Joseph Claude Harris
The Archdiocese of Boston recently completed an evaluation of the demographic and fiscal viability of parishes that resulted in a 25 percent reduction in the number of parishes. A principal reason for initiating this reconfiguration process was the fact that one-third of the pastors in Boston are over the age of 70. With fewer priests available for future parish assignments, smaller parishes with mounting unpaid bills, shrinking membership and leaky roofs became candidates for closure.

Boston is not alone. Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, N.D., announced on Aug. 21, 2004, that the diocese would consolidate 33 parishes between 2004 and 2010, which amounts to 21 percent of the total active parishes. About a month later, Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, published a task force report that recommended that the Diocese of Toledo close 33 of its 157 parishesa 21 percent reduction. In October the Archdiocese of Detroit launched a five-year planning process that will result in the merging or closing of some parishes.

When Catholics first came to America in significant numbers, they settled in large, urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest, but the growth of the Catholic Church since 1990 has been in the Sun Belt states. Membership in the Catholic Church has increased by 10.3 million over the past 13 years; and 85 percent of it, much of it Hispanic, occurred in the Sun Belt.

If one looked only at population changes, one might reasonably expect the number of parishes to be growing slowly in Rust Belt states, where the Catholic population is slowly growing, and to be increasing rapidly in the Sun Belt states, where there are 8.7 million additional Catholics. In fact, the number of parishes in the Rust Belt dropped by 690, while the number in the Sun Belt went up by only 152. If an average parish has about 2,500 members, the 91 dioceses in the Sun Belt area should have started about 3,480 new parishes between 1990 and 2003 to keep pace with population growth. Opening and closing Catholic parishes seems to be an endeavor in which demography is definitely not destiny.

What really determines the number of pastoral appointments and the foundation or closure of parishes is the supply of ordained priests. This began to decline in the United States in the late 1960’s and has continued into the present. The number of active diocesan priests dropped from 24,603 in 1990 to 18,737 by 2003, a decline of 24 percent. The number of priests in religious orders declined by 3,903, or 22 percent, in the same period.

Most of the decline for both diocesan (86 percent) and religious priests (62 percent) took place in the Rust Belt statesa drop of 5,028 diocesan priests and 670 fewer parisheseven though the Catholic population grew slightly. In the Sun Belt states, a modest decline in available clergy did not prevent continued operation of approximately the same number of parishes. Since the number of parishes remained relatively stable while the Catholic population grew by 8.7 million, each parish in the Sun Belt area had to absorb, on average, 1,300 additional members, or 494 more households.

To avoid closing priestless parishes, bishops appointed administrators in 430 parishes in Rust Belt states between 1998 and 2003. For 337 of these parishes, bishops persuaded pastors and chancery administrators to do double duty and also serve as a priest-administrator in a parish that had none. Bishops appointed deacons, professed religious or lay ministers as parish administrators in only 93 cases.

Dioceses in the Sun Belt region had 71 more diocesan priests available to work as a resident pastors between 1998 and 2003. The modest increase in available priests is probably due to migrants who have come to the United States and are available to pastor parishes. At the same time, the number of priests from religious orders available to work as resident pastors declined by 69 over the six-year period. There was a modest increase in the number of parishes, because bishops appointed 92 administrators for parishes in the region. They persuaded 68 priests to do double duty and appointed 24 deacons, religious or lay persons as parish administrators.

What will the Catholic Church in the United States look like in the future in terms of parishes and priests? The good news is that the number of Catholics continues to grow in the United States; the bad news is that this growth has occured at the same time that the number of priests and resident pastors has been decreasing. As mentioned earlier, there were 18,737 active members of the diocesan clergy in 2003, down from 24,603 in 1990. A simple extension of this pattern of decline suggests a likely total of 16,530 diocesan clergy in 2009. The number of active diocesan priests may eventually decline to 12,540. This estimate assumes that the present relatively stable pattern of 380 ordinations per year to the diocesan priesthood will continue, that the average age of ordinands will be 37, that the retirement age for diocesan priests will be 70 and that foreign-born clergy coming to the United States will offset losses due to resignations. Some might consider these assumptions optimistic. A retirement age average of 65, for example, would reduce the number of active diocesan clergy to 10,640. Fewer immigrant priests or a higher resignation rate would also produce lower estimates.

The bishops’ strategy of appointing parish administrators has kept 3,157 parishes (16.5 percent of the U.S. total) open, even though they did not have a resident pastor in 2004. But this strategy may become increasingly more difficult unless the number of lay, religious and deacon administrators is dramatically increased. Recent announcements of substantial parish closures in Boston and planned reductions in Detroit, Fargo and Toledo suggest that diocesan leaders may be switching from a strategy of filling pastoral vacancies by asking priests to do double duty as priest administrators in neighboring parishes. In the future, fewer priests will mean fewer parishes. An aging population of priests may find the burdens of double duty more than they can handle. Between 1990 and 2003, the 85 dioceses in the Rust Belt states closed only 291 parishes. If the level of closures planned, especially in Fargo and Toledo, becomes the norm, then dioceses in the Rust Belt states will close approximately 2,450 parishes in the next several years.

Joseph Claude Harris is an independent research analyst who lives in Seattle, Wash.

Comments

Paul Dion | 5/5/2005 - 1:20am
Paul Dion 23820 Ironwood Avenue # 166 Moreno Valley, CA 92557 (925)784-0079 Re: See subject line, article by Joseph Claude Harris Your box on page 14 of the May 2, 2005 Issue: "What counts is not demography, but the number of priests." Joe, "America", World, when are you going to learn that all the analytical studies in the world based on statistics are not going to make a ding on the surface of the Church? Doesn't anyone know that this Institution is irretrievably entrenched in its divinely inspired theology of the "Remnant"? The number of priests is not important to Mother the Church. The Holy Spirit is in charge, remember? I cringe every time I see the Jesuits (America) fall for articles that claim that they have the answer to the "crisis" of numbers. Doesn't anyone want to study the negative impact of our functional fixity on the square footage concept of "parish"? Doesn't anyone want to admit that as a solution to the "small, intimate community" concept of Church that the parish has already failed? Doesn't anyone want to admit that the consolidation of assets is a good business move? Doesn't anyone want to admit that the "parish" is often the only way that a low productivity, low dynamism C+ human being gets a promotion? Finally, has Joseph Claude Harris read some of the 6 to 10 page job descriptions that bishops use to recruit "Pastoral Coordinators?" These descriptions have only one purpose, to keep the number of these people as small as possible because it's embarassing that the priests presently in charge of the parishes can't qualify for these jobs per the offical description. Not only that, but bishops go around appointing priests to the job of "Administrative Pastoral Coordinator" even though the priests don't have 45 minutes of exposure to Business 101, let alone a 45 hour semester. Get your mind off the "Number of Priests" mantra, it's not going to get you anywhere. There are other answers out there. All it takes is enough creativity fueled by industrial strength doses of holy testosterone quaffed courageously at the feet of Jesus who came to bring the sword. Read how many times you repeated that the bishops have to "persuade" or ask priests to do double duty. All I can ask is, "What is double duty for a 24 hour vocation?" I think that we should not be counting the numbers of priests, and the priests should not be counting the numbers of hours is a week.

Richard Kuebbing | 5/4/2005 - 7:40pm
Numbers matter In his article "The Disturbing Trends Behind Parish Closings" (Am 05May2), Joseph Claude Harris states "Dioceses in the Sun Belt region had 71 more diocesan priests available to work as a resident pastors between 1998 and 2003. The modest increase in available priests is probably due to migrants who have come to the United States ...." In the period 1998-2002, the Archdiocese of Atlanta ordained 43 men to the priesthood. Could it be that our diocese represented over half of the increase in diocesan priests? There were also priests who came in from other areas, but they are in addition to those 43. He also says he calculates the number of new parishes that should have opened based on "an average parish has about 2,500 members." For a rural area or certain parts of older urban areas in Georgia, that might be true. In suburban areas and other parts of older urban areas in Georgia that is low by more than half. The Cathedral has over 10,000 members.

Starting a new parish is a challenge in terms of obtaining land for and building a physical plant. On the north side of Atlanta, usually a parish has over 5,000 members before a neighboring parish is started. A story of one of those "migrant" priests may indicate part of the problem. My parish of about 4,000 registered members (2,000 families about year 2000) is located on the northwest edge of the Atlanta city core. It is served by two or three priests of the Missionaries of LaSalette. Early this century a Spanish Mass was started at our parish. After it was established, a priest from Mexico who was visiting family here was recruited to lead the Spanish speaking community. In three years he grew the community by over 4,000 additional registered members (2,000 additional families). The area is mostly already developed and the cost of land and a new physical plant would exceed the resources available. So we have become a vibrant two-lunged (to use John Paul II's metaphor) community that is splitting the seams of its garments. I think the averages the author is using are hiding significant detail variances across the "Sun Belt". While there is no way to deny the shortage of priests, I think it will take a more detailed analysis of the available data at a lower level to draw conclusions about the nature of the problem.

Paul C. Stokell | 4/26/2005 - 7:12pm
A letter writer (2 May 2005, p. 21) mentioned that there is a crisis for men in the Catholic Church “so large it’s like the elephant in the sacristy." I would speculate what he was referring to could be found a few pages back, in Joseph Claude Harris’ “The Disturbing Trends Behind Parish Closings” (pp. 11-14). Harris discusses parish closings contingent upon the declining number of priests and the hesitancy of bishops to appoint lay pastoral administrators in priestless parishes while naming priests as sacramental moderators.

