A pastoral crisis the Church cannot (yet does) ignore

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 28, 2017

The Archdiocese of Boston has opened a new church. That news drew headline coverage, in a city that has become more accustomed to stories about church closings.

To be perfectly honest, the news stories are a bit misleading. There have been a few new churches opened in Boston in the past 60 years, but they have been new buildings rather than new parishes: new churches that were constructed to replace buildings that had been destroyed by fire or by the wrecking ball. As a matter of fact, that’s also the case with the latest building, the church of Our Lady of Good Voyage.

So unless I’m mistaken, the overall count remains unchanged: in the past 50 years, the Archdiocese of Boston has opened zero new parish churches. Over the same span, roughly 125 parishes have been shut down or merged into “cluster” units.

This might be understandable, if the Boston’s Catholic population had disappeared. But it hasn’t—at least not according to the official statistics. On paper, it has grown. There were about 1.8 million Catholics registered in the area covered by the Boston archdiocese 50 years ago; today the official figure is 1.9 million.

The trouble, of course, is that most of those 1.9 million Catholics aren’t practicing the faith. Consequently it should be no surprise that their sons don’t aspire to the priesthood. There were just over 2,500 priests working in the archdiocese 50 years ago; now there are fewer than 300. That’s right; nearly 90% of the priests are gone. If you can’t replace the priests, you can’t keep open the parishes.

Let’s be frank. These figures are not a cause for concern; they are a cause for horror. Panic is never useful, but something close to panic is appropriate here. Things have gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Our Lord commissioned us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We’re not doing that. We aren’t even holding onto the people who were baptized into the faith. We should be bringing more people into the Church, not congratulating ourselves on minimizing the losses.

Although the situation in Boston is unusually bad, it is not unique. All around us, the same sad trends are in evidence. Parish closings and wholesale diocesan retrenchment programs have become familiar. How should we respond?

Here are two possible responses:

A) “This is a disaster! Stop everything. Drop what you’re doing. “Business as usual” makes no sense; this is a pastoral emergency. We don’t just need another “renewal” program, offered by the same people who have led us into this debacle. We need to figure out what has gone wrong. More than that. We know that the Gospel has the power to bring people to Christ; therefore it follows that we have failed to proclaim the Gospel. The fault lies with us. We should begin with repentance for our failures.”

B) “Don’t worry. Times change, and we have to change with them. Religion isn’t popular in today’s culture, but the faith will make a comeback sooner or later. We just need to keep plugging away, to have confidence, to remember God’s promise that the Church will endure forever.”

You see what’s wrong with argument B, don’t you? Yes, the Lord promised that the Church would last through the end of time. But he did not promise that the Archdiocese of Boston (or your own diocese) would last forever. The faith can disappear, indeed has disappeared, from large geographical areas—northern Africa, for instance.

Moreover, it’s both presumptuous and illogical to assume that the faith will make a comeback in another generation or two. The young adults who today don’t bother to marry in the Church are not likely to bring their children there for Baptism (if they have children). Those children, years later, aren’t likely to feel the urge to go back to their parish church (if it still stands), since they were never there in the first place. The Catholic faith is passed down from generation to generation. If parents stop teaching their children, those children have nothing to teach the grandchildren. In two generations, a thoroughly Catholic society can become mission territory. Look at Boston. Look at Quebec. Look at Ireland.

Finally, even if we could safely assume that the faith will recover in another 10 or 20 or 50 years, that would not absolve us, in this current generation, of our responsibility to evangelize. Right now, people are going without the benefit of the sacraments, because of our failure and our complacency. Lives are being lost; souls are being lost. We are accountable.

So between the two responses, A) and B), there is no comparison. One might sound extreme, but the other is just plain wrong.

There are, sad to say, two other responses:

C) “It doesn’t really matter whether or not people go to church on Sunday. As long as we’re all nice people, God in his mercy will bring us all to heaven.”

D) “Don’t bother me with your statistics. Actually the faith is stronger than ever. Our parish/diocese is vibrant! You’re only seeing the negative.

Response C) is not Catholic. Response D) is—how shall I put this gently?—not rational. Unfortunately, I hear B), C), and D) much more often than A). Don’t you?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: FredC - May. 03, 2017 4:22 PM ET USA

    Several dioceses are good and strong. All bishops should imitate these dioceses and ignore the rest.

