By Robert P. Lockwood - OSV Newsweekly, 5/6/2012
Prediction from 1987 describing the Church in America in 2012:
“The average Catholic parish will see a priest approximately once a month. Communion services will be conducted on a weekly basis by lay leaders. Only a handful of Catholic schools — predominantly private academies for the children of the wealthy — will remain. Religious education will be entirely a parental task with little or no input from the local parish.”
Wrong. In fact, so wrong that you have to wonder what the guy was thinking who could write such a lousy forecast. I have no idea what he was thinking, even though I was the guy.
Pitfalls of prognosticating
For the 75th anniversary edition of Our Sunday Visitor newsweekly, I did a little prognostication on what the Church would look like in 2012.
They call it the “Mendoza Line” in baseball, referring to a beleaguered hitter who can’t keep his batting average above .200. I barely hit the Mendoza Line in my predictions.
From the above quote, I was essentially 0-3. Most parishes today see a priest every week and have a pastor, though there has been a marked increase in the number of pastors serving multiple parishes. Catholic schools have survived, though I should earn at least half a point for raising the difficulty of higher and higher rates of tuition. And parishes still provide critical resources and support for the religious education of the young.
I also raised the possibility of parishes defining themselves as smaller and smaller communities — “with a maximum of 60 families, loyal to but virtually isolated from the larger Church.” Didn’t happen. While there are about 1,300 fewer parishes today than in 1987, those that closed generally suffered from dramatically declining populations in the continuing Catholic shift from urban to suburban population centers. The smaller parishes died. The larger survived and grew.
I did note that “on the average” the parish population “will be older” and “a sizable part of every parish will be 55 and older.” That’s true, though there are exceptions, depending on the location. But urban parishes are often older parishes and, with the overall baby boomer bulge now 60 plus, the Catholic demographics is decidedly older than in 1987.
I wondered in my article if these Catholic baby boomers — “the last with clear memories of the Church before Vatican II” — would generate an “older more traditional influence on parish devotional life.”
It seems that would be true in the very best sense, though in many cases it is the younger, newly-ordained clergy that have brought back traditional aspects of Catholic life such as Holy Hours and Eucharistic Adoration that have been revived in many places.
One interesting theory I raised back in 1987 is if 2012 Catholics might be more likely to “pick or choose a local denomination — Catholic, Protestant, or cultic — that most meets their emotional needs.” I hate the fact that I might have been right there. Purely by the rhetoric of experience, this does happen now far more than we realize. Catholic identity has suffered for whatever reason and former practicing Catholics are not an uncommon sight in evangelical mega-churches.
On a related note, I predicted that “Hispanics will undoubtedly make up a large proportion of the general population by 2012” and wondered, in light of aggressive Protestant evangelization, if they would remain Catholic.
I think it can be safely said that the Catholic population is made up more and more of Hispanics and that while the evangelical threat is still there, those Hispanic conversions have been far less than feared. More dangerous has been the Hispanic loss to a secular culture. Hispanics are far more likely to succumb to secularism than they are to the evangelicals.
“All signs point to the fact that we cannot expect a dramatic upswing in vocations” to the priesthood, I wrote 25 years ago. I wish I had been wrong.
We’ve declined by about 3,700 diocesan priests since 1987, and that number will only accelerate as many priests from the last days of high vocation rates in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s are retiring or leaving us. In far less than the next 25 years, the shortage of priests will have significant impact on Catholic life in America.
However, the number of deacons and deacon candidates has been in contrast to other vocation figures. While deacons are not “alternatives” to priestly ministry, they are a tremendous resource in parishes.
But it is hard to get optimistic, particularly when we factor in what will be continued decline in women religious.
Despite the negative scenario mentioned above, I did write in 1987: “I simply don’t believe Catholics in the U.S. will let their school system die.” I was right. While there are about 1,800 fewer Catholic elementary schools, much of that decline has to do with demographic changes rather than abandoning the commitment to Catholic schools.
Most schools close because of declining student populations in urban areas, much as urban public schools have closed as well. I did write that the “regionalization” of Catholic elementary schools will be a distinct possibility as a means to control tuition costs. While this is far from universal, it is a trend now and I give myself another half point.
I prophesied that “diocesan bureaucracies could be a thing of the past” by 2012. Wrong. While dioceses have trimmed down because of budgetary expenses, there are still vibrant chancery offices and pastoral staff today serving the parishes.
I worried about a more “decentralized” local church where parishes are “like a Protestant congregational system — locally controlled entities that respect local authority but have no real connection with the larger church.” Didn’t happen.
In 2012, what do I see for the Church in America in 2037, when Our Sunday Visitor celebrates its 125th anniversary? A few quick points:
◗ Fewer elementary schools, but many more regionalized Catholic schools;
◗ A strong and universally unique Hispanic-American Catholic culture;
◗ The “vocation crisis” as a bad memory;
◗ Resurgent Catholic identity;
◗ A forceful Catholic male population responding to the secular culture;
◗ Greater lay ministerial leadership in Catholic parishes, particularly laywomen;
◗ A number of small revitalized orders of women religious with extraordinary impact;
◗ Parishes rebuilding in the cities.
That said, the best thing about that 125th anniversary issue is I will more than likely not be around to discover how wrong I could be once again.
Robert P. Lockwood worked at OSV from 1971 to 1999, including as editor and publisher, and has written his biweekly Catholic Journal column since 1999.
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