Where I live, young priests are indeed doing “double duty” as a result of the numbers crunch. One priest now rides circuit for five parishes, pastor to them all. Tension and burnout have resulted and some promising priests have left their collars behind in favor of sanity. Women religious who have served for decades are wearing down, too. Yet our archbishop has appointed only deacons, women religious and lay women as administrators. What is he afraid of? The frustration and anger I have seen in Catholic lay women might be shared by those men willing and able to serve as lay ecclesial ministers and parish leaders, only to linger on the sidelines and watch their pastors and others grind to a halt under the load.

Why more lay men have not been called to this task both stuns and infuriates me.

We know the risks of long hours and low pay – just wages considered – and we want to serve anyway. Many of us are in dual-income families; many have wives who make just as much if not more. What’s more, we know the trials and triumphs of our wives and daughters – what better way to instill greater sensitivity to women and families on the official level? For God’s sake, put us alongside our sisters and our ordained brethren, put us to work!

There is debate about appointing permanent deacons as administrators in parish and chancery alike. Some have spoken against it, claiming that from day one the deacon was to serve - in the name of their bishops - the poor, the weak and the voiceless. Assisting a work-weary, scandal-ridden presbyterate may be just as fitting. Even so, the diaconate in the United States - the largest anywhere - is facing a crisis of its own: many dioceses choose to ordain only men of advanced age. Others tend to call retirees who have enjoyed great success in business. This was not what Rahner heard from the men of Dachau, nor was it what the Council had in mind when the diaconate was restored. A man in his late 30’s and 40’s, even with children, can serve just as well as a deacon. Our Church cannot afford to risk one more open dalliance with gerontocracy and simony.

A solution is available to the bishops, ready to be tapped. We’re more than athletics boosters and beer garden workers, you know. Are they shortsighted in not appointing or hiring more lay men? Or politically correct? Or are they afraid of wandering into issues of governance and ordination of married men? For the Church’s sake, I hope not.

Mark C. Kemmeter | 2/16/2007 - 2:45pm
“The Disturbing Trends Behind Parish Closings,” by Joseph Claude Harris, (5/2) contends that the “supply of ordained priests” is what determines parish foundations and closings. As a diocesan pastoral planner, I would suggest that other factors weigh equally in planning decisions. Some of the other factors are: parish data about membership and sacramental information; demographics, which help identify population trends; diocesan “criteria” or “standards” for vitality and viability, which assess how parishes carry out the mission; stewardship, which challenges parishes to share, consolidate and collaborate on resources; economics of financing a parish and its ministries, which continues to change.

Closing parishes is one solution to complex situations that most dioceses inherited from previous practices, such as ethnic parishes, building parishes in every small rural town or overbuilding after World War II and during the baby boom. A number of dioceses have developed creative ways for parishes to collaborate on personnel, ministries, programs and resources without closing parishes or by allowing the determination to be made on a local level.

Paul Dion | 5/5/2005 - 1:20am
Paul Dion 23820 Ironwood Avenue # 166 Moreno Valley, CA 92557 (925)784-0079 Re: See subject line, article by Joseph Claude Harris Your box on page 14 of the May 2, 2005 Issue: "What counts is not demography, but the number of priests." Joe, "America", World, when are you going to learn that all the analytical studies in the world based on statistics are not going to make a ding on the surface of the Church? Doesn't anyone know that this Institution is irretrievably entrenched in its divinely inspired theology of the "Remnant"? The number of priests is not important to Mother the Church. The Holy Spirit is in charge, remember? I cringe every time I see the Jesuits (America) fall for articles that claim that they have the answer to the "crisis" of numbers. Doesn't anyone want to study the negative impact of our functional fixity on the square footage concept of "parish"? Doesn't anyone want to admit that as a solution to the "small, intimate community" concept of Church that the parish has already failed? Doesn't anyone want to admit that the consolidation of assets is a good business move? Doesn't anyone want to admit that the "parish" is often the only way that a low productivity, low dynamism C+ human being gets a promotion? Finally, has Joseph Claude Harris read some of the 6 to 10 page job descriptions that bishops use to recruit "Pastoral Coordinators?" These descriptions have only one purpose, to keep the number of these people as small as possible because it's embarassing that the priests presently in charge of the parishes can't qualify for these jobs per the offical description. Not only that, but bishops go around appointing priests to the job of "Administrative Pastoral Coordinator" even though the priests don't have 45 minutes of exposure to Business 101, let alone a 45 hour semester. Get your mind off the "Number of Priests" mantra, it's not going to get you anywhere. There are other answers out there. All it takes is enough creativity fueled by industrial strength doses of holy testosterone quaffed courageously at the feet of Jesus who came to bring the sword. Read how many times you repeated that the bishops have to "persuade" or ask priests to do double duty. All I can ask is, "What is double duty for a 24 hour vocation?" I think that we should not be counting the numbers of priests, and the priests should not be counting the numbers of hours is a week.

