Parish Closures

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.

The majority of new ordinands surveyed by CARA in 2013 had 3 or more siblings growing up.
The majority of new ordinands surveyed by CARA in 2013 had 3 or more siblings growing up. Image source.

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.

 

—Footnotes—

[] 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.

17 thoughts on “Parish Closures”

  1. Avatar

    The conclusion of your pie chart is shaky at best. If you add up the percentages of 3, 4, or 5 siblings the total is 52%, but if you add up those with none, 1, 2 or 3 siblings your total is 70%, so depending on your skew the majority of ordinands could be said to have come from families of 4+ or 4 or less. The majority of all the options actually lies in ordinands with 2 siblings, followed by those with 3 siblings.

    But please, in general, do not equate all small families in the pews with selfishness. It stings those of us who have only a few children sitting next to us in Mass, but numerous children in heaven. Most people in my church don’t know that my “family of three” is actually a family of six and it can hurt to be lumped in with people far less generous.

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      “But please, in general, do not equate all small families in the pews with selfishness. It stings those of us who have only a few children sitting next to us in Mass, but numerous children in heaven. Most people in my church don’t know that my “family of three” is actually a family of six and it can hurt to be lumped in with people far less generous.”

      I wanted to take some time to address this point first, because it seems like the more important. First, my sincere sympathy for your losses; while I have not suffered through miscarriage as a parent, I have done so as a sibling and as a close relative. It was not my intention to add the sting of insult to this injury.

      Second, it was not my intention to lump all “small” families together as being “not generous.” I came from a family which would have looked like 3 (or at times 4), but which was missing at least two due to miscarriage. I also know of families in which the number of children has been “capped” at one or two or three for actual health reason, which wouldn’t be known to any but the closest of friends to the family. So no, it is not my argument that family size alone tells the whole story of the generosity of the parents.

      Furthermore, it is by far the more important thing that the parents work to evangelize and catechize their children, which is why I wrote what I wrote here:
      “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.”

      So openness to new life is a part of generosity, and this openness to new life does not require that new life always be brought forth. But it is only one part–that is the primary argument I am trying to make.

      1. Avatar

        Now I would like to address the first part of your comment:
        “The conclusion of your pie chart is shaky at best. If you add up the percentages of 3, 4, or 5 siblings the total is 52%, but if you add up those with none, 1, 2 or 3 siblings your total is 70%, so depending on your skew the majority of ordinands could be said to have come from families of 4+ or 4 or less. The majority of all the options actually lies in ordinands with 2 siblings, followed by those with 3 siblings.”

        There are two things to note here. The first is in response to an implicit critique which has been made explicitly to me elsewhere. While I show a correlation between larger families and more ordinands, I actually gave an alternative reason as to why that correlation might exist. Therefore, it should be noted that this is not a simple “correlation equals causation” fallacy argument. I hope that my comment above helps shed some additional light on this point.

        Second, and more to the point of your comment, yes, it is true that you can choose different “chunks” of the pie chart and come up with a majority, e.g. the majority of priests have 3 or fewer siblings (meaning, come from a family of 4 or fewer children). Setting aside that by modern standard, 4 children is almost always called a “large” family (with three being “iffy”), there actually is some additional reasoning as to why I lumped bins as I did. We have a birthrate in the US of around 2 per family–this is an average. But it also implies that most families have two or fewer children.

        By most, I mean actually more than 50%, presumably a lot more, since every family having three would need a family to have 1 for the average to be 2, and for each family having 4 we would need two families of 1 or one of none, and so on. So much had been my reasoning: by my estimate, people total come from families of three or more than from families of two or fewer children, so if a majority of priests come from this smaller group, that would seem to be significant.

      2. Avatar

        A quick Internet search suggests that the number having three or more is 28%, with 34% having two and therefore 38% having one or fewer. As a result, this means that there are fewer total children in households with three or more than in households of two or fewer.

        Actually, the average number of children born to a mother of three or more must be nearer to three than to four. Rounding up to 3.5, for every 3.5 x 28 = 98 children in families of three or more, there are (2 x 34 = 68) + (1 x 38 = 38) = 106 in families of 2 or fewer. Ah, but 3 or more children is equivalent to two or more siblings for each ordinand–in other words, the 48% of children coming from families of 3 or more children supply 76% of the ordinands, and the 52% coming from families of 2 or fewer children make up only 24%.

        So my division is not as arbitrary as it would appear on a cursory glance. The point was not so much “how can I add this up to make a majority,” but rather “a disproportionately large number of priests are coming from larger families.”

        I have suggested an argument as to why this might be, that is, an argument as to what is the causation of this correlation, in my column above.

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  3. Avatar

    “ You’ve had a 50% drop since the Second Vatican council. Nobody will address that.”

    I see you and Fr Rutler looking out across the prairie at the rumps of horses running wild, the open barn door an afterthought. You may be perplexed by the fact that they left a nice barn with regular meals, shelter and care – just
    about every other church has too. Your purview is early to middle 20th
    century and doesn’t explain the decline of Catholics – but I will.
    In many parts of the world, a world we don’t even share the same day, babies are born in such numbers that it is not uncommon for parents to drown them if they are female and amputate their hand(s) in order to feed them. See, if you have two hands no one will give you beggar money, so these children will
    have no way to provide food for themselves and their family. What is truly a miracle is that they cling to the Hindu and Buddhist faith despite what we see as our worst nightmare. Why is that ? Because it’s the same God as Jesus or Jehovah or Allah who shepherd’s them, the same Spirit that waters their faith.. To the western mind the problem of the missing horses is simple. If you take one representative from each religion, put them in a room and asked them to come out as one, it wouldn’t happen (yet) This holy pride is not lost on 21st century minds who see religion as part of the problem. It wasn’t Vat 2 that shot holes in Catholicism’s demographic future it was a comedian named George Carlin who asked a listening world how all the souls in Purgatory felt about doing eternity in Hell on the meat rap after the penalty was revoked. It was generations of devastated families who were fed the hypothetical bs that their stillborn might never see God, that divorced people hadn’t the worth to break Bread. When the Dali Lama voiced his fear that we may be coming to an end age of religion he meant all doctrines that divide their herd. I suggest learning the ancient game ‘Go’ to see a very clear analogy. The CC will always be, as will the other faiths both older and young. It’s a very, very complex world and no doubt it is unfolding as it should, given the conditions. I’m sure the faithful in AD 2314 and beyond will have plenty to ruminate on.

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        To be honest, this does read a bit like a stream-of-consciousness upload. The Church we’ll have forever, along with the Holy Spirit and the poor. These are what Christ Himself said we’d always have. Often they’re all together.

        I’m not so convinced that the other religions will last forever. Perhaps until the world’s end, perhaps not. Certainly the Great Religions have staying power, and more so than the great heresies.

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        ” I’m not so convinced that the other religions will last forever.”
        I’m convinced you could never come up with a scenario
        under which they would dissolve.

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        It seems unlikely on this side of eternity, at least as concerns the great religions. Some might wane a bit, as has happened to some major religions (the various forms of paganism, for example, or Zoroastrianism).

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        What about all Protestant mindset ? Do you see all of
        Christianity united in practice and belief on this side of eternity? Now that seems impossible.

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        I wouldn’t be surprise if Protestantism has vanished in the next century or two, especially in the first world (then again, I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see a continued decline of Catholicism here for the next hundred years…). Protestantism is in a weaker position now than, say, Arianism during its heyday. And then again, there are schisms which are older than Protestantism–older indeed than the East-West split. So I also would be less-than surprised to learn that at least some forms or strains of Protestantism are still around in 200 years. What it will look like by then is anyone’s guess, but its death knells have been sounded before, and yet its still with us, and strong as ever in some places. I will say that there are some very interesting movements within Protestantism, and that many of those which are tending to spur some revival among, for example, the evangelicals are at the same time bringing them closer to Catholics. There’s a lot more common-cause on the social (ultimately, moral) issues, for example. On the other hand, I see the differences all the more starkly now that I living in an area of the deep south which is more strongly dominated by the Protestant presence (scarcely 5% of the population is Catholic around here). You can see where there are similarities–and differences.

      6. Avatar

        Good analysis. I also see Protestantism delving more
        into UU type communities. After 150 years of belief in
        a God who will eventually save everyone -Buddha also
        purports this vision – I would say that our human soul urge
        is aghast at the prospect of an everlasting, personal damnation.

  4. Avatar

    This is the Archdiocese of New York: It covers Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx, and a few counties to the north.

    All of these places are extremely expensive places in which to raise children. They are also very crowded. If devout New York Catholics were to be generous and have a large family, there is a good chance they would have to leave the Archdiocese of New York for a less expensive and more spacious home in the suburbs.

    1. Avatar

      “All of these places are extremely expensive places in which to raise children.”

      Fair enough, and in more ways than one. If many young and faithful families are fleeing the cities for more affordable places to live, that is a tragedy for the cities. On the other hand, having a large family is not the only way in which one can be generous, as I noted above. Anymore, it takes vocations of all sorts to keep the doors open. A parish lacking children has no real future–the same might be said of a parish with many poorly catechized children who all leave the faith in their high school and college years. Ditto for a parish whose members do not tithe, and ditto for a diocese in which there are no priestly vocations.

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