  • Posted by: - May. 03, 2017 2:19 PM ET USA

    In my parish, here in the heart of Phoenix AZ, we have a weekly rosary for vocations. I hope more of my fellow parishioners will join but we're hanging in there. Once a week, the parish offers Eucharistic Adoration for 2 hours.[We don't have a separate chapel] No time like the present to try it!!! Just takes a few to get going and we've been having the rosary now for about 7.5 years.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - May. 03, 2017 12:05 PM ET USA

    One thing we can do is cease funding the USCCB, whose leftist political initiatives are depleting us financially & spiritually, & instead donate to concrete parish projects, such as RCIA (books!), the altar boy program (youth activities!), & yes, parish maintenance (sustain and beautify your parish!). Strong, committed parish life is foundational -- we've got to rebuild from the ground up. It's called subsidiarity, folks.

  • Posted by: caaronbrown7083 - May. 02, 2017 11:13 AM ET USA

    Is it not possible that the church's paralysis on this issue reflects a deeper paralysis, a hidden but very real conflict over the nature of the priesthood and the clergy? For those who are critical of the traditional priesthood, and who would like to dramatically rethink how the Church is led and how its sacramental life is lived, the lack of vocations is a feature, not a bug. This is the crisis out of which a new kind of priesthood and Church could be born.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - May. 01, 2017 3:23 PM ET USA

    Our diocese had seven seminarians (total) when I first returned to the Church. We now have over 40, and if all continues, will bring our total of working priests to 70 in the next ten years. This is amazing. The reason? Eucharistic adoration. There are chapels all over the diocese, and many churches have Holy HOurs. If you can't do anything else, make a weekly visit for the intention of increased vocations. Then hold on tight.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - May. 01, 2017 1:48 PM ET USA

    The hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture used to interpret the Second Vatican Council is largely to be blamed for the current disaster. The use of this hermeneutic in combination with opening the windows of the Church to the secular culture resulted not in making the culture Christian, but in making large segments of the Church secular. Although nothing is impossible for God, the near future does not look good at all, given the direction Pope Francis is taking the Church.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 01, 2017 11:17 AM ET USA

    I find myself in a situation similar to iprayiam5731's. My diocese forces us into silos and will not help us build a better Catholic school system. I know that this situation prevails in at least two other dioceses because last summer Catholics in these dioceses asked for guidance on how to start an orthodox Catholic CCD program. My privation is to be a member of a parish that is served by an order of priests who do not view Catholic education as a priority. Unfortunately the diocese loses.

  • Posted by: Terri11 - Apr. 30, 2017 4:29 PM ET USA

    I know at least four men, and I believe a fifth, who I met in Boston who became priests. I believe that 3 of the 5 heard their calling in Boston. But only one of them is in Boston right now. So, maybe the problem is less a faithfulness issue, but rather that men choose to go to seminaries elsewhere. All of them, btw, are in orders, not diocesan priests. Only one of the those orders trains their priests in Boston. So maybe the problem isn't quite what you think.....

  • Posted by: iprayiam5731 - Apr. 29, 2017 10:44 PM ET USA

    So... What do *we* the faithful laity do. I'm all for helping. I'll give my life to help. But im not sure how. It's a problem made by and perpetuated by the heirarchy, and I don't know how to help them help themselves

  • Posted by: tmschroeder2790 - Apr. 29, 2017 5:06 PM ET USA

    Thank you for your rather pointed article. Our Archdiocese of Detroit has had her share of rather grim statistics. And from my limited perspective, seeking personal holiness and cooperating with God has brought about fruit, good fruit. It does not negate the generalized apostasy, but it does provide a beacon of light to the many lost souls. Many beautiful apostolates are forming. I pray that they will all descend upon Boston and all places where the evil one has a stronghold. AMDG

  • Posted by: ALC - Apr. 28, 2017 5:54 PM ET USA

    And, yet, we have bishops and even a Pope who are more worried about climate change and illegal immigrants. Just had the Bishops of Texas issue a statement on how disappointed they were in the law that was just passed outlawing sanctuary cities. No word on how disappointed they are that most Catholics don't believe in the Real Presence.