Thomas F. O'Dea

1 December 1915 - 12 November 1974

Under: Obituary

Thomas F. O'Dea - sociologist, author and teacher - was born December 1, 1915, in Amsbury, Massachusetts. Historically, his life bridged the period from World War I to the Vietnam War. During his youth he attended Saint Joseph's Parochial School in Amsbury and Amsbury High School, after which he studied printing at Wentworth Institute in Boston. After serving in the United States Army Air Force during World War II, he entered Harvard University and graduated summa cum laude in 1949. He continued at Harvard, earning an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology, in 1951 and 1953 respectively.

O'Dea's early life was a combination of the Roman Catholic faith, an Irish immigrant background, and a zeal for social justice stimulated by the influence of New England Protestant social reformers and the Socialist and Communist movements of the 1930's. He possessed some of the passion of the leaders of the Irish Rebellion, such as Padraic Pearse and James Connolly, whom he idolized. In fact, he met his first wife, Georgia Stillman, at a commemoration of the 1916 Irish Easter Week Rebellion, organized by the Communist Party in Boston in 1936 where he gave one of the major addresses. He also had some of the spirit of the Irish Labor leaders of the late nineteenth century, men like Terrence Powderly and M.P. McGuire, rebellious, turbulent men with a fierce loyalty to their past and to their people, who had difficulty understanding why the Church which had inspired so much of the Irish drive for liberation was not more directly involved in movements for social justice in the United States. O'Dea, too, was always puzzled as to why the Irish, who had lived in rebellion for two centuries, were resistant to revolutionary movement in their new land.

Though O'Dea grew up in an Irish-Catholic family, the small New England town in which he lived gave him a gentle introduction to the pluralistic society of America. There were non-Catholic teachers at the public high school he attended. He was attracted by the individualism and the spirit of reform of some New England Protestants. His early reading of Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, and Whittier, the latter a fellow townsman of Amsbury and an early champion of abolition, prepared him to be open to the good and the true outside the Catholic Church, and to examine the insights of other religious faiths with equanimity.

Another hero who strongly influenced O'Dea was his fellow townsman, George E. McNeill, a labor leader and organizer who championed the eight-hour work day and was one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor (A.F. of L.). O'Dea worked in various trades as a young man and became a labor activist. Like many Irishmen of the 1930's, he was affiliated with the Socialist Party and was an organizer for the Young Communist League. He broke with the Communist movement after the Hitler-Stalin pact and the subsequent invasion of Russia by Hitler. His refusal to disclose the names of students involved to the Dies Committee investigating un-American activities resulted in long years of serious conflict with that committee.

Another major influence in O'Dea's life was his experience in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II. He spent most of his war years in China, and the list of his reading during this period is impressively broad and sophisticated, equal to a challenging reading list in a graduate course in Chinese culture. Along with his reading, he was able to establish contact with scholarly persons in the area in which he served who provided him with the insights into foreign cultures and eastern religions that enriched his later studies in the sociology of religion. These experiences helped him understand the difference between faith as an abstract factor in the life of man and its incarnation in a given religious system.

O'Dea grew apart from the Catholic Church during early adulthood. He returned for a while to the devout practice of his faith (due in some measure to his friendship with a Benedictine Monk, Dom Vincent Martin, who had spent many years as a missionary in China and had been a fellow student with O'Dea at Harvard), but again drifted away from religious activities until shortly before his death. With respect to his religious faith, he was described as a sinner who looked like a saint. As a sociologist of religion, he positioned himself on the periphery of the Catholic community, but, "in spite of obstacles from without and the neurotic's seven deadly devils gnawing at him from within," finally returned to his religious convictions. For O'Dea, however, the tension between the faith of folk Catholicism and the scientific examination of religion was not the primary issue. He was concerned, instead, with the more sophisticated problem of the secularization of culture and its effect on institutionalized religion and the individual. Early in his sociological career, he wrote of the trends toward secularization: "The Catholic cannot but experience a deep historical anguish in the face of such developments. He is moved to say with Pascal, 'When I see blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without a light, left to himself, and, as it were, lost in this corner of the university without knowing who had put him there, what he has to come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified.'" When in later years O'Dea grasped, at least intellectually, Harvey Cox's idea of secular man as one who has no meaningful identity, he understood and empathized more with the rebellious youth of the sixties who had arrived at the "ultimate admission: that life is absurd." Their concern for ultimate reality "seemed to him, in terms of his gut-reaction as a Christian, to make more sense than secular man's apparent lack of capacity for considering questions of ultimate meaning at all."

During his doctoral studies at Harvard and for a time thereafter, O'Dea served on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1951-1956), the last year of which he spent in uninterrupted study in California, as a Fellow at the Center for Advance Study in the Behavioral Sciences. His Harvard years no doubt constituted the intellectually formative period of his life. During this period his native intellectual capacity was given structure and direction. While still involved in graduate studies, he received an invitation to participate in the Harvard research project, "The Comparative Study of Values in Five Cultures," which was conducted in the south-western United States. The study analyzed two Indian cultures, the Navajo and Zuni, and three white cultures: a Spanish-American community, a group of settlers locally called "Texans," who were main-stream Protestants, and a Latter-day Saint (Mormon) community. O'Dea focused his attention on the Latter-day Saint community. Through this project O'Dea came in contact with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and began his studies of the faith and culture of the Mormons. His work, The Sociology of Mormonism (1955) and his book The Mormons (1957) resulted largely from this project, the latter being based upon his doctoral dissertation.

From 1956 to 1959, O'Dea was a member of the faculty of Fordham University. There he found himself in a congenial intellectual environment which was rooted in the Catholic and Irish tradition from whence he came. During this period, his intellectual role began to become clear to Catholics, and he produced a slim but significant volume, American Catholic Dilemma: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Life (1962), in addition to this work on Mormonism mentioned above. At the same time O'Dea began to realize that he needed a much stronger scholarly base if he was to achieve his full potential as a sociologist. As he searched for such a base, he began at the same time to experience marital difficulties that ultimately led to the breakup of his marriage, which was a major crisis in his life.

Having left Fordham in 1959, O'Dea went to the University of Utah, where he continued his study of Mormonism, but also turned his scholarly attention in other directions. In January 1963, he went to Saudi Arabia as a consultant to the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) and remained there until the fall of that year. In 1964, he joined the faculty of Columbia University, in the Department of Religion, but he never felt at home there, and he left after two and a half years. Though he published little during this period, he was preparing the material for what were to be significant publications later on.

Dr. O'Dea's scholarly works were impressive. During his undergraduate days at Harvard, he did a study of the controversial Saint Benedict's Center in Cambridge, and his analysis of the situation enabled him to foretell the radical break of the Center from the Catholic Church. His first book on Catholicism, American Catholic Dilemma, was a penetrating analysis of the dilemmas of institutionalized religion. In less skillful hands this could easily have become a bitterly controversial topic, but O'Dea's tact and careful consideration enabled him to produce a work marked by illuminating insight into the inescapable tensions of organized religion. His small text, The Sociology of Religion (1966), has been widely used and has been translated into five languages.

Thomas O'Dea accepted an appointment as Professor of Religious Studies and Sociology and Director of the Institute of Religious Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1967. Shortly after moving there, he married Janet Scheindlin (formerly Janet Losi Koffler), and a son, Michael Thomas O'Dea, was born to them in 1969. O'Dea remained at UCSB until his death in 1974, and those final years were among the most productive of his life. Scholarly projects that he had been working on for years now reached publication. In what is one of the best studies of Vatican II and its impact upon the Church, The Catholic Crisis (1968) carried his analysis of Catholicism beyond his conclusions in American Catholic Dilemma. Meanwhile, he published a number of articles which he later collected and published as parts of his final two books: Alienation, Atheism and the Religious Crisis (1969) and Sociology and the Study of Religion: Theory, Research, Interpretation (1970). He was an Associate Editor of Sociological Analysis from mid-1969 through 1973, and he was a participant in the Association for the Sociology of Religion and its predecessor The American Catholic Sociological Society.

One significant development during the time O'Dea was on the faculty of the University of California was his study of Judaism and Islam. Having lectured at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he was invited to return in 1972-1973 as a visiting professor. This contact with the world of Jews, Muslims and Eastern Rite Christians added to the religious insights he had acquired in his study of the Chinese and the Mormons. He began to understand more fully the depths of religious experience and the problems of religious organization. In contact with a number of distinguished Hebrew and Muslim scholars, he began preparing a tri-partite study of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to be carried out by himself and two prominent colleagues in Jerusalem. However, the breakup of his second marriage in the spring of 1973 and an ensuing illness made further publication impossible. He returned to the United States for treatment late that year. The following spring found him again at Santa Barbara, and, despite the handicap of ill health, he began teaching again in the fall of 1974. After suffering a sudden relapse, he died on November 12, 1974, from complications associated with Hodgkins' disease. It has been said that the suffering he experienced during the last months of his life sharpened his sense of relationship to his religious roots and that he struggled to the end to relate his faith and his scientific investigations in a way that satisfied him.

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