Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1915-1974) Sociologist of religion; Ph.D., Harvard University. Author of numerous publications regarding religion, Roman Catholic thought and life, and social issues. Leading participant in the American Catholic Sociological Society and its successor, the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

O'Dea's sociological analysis is noteworthy for his attention to the institutional parameters of religious belief and practice within modern societies, the dilemmas facing these institutions, and the implications of secularization for religions and individual believers. Much of his writing also reflects the systematic understanding of historical processes and trends that he typically brought to bear in his work as a sociologist. He was firmly convinced of the benefits of drawing upon interdisciplinary sources. These insights, he believed, should contribute to the construction of sociological perspectives characterized by strong linkages among research, interpretation, and theory. Although his attention as a scholar was directed for the most part at religious life in the United States, he also demonstrated a thorough knowledge of developments occurring elsewhere.

Early Directions:
Studies in Catholicism and Mormonism

This catholicity in his thought was no doubt due in large measure to a personal and professional background marked by a rich diversity of influences and experiences. Born in Amesbury, Massachusetts, to a working-class, Irish Catholic family, O'Dea reached maturity during the Great Depression. The economic and social hardships he witnessed, coupled with his strong political idealism, moved O'Dea to become an activist in the Young Communist League during the 1930s. This role would lead to serious confrontations with congressional authorities at the time of the anticommunist witch-hunts and would have ongoing implications throughout his academic career. During World War II, O'Dea served with distinction in the U.S. Army Air Force and was stationed in China, India, and the South Pacific. These experiences with other cultures would later lend a global perspective to O'Dea's work on religion and comparative cultures.

When he enrolled in Harvard following the war, O'Dea quickly distinguished himself through his insight into religious matters. A student of Talcott Parsons, O'Dea began entering into the dialogue with functionalist theory that would shape much of his scholarly work. Through various case studies and explorations into sociological theory, he examined the possibilities and limitations of the functionalist approach for understanding the content of religious experience, as well as the ambiguities and tensions inherent in religion's functions for societies, groups, and individuals. Of special interest were the processes by which, through historical and situational developments, religion's functions may subsequently turn dysfunctional for a religion.

His first major study, completed as an undergraduate honors thesis in 1949, examined the conflicts then building between St. Benedict's Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Roman Catholic authorities in what became known as the "Boston Heresy Case." Extending Troeltsch's church-sect typology, O'Dea demonstrated how sects may emerge not only as a form of ethical protest against church policy or practice but also as a defensive response to situational "strains" or "tensions." For complex historical and sociocultural reasons, the church may experience extreme difficulties, as it did in this case, in defusing or containing these sectarian developments, thereby leading to a crisis "resolved" by excommunication. This study proved to be not only highly prescient (O'Dea had, in effect, applied sociological concepts and content analysis to predict the eventual outcome of the conflict), it also clearly identified his research preferences and direction. Even at this early stage in his career, O'Dea revealed his fascination with the historical and sociological sources of dissent within religious institutions as well as church leaders' responses to these challenges to ecclesiastical authority.

When, as a graduate student, he participated in the Harvard research project, the Comparative Study of Values in Five Cultures, during the early 1950s, O'Dea began what became a lifelong study of the Mormons. With his later expanded book-length treatment of the subject in The Mormons (University of Chicago Press 1957), he had produced one of the first and best sociological analyses of the Mormons while continuing to build upon his critique of Troeltsch's typology. More than a mid-twentieth-century snapshot of Mormonism in the United States, this work was also an attempt to understand the historical, political, cultural, and theological factors that had shaped this religious movement's success as a distinctively, if peculiarly, American and quasi-ethnic phenomenon (especially in the South-west). Characteristically, O'Dea identified the tensions then facing the Mormon Church in its multifaceted encounters with modern or "mainstream" beliefs and institutions.

During this period, O'Dea raised similar questions and themes within his ongoing studies of contemporary Roman Catholic life. In American Catholic Dilemma (Sheed & Ward 1958), he provided a timely assessment of Catholicism's minority status as a religion in the United States (appealing mainly to specific immigrant groups), the apparent anti-intellectualism evident within Catholic circles, and the likely prospects for changes in this situation. O'Dea took the position that the American Catholic Church was at a major turning point. Essentially, the institution was faced with the dilemma of responding to a modern, rapidly changing sociocultural context that, by placing a high value on innovation as well as intellectual and critical inquiry, questioned traditional church authority and religious certitude. The historical church emphasis on formalism, authoritarianism, clericalism, moralism, and cultural defensiveness, while functional for protecting a traditional Catholic worldview, nevertheless left the church and its individual members poorly prepared to meet the religious and sociocultural expectations and needs of the modern age. Without the proper institutional supports, Catholic voices would continue to be absent not only from American intellectual discourse but also from involvement in the decisions shaping the future of the United States as a global power.

The Dilemmas of Institutionalization

In later works, particularly his widely read The Sociology of Religion (Prentice Hall 1966), O'Dea expanded his initial analysis of institutional dilemmas within the Catholic Church by developing a more general explanation of the phenomena. By building upon and extending, among other influences, Troeltsch's study of church and sect, Weber's insights into the routinization of charisma, and Parsons's discussion of deinstitutionalization, O'Dea created a conceptual scheme for understanding the factors contributing to the functioning of, and change processes within, religious movements and organizations. In an example of middle-range sociological theory, O'Dea identified five dilemmas that were "structurally inherent" to religious institutionalization:

(1) Dilemma of mixed motivation . Over time, institutionalization tends to produce specialized offices and other roles. The originally religious goals, values, and motives of those involved in the organization, whether at the leadership or laity levels, may become more worldly. The organization is faced with the question of whether, and how, to adapt to this divergence in, and widening of, members' motives.

