The American Catholic Church is changing faster than its infrastructure can keep up with. Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century, out on Feb. 1, paints a portrait of a church that is challenged not so much by hot-button political and cultural issues as it is by the quotidian concerns of leaky roofs and aging priests. Researchers from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) surveyed priests and parishioners at a representative sample of churches across the country to create a fascinating census of the church’s strengths and challenges, packed with more details than it seems like this slim book could hold.
The simplest takeaway is that the Catholic Church in America is strained by the task of caring for such a large, mobile population. For instance, the distribution of American Catholics has shifted dramatically to the South and the West, and these two regions now hold nearly half of all Catholics—up from only about a third in 1985. The physical infrastructure of the church cannot keep up, leaving these growth regions underserved or forced to innovate, building megaparishes that must invent new ways of serving (or simply keeping track of) their large flocks. Since 2001, nearly a quarter of new Catholic churches have been built to seat more than 1,000 parishioners, triple the share of megaparishes built from 1950 to 2000.
Big or small, these parishes are less and less likely to have a resident priest. CARA is careful to point out that this does not exactly constitute a priest shortage; the United States has a higher priest-to-parishioner ratio than most of the rest of the world. But much of our parish infrastructure was built during what turned out to be a short-lived enrollment boom in seminaries after World War II. As a result, many dioceses that thrived during this time now have more parishes than priests to staff them. In the diocese of Green Bay, Wis., there are nearly 100 more parishes than there are active diocesan priests to staff them.
Authors Charles E. Zech, Mary L. Gautier, Mark M. Gray, Jonathon L. Wiggins and Thomas P. Gaunt do not just paint a demographic portrait of the problem; their book also takes a close look at how church leadership has tried to close these gaps, and how people in the pews feel about these measures. Canon law has changed to allow a group of priests to form a team to pastor multiple parishes. In a pinch, a parish can have no resident pastor at all and rely on a parish life coordinator to manage all the logistics of taking care of the community while a priest comes by only to administer the sacraments. Nine percent of the nearly 3,500 U.S. parishes without a resident pastor have been placed in the hands of parish life coordinators.
In the diocese of Green Bay, Wis., there are nearly 100 more parishes than there are active diocesan priests to staff them.
These stopgap measures are only reluctantly embraced by those in the pews. Only 60 percent of weekly Mass-going Catholics said that, in the event that their parish lacked a priest, they would support increasing the use of lay ecclesial ministers. Instead, they prefer to have deacons (68 percent support), retired or foreign priests (71 percent and 73 percent) or just to share a priest with a nearby parish (76 percent). The worst-case scenario, in their view, would be to lose their parish home in a merger with another parish, even if it gave them access to a resident priest. Only 50 percent of weekly Mass-goers said they would support a merger.
These survey responses are about parishioners’ preferences in a hypothetical scenario, but the book’s discussion of parish tithing makes it clear that parishes without an assigned priest feel a financial pinch. Parishes that are created through mergers, parishes served by a team of rotating drop-in priests, and parishes whose membership draws from a recently closed parish all take in between 60 cents and $1.20 less per household each week than parishes without these limitations. The small difference in giving adds up.
The Catholic Church in America is slowly catching up with its shifting flock. The recent classes of ordinands are more diverse and better mirror the multicultural populations they will serve; painful but necessary mergers and closures are taking place; and churches are opening and expanding in the South and the West. But if Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century answers the question of how the American Catholic Church will adjust to the demographic changes of the last 50 years, it also raises another question: How prepared are we to adjust to the changes of the next 50 years? Catholic Parishes makes it clear that finding the balance between rootedness and adaptability will be a constant challenge.