Faculty Student Research: Contradictions Between Catholic Teachings and Catholic Practice

When Sociology Professor Jodi O’Brien starting looking at how practicing Catholics make sense of family planning practices that don’t conform to the Church’s position, she didn’t expect to find important Catholic teachings as a foundation for an alternative viewpoint. Working closely with her research assistant Cal Garrett ‘16, O’Brien uncovered important insights regarding the ways Catholic women root their practices within the tenets of their faith.

Funded by grants from the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture and the College of Arts and Sciences Richard Beers Endowment, O’Brien enlisted the aid of senior Cal Garrett to examine how Catholic women make sense of the apparent contradictions between their belief system and their practices.

“We are all a bundle of contradictions,” O’Brien said. “We believe things, but we don’t always act on these things. As a social psychologist, if you listen to people, interview them, hear how they talk with other people, or in this case, with increasing online presence, see how they write about them, you get an understanding of how they make sense of these apparent contradictions.”

Garrett was charged with researching newspaper articles to gather opinions from the laity. Comments poured forth following the news of the US Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage. When they stumbled across “mommy blogs” written by Catholic women, they found a wealth of information.

“Most often in the Catholic mommy blogs, women blogging about their families were those whose Catholicism surrounded and centered on love, caring, and compassion and not necessarily on following strict teachings,” Garrett noted. “These mothers found alternative ways to make sense of their Catholic identity in a way that still allows them to do things like limit the number of children they have. This was astonishing to me.”

“These Catholic mothers were using the theology of motherhood as a sacred authority to make what they consider reasonable decisions about family size,” O’Brien emphasized. “They thought about the need to exercise limits on how many children they can raise in this day and age and made decisions on what they perceive as the very best interests of their children and their families.”

One issue that began to surface from the research centers on how or if family members talk about their own gay, lesbian, queer and transgender-identified family members.  With an eye toward providing insights to priests and parishioners, O’Brien plans to examine how families address this issue within a Catholic framework.

“The benefits of this research is that it gives voice to people who share challenges and who may be suffering themselves,” she said. “Research like this helps them realize they are not alone.”

Garrett, who graduated in June and began doctoral studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, thoroughly enjoyed the research experience: “The most valuable and exciting parts of doing a research project like this were the moments of surprise. They were great. It makes life a lot more exciting to find out things that you never even thought about.”

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Published September 2016.