more accepted.

Contraception is a big issue in which the church dictated over for many years. Modernly many Catholics are practicing artificial birth control. For many years only natural forms of birth control were used. Family planning is much more common practice among Catholics. The Vatican still disapproves unnatural forms of birth control. Family planning has become more of a personal choice and less of a religious choice.

Catholics believe in the sanctity of life. They believe it must be protected. Human life is also to be respected. The church considers abortion a sin. They believe the fetus is a human. They have become pro-active in leading pro-life demonstrations to try and end abortions.

Death is something that the church prepares its parishioners for. Without death there is no meaning to life. In America death is feared although Catholicism teaches the devout not to. Americans tend to not adhere to death or the person but to the business of funerals (Johnson, 85-86).

In tradition with Catholicism, certain measures and steps are done. These go beyond the commercial funeral steps. First, the body must be taken care of. It must be treated with great respect. The process must focus on the person’s entry into everlasting life. Certain prayers and ceremonies are to be held. The deceased already will be prepared for death. Organ donation and donation to science are acceptable as long as the remains are disposed of with respect. This continues to uphold the sanctity of life even in death.

A large part of conserving significance is belonging. Belonging is possibly the most psychological element. Belonging is something that everyone strives for. Through baptism, communion, and mass, Catholicism provides belonging. It allows people to be accepted into the church.

Infant baptism is often regarded by many negatively. It however, is a long standing practice. Many Catholics however believe that baptism is for older children and adults. One may ask why they would reserve such an act for these groups and not infants. The answer is simple. Only those who fully understand the church’s teaching can accept the Lord. Only those who accept the Lord can be accepted into Heaven. Since infants and children are incapable of original sin they are saved. Interestingly, baptism has replaced circumcision for Catholics. During baptism holy water is either poured over the head or the person is plunged into water. They are told they are cleansed and in return they say they accept Jesus.

Communion is the actual reception of the Eucharist. It is communion after a baptism in which children receive their first communion. Once the age is reached that are required to take the sacrament. It is a way of becoming part of the church. Both devotion and attention play a key role in determining age. A keen religious sense is needed for communion. A child close to death must take communion right away. Even if the child does not fully understand, it is important they take communion to be accepted into Heaven. Lastly, the pastor or priest must prepare the child for communion.

The mass is one more aspect of Catholicism that gives belonging. It is a way to show acceptance as well as belonging. Every Saturday or Sunday at varying times Catholics attend mass. They also attend special holy day masses.

Mass began when Christ told his disciples at the Last Supper of the bread and wine. He held the bread and said “this is my body.” Holding the wine he said “this is my blood.” He instructed them to consume the bread and wine in his memory. This has now become the Sacrament. As simple as Christ’s words were, the church depends greatly in the reception of Sacrament. The process by which the bread and wine became the embodiment of Christ was called transubstiation, however the word is no longer used.

Mass of today still contains the Sacrament but flows as followed. Mass begins with an introductory prayer and a greeting. The prayer varies but the greeting is the same. The greeting is the Confitear or confession. Through this people are to confess their sins. The confession is followed by the Kyrie, which is the plea for mercy. The mass follows a more joyful turn. After the Gloria, a theme is announced for the mass and an introductory prayer is said. Following the introductory prayer passages are read in conjunction with the theme.

Following the readings is the preparation of the gifts. The priest pours wine into a chalice and adds holy water. This is a very old tradition that is still upheld. Priests then put out hosts, which are small rounds of unleven bread. He blesses the bread and wine. He then instructs the congregation to take the flesh and blood of Christ (Johnson, 65-67). After the Sacrament, the congregation is told to go in peace.

Catholics go to the church for many reasons. Aside from conserving and finding significance, there are services sought out. They also turn to the church for spiritual help and guidance. They have a deep sense of belonging because of what the church provides. It provides support, something much needed in coping. Pargament, says that when people’s equilibrium is off, they try to find what will bring them back to that middle ground. This is part of conserving significance.

Many Catholics turn to religion for spiritual support, in times of stress they seek God’s guidance. They also pray to particular saints for further guidance and support. Through many of life’s most stressful times religious worship booms, with tragic event and happy times, people worship more. Many feel as though God helps them bear their burden. On any given Sunday one can go to mass and hear the pleas for God’s help. Some churches provide a list of name to pray for. Many of the people on the lists are sick, shut-ins, hospitalized, or near death. On their own Catholics recite certain prayers and hymns to help their coping process. Often the most common plea to God is from the Book of Psalms (Pargament, 210). Many hold religion higher than any aspect of life.

The best way to understand Catholicism or any religion is through participant observation. The difference in the appearances of churches is astounding. One would think that all Catholic churches would be the same. Possibly in any other country, there would be no striking difference in this observation. America has these remarkable differences in their churches. Two examples that had very striking differences were St. Thomas Moore and Immaculate Conception both in Allentown. Although the mass is set up generally the same, the theme of the masses was set up more aligned with the parishioners. One was more toward the upper middle class and the other was more toward the lower middle class. The congregation was strikingly different in appearance as well. Although both churches had predominantly Caucasian worshipers, the outer appearance was much different. The parishioners at St. Thomas Moore were dressed well. They had on dress slacks, skirts, button up shirts, and ties. The parishioners at Immaculate Conception wore jeans, nice sweaters, and some even wore t-shirts. This is not to say that some older parishioners were not dressed well, for the most part they were dressed more casual. Aesthetically both churches were appealing. St. Thomas Moore had an appealing set up. There is very beautiful plant life outside. Overall the building has a very welcoming look. Immaculate Conception has a certain level of comfort. It is an old church and stepping into it was very comfortable to someone who otherwise is not church going. The people were just friendly and willing to help a newcomer out.

To the average Catholic, religion is a natural part of coping. They use it to conserve significance. Catholicism provides the belonging many seek out. Often in the church there is a sense of family. Through the baptisms, communions, and masses, people get to know each other. They gain a familial bond. That bond can help explain the reason the church comes together. Many times when an issue arises to challenge Catholicism they come together. As a whole they preserve their significance. There is a special bond between Catholics. That bond was something that could be felt in the observation. Anyone who steps through the church doors is welcomed. They do not treat people like they are not supposed to be there. The church, especially older well established ones have an aura of warmth.


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Gallup Jr., G. and Castelli, J. (1987). The American Catholic People: Their Beliefs, Practices, and Values . New York: Doubleday.

Johnson Ph.D, K.O. (1994). Expressions of the Catholic Faith: A Guide to the Teachings and Practices of the Catholic Church . New York: Ballatine Books.

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Walker, L. (1912). “Voluntarism”. In the Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. From

*The paragraph on the observation of the two churches and the paragraph on the socioeconomic boundary were done through my own observations.

Pictures of the churches I attended:

Immaculate Conception picture from

St. Thomas Moore picture from: