The headlines keep appearing in Catholic newspapers before the news migrates into the real-estate coverage in mainstream media.
The bottom line is the bottom line. Catholic shepherds decide that they have to pull the plug and close parishes in which declining and aging flocks of believers have struggled to pay their bills. These aging sanctuaries are often located on valuable pieces of urban real estate.
Some parishes vanish. Others are merged into one facility to make efficient use of space, as well as the crowded schedules of a steadily declining number of priests.
“On one level, it makes sense. You close a parish — I understand that many parishes are in financial trouble — and then in a few years you get to tear it down and someone moves in and builds condos,” said Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, an independent online news service.
“The questions that I think we have to ask our bishops are, ‘Why is defeat inevitable? Why do we assume that all of these parishes are going to decline and close? … What if you put someone in there who offered a brand of Catholic faith that had some evangelical zeal? What if we still believed that Catholic churches could grow?’”
Do the math, he said. Growing urban flocks would need places to worship. But once these historic Catholic sanctuaries are gone — they’re gone. The cost of building replacements would be astronomical.
All of these real-estate decisions, he said, hinge on management assumptions that are profoundly spiritual.
Once upon a time, “American cities are dotted with magnificent church structures, built with the nickels and dimes that hard-pressed immigrant families could barely afford to donate,” wrote Lawler, in his new book, “The Smoke of Satan,” addressing several interlinking scandals in Catholic life. “Today the affluent grandchildren of those immigrants are unwilling to keep current with the parish fuel bills and, more to the point, to encourage their sons to consider a life of priestly ministry.”
Yes, there are cases in which parishes serving different ethnic groups were built within blocks of each other. But Lawler is convinced that the typical church that is being closed and sold is “located in a comfortable, populous neighborhood, with no other Catholic church particularly close at hand and no special reason why the community that supported a thriving parish in 1960 cannot maintain the same parish now. … No reason, that is, except the decline of the Catholic faith. Parishes close because Catholic families don’t care enough about the faith to keep them open.”
Church history, noted Lawler, is dotted with cases of missionaries moving into hostile territory and winning converts — building new churches, schools and ministries to serve the poor. It took time and effort, but these Catholics were convinced that there was work to be done, saving souls and reaching out to those who were suffering.
What changed? Asking that question — especially in an era of scandal and pain — leads to doctrinal questions that are just as troubling as the hellish puzzles linked to decades of reports about sexual abuse among Catholic clergy.
Here is one reality that must be discussed, according to Lawler. Many parishes began shrinking when Catholic families began shrinking. At the same time, many Catholic schools began to decline. Smaller families produced fewer priests and nuns.
“The general appreciation of our Catholic heritage began to lag at roughly the same time that the American birth rate went into a steep decline,” he wrote. “Is it surprising that we, as a people, stopped thinking so much about what we would pass along to our children, during the same years that we stopped having so many children?”
While many Catholic leaders focus on Mass attendance, Lawler said he thinks that it’s just as important to note how many Catholics are going to confession — ever. Courageous bishops may even want to ask how often their priests go to confession.
“I’m not sure that most Catholics, these days, are all different from other suburban Americans,” he said. “I’m not sure that many believe that they have sins that need to be confessed and forgiven. … They just go to church whenever they want to and they always take Communion. That’s that. It’s all automatic.”
— Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.