Richard Kuebbing | 5/4/2005 - 7:40pm
Numbers matter In his article "The Disturbing Trends Behind Parish Closings" (Am 05May2), Joseph Claude Harris states "Dioceses in the Sun Belt region had 71 more diocesan priests available to work as a resident pastors between 1998 and 2003. The modest increase in available priests is probably due to migrants who have come to the United States ...." In the period 1998-2002, the Archdiocese of Atlanta ordained 43 men to the priesthood. Could it be that our diocese represented over half of the increase in diocesan priests? There were also priests who came in from other areas, but they are in addition to those 43. He also says he calculates the number of new parishes that should have opened based on "an average parish has about 2,500 members." For a rural area or certain parts of older urban areas in Georgia, that might be true. In suburban areas and other parts of older urban areas in Georgia that is low by more than half. The Cathedral has over 10,000 members.

Starting a new parish is a challenge in terms of obtaining land for and building a physical plant. On the north side of Atlanta, usually a parish has over 5,000 members before a neighboring parish is started. A story of one of those "migrant" priests may indicate part of the problem. My parish of about 4,000 registered members (2,000 families about year 2000) is located on the northwest edge of the Atlanta city core. It is served by two or three priests of the Missionaries of LaSalette. Early this century a Spanish Mass was started at our parish. After it was established, a priest from Mexico who was visiting family here was recruited to lead the Spanish speaking community. In three years he grew the community by over 4,000 additional registered members (2,000 additional families). The area is mostly already developed and the cost of land and a new physical plant would exceed the resources available. So we have become a vibrant two-lunged (to use John Paul II's metaphor) community that is splitting the seams of its garments. I think the averages the author is using are hiding significant detail variances across the "Sun Belt". While there is no way to deny the shortage of priests, I think it will take a more detailed analysis of the available data at a lower level to draw conclusions about the nature of the problem.

Paul C. Stokell | 4/26/2005 - 7:12pm
A letter writer (2 May 2005, p. 21) mentioned that there is a crisis for men in the Catholic Church “so large it’s like the elephant in the sacristy." I would speculate what he was referring to could be found a few pages back, in Joseph Claude Harris’ “The Disturbing Trends Behind Parish Closings” (pp. 11-14). Harris discusses parish closings contingent upon the declining number of priests and the hesitancy of bishops to appoint lay pastoral administrators in priestless parishes while naming priests as sacramental moderators.

Where I live, young priests are indeed doing “double duty” as a result of the numbers crunch. One priest now rides circuit for five parishes, pastor to them all. Tension and burnout have resulted and some promising priests have left their collars behind in favor of sanity. Women religious who have served for decades are wearing down, too. Yet our archbishop has appointed only deacons, women religious and lay women as administrators. What is he afraid of? The frustration and anger I have seen in Catholic lay women might be shared by those men willing and able to serve as lay ecclesial ministers and parish leaders, only to linger on the sidelines and watch their pastors and others grind to a halt under the load.

Why more lay men have not been called to this task both stuns and infuriates me.

We know the risks of long hours and low pay – just wages considered – and we want to serve anyway. Many of us are in dual-income families; many have wives who make just as much if not more. What’s more, we know the trials and triumphs of our wives and daughters – what better way to instill greater sensitivity to women and families on the official level? For God’s sake, put us alongside our sisters and our ordained brethren, put us to work!

There is debate about appointing permanent deacons as administrators in parish and chancery alike. Some have spoken against it, claiming that from day one the deacon was to serve - in the name of their bishops - the poor, the weak and the voiceless. Assisting a work-weary, scandal-ridden presbyterate may be just as fitting. Even so, the diaconate in the United States - the largest anywhere - is facing a crisis of its own: many dioceses choose to ordain only men of advanced age. Others tend to call retirees who have enjoyed great success in business. This was not what Rahner heard from the men of Dachau, nor was it what the Council had in mind when the diaconate was restored. A man in his late 30’s and 40’s, even with children, can serve just as well as a deacon. Our Church cannot afford to risk one more open dalliance with gerontocracy and simony.

A solution is available to the bishops, ready to be tapped. We’re more than athletics boosters and beer garden workers, you know. Are they shortsighted in not appointing or hiring more lay men? Or politically correct? Or are they afraid of wandering into issues of governance and ordination of married men? For the Church’s sake, I hope not.