Archbishop Charles Chaput’s announcement Jan. 6 that the Philadelphia archdiocese will be closing schools in record numbers during the coming year was the latest and loudest rumble in a series of seismic displacements that are permanently reshaping the look of U.S. Catholicism. This according to the NCR.
What is happening in Philadelphia follows the same script, fashioned by demographic shifts and economic need, that has been in use throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest. The drama may differ in particulars from place to place — some bishops might accomplish the grim task with more pastoral sensitivity than others, some may involve the larger community more deeply in the decision-making process than others — but the results are pretty much the same. From Philadelphia to Newark, N.J., New York to Boston, Cleveland to Chicago to Detroit and beyond, the church of the immigrants is going the same route as the old industrial America of our forebears. The huge plants — churches, schools and parish halls — markers of another era, like the hulking steel mills and manufacturing plants of old, can no longer be sustained. There aren’t enough Catholics left in those places, not enough priests and nuns and certainly not enough money to maintain the church as it once was.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, the church in the United States has lost 1,359 parishes during the past 10 years, or 7.1 percent of the national total, and most of those have been in the Northeast and the Upper Midwest.
The question for everyone becomes: What’s next?
The answer for the moment — from the Eastern sees that are downsizing to the Western sees contending with growth — seems to be: Check back with us in a few years and we’ll let you know.
Not that it is all that haphazard. Significant discussions of how to plan for the future have occurred among various national groups and those discussions, say both Couturier and Furlow, inform what is going on at ground level.
It is clear that the institutional structures that Dolan sees as strangling today’s Catholic leaders are being changed by an array of forces, many of which lie outside the control of those same leaders.
Couturier said the primary question is not “How are our beliefs holding up?” but “How are Catholics doing? How are they faring?” He acknowledges that increasingly today people can find the church “largely tangential to the high task of developing character in today’s turbulent world of family, love and business.” He asks, “How conducive are our Catholic institutions for the transformative work of faith in the postmodern world?” He asks questions about Catholic “well-being” and about “whether our work and our institutions are meeting the needs of our people today, whether they are seen as pastorally healthy, effective and helpful in meeting the concerns of the faithful.”
They are huge questions with no easy or immediate answers. Practically, however, it means that Couturier in the next year will hold 25 consultations in parishes around the Boston archdiocese where the discussion will deal with how pastors can “pastor differently” and how people and clergy can “build up a theology of partnership rather than a theology of competition.”
The shifts the church in the United States is experiencing at the start of the 21st century are enormous. Some have been under way for decades, others have hit suddenly, the fallout of scandal. Often the metaphors are taken from nature — perfect storm, shifting plates — in an attempt to get at the dimensions. The uncertainties, Couturier said in his speech to New York’s priests, “are palpable.” But if the ground is shifting, it is also, he concluded, “the ground on which saints flourish and pastors prosper, when Catholicism engages novelty with its heritage of grace.”