Parish closings are only half of the story

The Archdiocese of New York has announced the merger of 112 parishes that will include some worship sites closing over the next year. The archdiocese is following a similar pattern of realignment that has been taking place in the last 15 years among several Northeastern and Midwestern dioceses.

A dozen of the New York mergers involve the closure of worship sites in Manhattan. Why would Cardinal Timothy Dolan make this difficult decision? According to the U.S. Religion Census, there were an estimated 485,472 parish-affiliated Catholics residing in Manhattan in 1970. As of 2010, this same source estimated there were just 323,325. That is a decline of 33 percent in 40 years. Couple this with a national decline in weekly Mass attendance during the same period of 25 percentage points to 24 percent now and there are just too few people in the pews in New York City on an average Sunday to justify a parish every few blocks. The cardinal must also consider the number of priests available to pastor in archdiocesan parishes. Before the realignment, the archdiocese had just 1.1 active diocesan priests per parish.

Church’s CEOs

Bishops in Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Boston — to name just a few — have made similarly difficult decisions in recent years. As painful as these choices are, they are necessary given the costs to maintain the physical plant of Catholic parishes in light of the numbers worshiping there and the growing scarcity of Catholic priests. By merging parishes, the Church is making the effort to provide the necessary worship space for the existing Catholic community in the here and now, rather than preserving the past.

In the 21st century, the brick and mortar geography of the Church in the Northeast and Midwest no longer relates well to the distribution of the Catholic population. Corporate CEOs, city planners and school districts deal with similar “supply and demand” issues all of the time. Wal-Mart or Starbucks will close stores when customer bases no longer support them. Public school superintendents will close and merge schools when there are too few students to justify the existing number of sites.

Bishops don’t face the same pressures for their jobs, but they are also much more than CEOs or superintendents. They are first and foremost pastoral leaders who are hesitant to let go of the sacred space for which a community has an emotional attachment. Many dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest likely waited too long to adjust to the demographic changes occurring in their region. This has led to an accumulation of financial and administrative pressures that are relieved at one time in massive, painful realignments. For a Catholic bishop and the Catholic community it is difficult, sad and draining. But it is also often necessary.

Growth areas

Yet what is happening in New York now is only half of the story occurring in the Catholic Church in the United States. The other half rarely makes it into the news and is also being neglected somewhat by bishops. The reality is that it is much easier to close a parish or a school than to open a new one where it is needed most.

The Catholic population in the United States continues to grow annually, remaining just under a quarter of the population. Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) surveys indicate Mass attendance rates have been stable since 2000, and this means, with a growing population, that there are more Catholics in the pews now than at any time in the last dozen years. This growth has not occurred uniformly across the country.

A recent CARA national survey of pastors revealed that between 2008 and 2013 a typical parish in the West grew, on average, by 394 registered parishioners and 93 Mass attenders. Parishes in the South also reported growth (147 more registered parishioners and 25 more Mass attenders). By contrast, a typical parish in the Northeast has lost 167 registered parishioners and 22 Mass attenders since 2008. Parishes in the Midwest are also seeing fewer people in the pews on Sunday (14 fewer Mass attenders) but are not experiencing the same losses in registered parishioners (gaining 33).

These changes are part of a long process of population realignment in the Church in the United States. In the last 65 years or so, Catholics have moved away from urban areas and parishes in the Northeast and Midwest for suburban homes or have moved even further into the Sun Belt in the South and West where more jobs have emerged. Both migration and immigration have been important, with recent waves of new Catholic immigrants more often residing in the South and West as well. In 1950, 24 percent of Catholics in the country lived in the South and West. Today, these two regions account for 49 percent of the Church’s U.S. population. It’s as if two Churches are simultaneously emerging in the U.S. One is closing parishes and feeling decline while the other one is bursting at the seams (see sidebar).

Realignments needed

Geographically, the Church in the United States is experiencing simultaneous population growth and decline. Parishes are no longer where the Catholics are.

While closures and mergers may capture headlines, an open lot in a community with an abundance of Catholics will not draw a reporter to the scene. There are empty lots all over the South and West that could be Catholic parishes and schools now and in the future.

The Church is in need of more grand realignments that call for their construction (and this is outside of Cardinal Dolan’s control). Before this can occur, the Church will certainly need more priests to pastor those parishes. The current ratio of active diocesan priests per parish nationally is 1.0, and there are no projections that see growth in the number of Catholic priests in the foreseeable future. This may be the defining limitation to completing more of the “other half” of the realignment that is needed.

Mark Gray and Mary L. Gautier are senior research associates at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.