The sad news that some 55 parishes in and around New York are going to be shuttered (or “merged” with other parishes) has been public for some time now. There are, no doubt, some people who are heartbroken by the news that their beloved parish is among those whose doors are closing.
It is almost certainly true that some of these parishes are housed in beautiful buildings which would be the envy of many other dioceses for their majesty and grandeur. And, as happens when these closings are announced, there will most likely follow some amount of soul-search and no shortage of bitter recriminations, much of which will be aimed at the archbishop, Timothy Cardinal Dolan—a man whose position I do not envy.
There are surely many reasons why these parishes are to be closed, some more important than others. In a recent interview with Aleteia, Fr. George Rutler—a parish priest within the archdiocese—has offered his own thoughts as to the parish closings:
“Among the factors is a decline in Catholic life.
One statistic I was given recently is the Catholic population of New York City is just about the same as it was 70 years ago. There’s not a decline in Catholic population; there’s a decline in Catholic life, and there are all kinds of reasons for that…
Another reason for these closures is that the churches were organized very much for ethnic purposes rather than evangelical purposes. There was a cultural assumption that the Church was a home for immigrants, and that they would belong to parishes not just for the faith but also for, legitimately, social reasons, for community, schools and the like. So in Manhattan we have an old German parish, an Italian parish, [etc.], and they’re in close proximity with each other. And, and that’s no longer needed.
The primary fact is that most Catholics aren’t practicing the faith. Mass attendance in New York is about 12%. You’ve had about a 50% drop since the Second Vatican Council. Nobody will address that. They’ll acknowledge the fact, but they will not address the fact that there were some serious mistakes made in the last generation.”
He also mentions the shortage of priests, which would certainly make it difficult to keep parishes open. And he is right on all accounts. The Catholic population in America (to say nothing of New York) has held steady, not only in absolute numbers but in proportion of the populace, for some decades now.
Unfortunately, what we comprise in numbers we lose in other areas. There is a decline in Catholic life, and it seems to me that we as a people are lacking in both virtue and its ultimate flowering, which are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. These things are ultimately inseparable.
Saint Paul tells the Galatians—and us—about the fruits of the flesh and those of the Spirit :
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is, charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:16-24).
The fruits are acts springing from either vice (fruits of the flesh) or virtue (fruits of the Spirit), and among them I will single out just one from each list, though all twelve of the Fruits of the Spirit are needed for a healthy and vibrant faith life and faith community, and all of the fruits of the flesh will tend to poison against the health of the soul and the parish.
For example, there is generosity  and its corruption, selfishness. I do not doubt that there are many generous people who are parishioners at these churches that are closing, any more than I doubt that there are many selfish parishioners at the parishes which will remain open. Indeed, I do even assert that those parishes which remain open are on the whole more generous, or that those which will close are on the whole more selfish.
Rather, I assert that a lack of generosity within the archdiocese as a whole—and in honesty, this is not a problem limited to this one archdiocese, or even to those others which have already closed or will soon close a number of churches. Other parishes at other dioceses may be next on the chopping block, after all.
Nevertheless, a little more generosity goes a very long way in keeping the parish doors open. I am not speaking only of financial generosity, though this, too, is important. Time, talent, and treasure are all equally needed to keep a parish running, and cannot be supplied sufficiently by only a few dedicated (or rich, or brilliant, or “elite”) parishioners.
But this is not the root of the generosity problem, either. The family which tithes and volunteers and helps to keep the parish afloat is needed at every parish, but these things are not enough on their own, either.
There is a certain kind of spiritual generosity, one which is harder by far to see that these things, a sort act of giving or withholding which may be done in secret, or nearly in secret. Parishes need priests and they need parishioners—and the priests need the prayers of the parishioners. But the priests also ultimately need to be replaced as they grow old, and this again can only be done by the people of the parish.
Ultimately, we need the generosity of parents, both in giving new life and in educating and then evangelizing and catechizing their children. We need the further generosity of encouragement, that is, the support of parents for their children in discernment. I will not here claim that selfishness is the sole cause of contraception—there is also some amount of fear to blame as well—but to the extent that there is contraception, there generosity is lacking.
As a society we have physically contracepted a number of parishes (and especially schools) out of existence . And if this is true physically, it might be even more so spiritually.
Physical contraception — what we mean literally by the very concept of contraception — has the effect of damaging our vocations as parents, and ultimately even as simple spouses. There is also a sort of spiritual contraception, by which we prevent the formation of certain vocations, whether within our own lives or within those of our children.
Smaller families correspond to fewer priests and religious vocations; one suspects that some of this correspondence may be the desire of those parents of few children to have many grandchildren. Lack of family support for vocations surely results in fewer people discerning vocations as priests or religious, and many of those who do may drop out under tacit pressure from parents to do something else—anything else!—which might result in the raising of children.
As the average age of our priests grows older, and as the total number declines , it becomes less practical to keep the doors open and the lights on in every parish. This is especially true of those whose pews are less than full, or for that matter those which are in close proximity to other parishes–the number of Catholic parishes nationwide is in decline. It is a sad situation: but it is to some extent one of our own making.
 It is worth noting here that this passage about fruits of the Spirit and fruits of the flesh is written in the context of the second greatest commandment: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Galatians 5:14).
 Some translations list generosity, others list other, equivalent fruits such as benignity.
 It might be argued here that the actual Catholic population has not decreased in New York; of course, Mass attendance is down. When one decides to ignore Church teaching in one seemingly inconvenient area, it becomes easier to ignore Church teaching in other areas too. And the Catholic population growth rate is slowing, with the overall population set to begin declining.
 Trends which are unfortunately also mirrored among our religious sisters.