(2) Symbolic dilemma: Objectification versus alienation . The original sacred experience of transcendence must, if it is to be socially shared within a cohesive group, find expression through a collection of objectified symbols. With institutionalization, the sense of awe and power associated with sacred symbols and rituals may become routinized and the symbols themselves may become alienated from the believer.

(3) Dilemma of administrative order: Elaboration and alienation . Institutionalization tends to generate new demands that are usually met most efficiently through bureaucratic offices. Expansion of the bureaucracy typically follows, as does the potential for detachment or alienation of both the offices and the officeholders from the laity.

(4) Dilemma of delimitation: Concrete definition versus substitution of the letter for the spirit . In communicating and protecting the spirit of its religious insights, the organization is typically driven toward dogmatism, fundamentalism, and the establishment of specialized interpretive structures and processes. The scope and depth of the original religious message may become further reduced as a result of attempts to maintain its relevance for believers or through efforts aimed at attracting converts.

(5) Dilemma of power: Conversion versus coercion . During the early history of a religious movement or organization, individual believers usually demonstrate their faith and commitment to the emerging religion through an act of conversion. Through time, the institution, to maintain and even strengthen its status, tends to become more closely aligned with secular authorities and may draw upon the power of the state to support its goals. Doing so, however, raises the likelihood that membership in the religious body will be seen as mandatory, and increases the risk that protest groups may arise in response. The stronger ties to secular institutions may also foster cynicism and secularization among both the religious leadership and the laity.

Sociologists of various stripes have applied O'Dea's analysis of these structural dilemmas fairly widely to the study of religion but less so to research on secular movements or organizations. O'Dea himself believed that this conceptual scheme was a significant contribution to the sociology of religion as well as to sociology generally. Some theorists of modern complex organizations have recognized the potential in further extending the initial framework to examine not only internal processes but also the dilemmas found in an institution's relationships with its external sociopolitical environments (Yinger 1970:236). While appreciating the value of the framework, other scholars have raised criticisms regarding O'Dea's assumptions that the dilemmas are structurally inherent (Mathisen 1987:316) and that social movements institutionalize as a result of deliberate choices (McGuire 1981:135). O'Dea also failed to develop in a systematic fashion the dilemmas of deinstitutionalization (Brown 1977:142).

New Directions:
Secularization and Comparative Religions

O'Dea's interest in institutional tensions or dilemmas, especially those taking place within American Catholicism (a community whose diversity was becoming increasingly problematic to the church leadership), continued to hold his attention during the final stages of his career. In The Catholic Crisis (Beacon 1968), he wrote an insightful commentary on Vatican II and its historical antecedents that systematically probed the dilemmas and challenges that modern culture raised for the church's identity, unity, and authority. In 1969, he, along with many other prominent scholars, participated in the International Symposium on the Culture of Unbelief held in Rome, focusing on the stresses or tensions facing religious organizations as a result of secularization.

For O'Dea, the attempt to examine and come to terms with modern institutional dilemmas and their implications for individuals was not simply an academic exercise. It was also part of a highly personal, lifelong quest to understand his own perceived marginality to American society that was coupled, at times, with the feeling that he did not truly belong in the Catholic community either. His life was marked by a series of difficult and often painful struggles to reconcile his spirituality with recurring doubts about his Catholic identity. As a sociologist and intellectual who knew better than most how the "working out" of institutional dilemmas may contribute to the doubts of individual believers, he was nevertheless remarkably successful in maintaining his integrity and methodological detachment as a scholar when studying religion and, specifically, the tensions within Catholicism. At the same time, he never failed to take with utmost seriousness the capacity of faith to satisfy the extraordinary needs of all individuals, including himself, for deeper meanings and a sense of purpose.

Toward the end of his life, O'Dea was becoming increasingly interested in pursuing comparative studies among Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He had traveled to Israel in the early 1970s as a visiting professor of sociology at Hebrew University (Jerusalem), an experience that affected him profoundly and led to the beginnings of his collaborations with other scholars on research into these religious traditions. At about this time, a debilitating and ultimately fatal illness prevented O'Dea from participating further.

O'Dea's papers are housed in the archives at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Bruce Karlenzig


D. Brown, "Dilemmas of Deinstitutionalization," Sociological Analysis 38(1977):140-144

D. Dohen, "Tensions of the Believer as Sociologist of Religion," Sociological Analysis 38(1977):131-136

J. P. Fitzpatrick, "The Sociologist as Catholic," America 132(Jan. 1975):7-9

J. A. Mathisen, "Thomas O'Dea's Dilemmas of Institutionalization," Sociological Analysis 47(1987):302-318

M. B. McGuire, Religion , 2nd ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1981)

R. S. Michaelsen, "Enigmas in Interpreting Mormonism," Sociological Analysis 38(1977):145-153

T. F. O'Dea, Alienation, Atheism, and the Religious Crisis (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969);

T. F. O'Dea, Sociology and the Study of Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1970)

T. F. O'Dea et al., Religion and Man (New York: Harper, 1972)

T. Parsons, "The Institutionalization of Belief," Sociological Analysis 38(1977):137-139

J. M. Yinger, The Scientific Study of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1970).

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