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.