U.S. sociologist looks forward to historic synod role

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American sociologist Tricia Bruce
American sociologist Tricia Bruce, president-elect of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, is among six consultors named to the General Secretariat of the Synod Feb. 17, 2024. Of the secretariat's 16 total consultors, 12 are priests, one is a religious sister and three, including Bruce, are laywomen. Most are theologians. (OSV News photo/Saray Taylor-Roman, courtesy Tricia Bruce)

(OSV News) — Sociologist Tricia C. Bruce has dedicated her career to trying to understand American Catholics’ attitudes and behavior. She will draw on that experience in her new role as a consultor to the General Secretariat of the Synod, which she expects to include listening to diverse voices and considering broad questions, she said.

“I’m just curious,” she told OSV News Feb. 20. “I come with questions. I don’t come with an agenda or something that I’m trying to do or get out of this. I just really want to serve in the best way that I can, and especially activate my own particular expertise as a sociologist to do that.”

Bruce, 44, was among six people named consultors to the General Secretariat of the Synod Feb. 17. Of the secretariat’s 16 total consultors, 12 are priests, one is a religious sister and three, including Bruce, are laywomen. Most are theologians.

Cardinal Mario Grech, a native of Malta, oversees the General Secretariat of the Synod, an institution of the Holy See tasked with organizing and implementing synods of bishops. It is currently overseeing the 16th Ordinary General Assembly Synod of Bishops, known as the Synod on Synodality, with the theme “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.” After a two-year preparatory period, the synod convened in October 2023; a second and final meeting is scheduled for Oct. 2-27.

Research on diversity and women’s views

Bruce, 44, a parishioner of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, Tennessee, earned her doctorate in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2006. She is an affiliate of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the director of Springtide Research Institute, a nonprofit founded in 2019 under the Minnesota-based Lasallian Educational and Research Initiatives to study young people ages 13-25. Springtide has published four annual reports on the state of religion and young people.

Bruce has written on personal parishes and diversity, the emergence of the Voice of the Faithful organization in response to clergy sexual abuse, and American attitudes about abortion. She also has co-edited books on polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church and the forces shaping American parishes.

In 2021, she published an interview study of Catholic women’s views on ministry and the diaconate, finding “many women feel specifically called to be deacons or express an openness to discerning such a call should the vocational path become available to them.”

She also managed qualitative data collection for the recent National Study of Catholic Priests from The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America.

Bruce describes herself as “a sociologist deeply invested in the Catholic Church and understanding religion, and religion and society more broadly.”

“That’s taken a variety of different dimensions,” she told OSV News. “Some of the threads through that inquiry throughout my career have been trying to use the tools of social science to really understand the diversity of experiences, backgrounds and attitudes that make up the tapestry of the Church” and “identifying and amplifying and listening to a diverse array of voices that constitute the Church.”

Role is ‘a mystery’

As a consultor, Bruce anticipates using her expertise to help synthesize the perspectives and ideas shared in the synod meetings, but she acknowledged that exactly what her role entails is, at this point, still somewhat of “a mystery.”

“The synodal process is not just starting. I’m coming in at a moment when there’s already so much there — there’s a mountain of momentum and of voices,” she said. “I would hope that one of the ways I might be able to contribute is to say, ‘How do we begin to kind of sort through and synthesize and look for those areas of commonality and difference among so much that has been shared and heard throughout the different touchpoints of this process to date?’ So, in the language of social sciences, I see it as an exercise in coding.”

Bruce said she is honored to serve the Church through this appointment, especially during such a historic moment.

“The documents that have been produced out of the synod process are a reflection of some of what are the most urgent issues in the Church, but also unresolved ones,” she said. “I think this is really hard stuff.”

“I certainly have high respect and honor for Pope Francis’ willingness to kind of dive into all this and being a leader willing to ask and prompt these hard questions,” she added.

The other consultors named Feb. 17 were Msgr. Alphonse Borras, a canon lawyer and episcopal vicar of the Diocese of Liège, Belgium, who served as a non-voting expert at the Synod’s October 2023 meeting; Father Gilles Routhier, professor of theology at Laval University in Quebec; Father Ormond Rush, associate professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University; Sister Birgit Weiler, a member of the Medical Mission Sisters and professor of theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru; and Maria Clara Lucchetti Bingemer, professor of theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro.

The consultors named Feb. 17 joined five others named Jan. 10: Archbishop Timothy John Costelloe of Perth, Australia; Msgr. Piero Coda, secretary general of the Holy See’s International Theological Commission; Father Gaby Alfred Hachem, professor of theology at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, Lebanon; Father Giuseppe Bonfrate, a theology professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome; and Jesuit Father Paul Béré, professor of sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome.

Previously appointed were Archbishop Erio Castellucci of Modena-Nonantola, Italy, and bishop of Carpi, Italy; Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, Rome; Father Dario Vitali of the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome; Jesuit Father P. Giacomo Costa, president of the Fondazione Culturale San Fedele, Milan; and Myriam Wijlens, a canon lawyer and theologian at the University of Erfurt, Germany.

Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News.