November 15, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Sighting a story on Catholic change was easy this week. The inescapable USA Today devoted three pages to “Church Struggles with Change” by Cathy Lynn Grossman and Anthony DeBarros, which appeared on the front page of the Life section (November 8). The subhead signaled the fact that the authors had dug beyond the obvious: “Analysis shows dwindling parishes can't be blamed on abuse scandal.”
Dwindling parishes is a story so portentous for Catholicism, Christianity, Religion, and America, that it merits such attention. Those of us not of the Roman obedience, but who sympathize and identify with many features of Catholicism, are affected. I recall seminary professors a half-century ago telling us future Lutheran parish pastors, “You'll be lucky if your church is in a neighborhood full of Catholic churches. Their parking lots will be full, and their devotion will signal the importance of church going, something that people in places that don't have such churches will forget.” (He could have said the same of Baptists in the South.)
Grossman and Debarros cite several factors: Catholics are moving from where they were “thick,” cities in the Northeast and Midwest, to the suburbs, South, and Southwest, where they thin out. For decades, few men have been called to the priesthood, and dioceses cannot staff many parishes. Bishops lack the administrative skills to adjust. “Mass attendance has fallen as each generation has become less religiously observant.”
Bishops who take consolation in the fact that 25 percent of our citizens “identify” themselves with Catholicism, just as they did a half-century ago, quietly acknowledge that this figure remains high because of Mexican and other “Hispanic/Latino/Latina” immigration.
One of the graphs presented, with figures that are necessarily a bit uncertain and can be argued about, is a shocker. In 1987, 44 percent of Catholics said they attended mass weekly. By 1993, it was 41 percent; in 1999, it was 37 percent. The projection for next year is 33 percent. To slide from 44 percent to 33 percent in 18 years points to a reality: Catholics, like mainstream Protestants, in part for different reasons, have failed to hold the church-going loyalty of two generations of younger people “identified” with their cohort. Such Protestants also hold the “identification” or “preference” of about 25 percent of the people.
Steve Krueger, a former spokesperson for Voice of the Faithful, a group that irritates defenders of the old clericalism and inspires those who see vitality in the expressive laity who keep the church vibrant -- as it is in thousands of parishes, still -- says of Bostonian and other hierarchs who are closing churches: “They haven't addressed the real problem of plummeting Mass attendance. The demographic trends aren't turning around. And they are far from solving the priest shortage.”
While Grossman and Debarros can point to large gains in numbers of Catholics, but not of priests, in Dallas and Fort Worth, more typical are dioceses like Pittsburgh, which closed 30 percent of its parishes in thirteen years. Springfield, Massachusetts in the same years lost 44 percent of its active priests, Dubuque lost 41 percent, and Rochester, N.Y. lost 40 percent. And no relief is in sight.
Will much of the U.S. go the way of Ireland or Quebec, long “thick” Catholic strongholds that have seen precipitous declines in participation by the faithful?
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.