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The EditorsDecember 12, 2011

Few events signaled the rapid expansion of the church in the United States in the 20th century like a groundbreaking. Church archives are strewn with pictures of prelates standing in open fields, wielding a shovel or pronouncing a blessing over new construction. The church was growing and with it the buildings and institutions that served the Catholic population.

Today the church in much of the country is contracting. Schools have closed, hospitals merged, novitiates shuttered—moments rarely captured on film. With priestly and religious vocations and Mass attendance in decline, the church can no longer do all it once did. This may seem obvious, but its corollary still provokes resistance and controversy: Still more institutions will have to close—not just parishes and parochial schools, but colleges and hospitals, soup kitchens and retreat centers. The coming decades will see growth, too, in the suburbs and in Latino communities. Churches and schools will continue to be built. Yet the growth of some ministries will come in conjunction with the closing of others. Church leaders must act from a position of humility, always seeking to discern what they can accomplish with limited resources.

In the future, collaboration among Catholic institutions will be essential. There are promising signs: universities have already made homes for schools of theology and think tanks like the Woodstock Theological Center. In New York three dioceses plan to send candidates for the priesthood to a common seminary. Yet too many Catholic organizations remain locked in a survivalist mindset. It may no longer be possible for each religious order to maintain its own retreat houses or schools. If creative ways to work together are not energetically explored, then institutions will continue to close in abrupt and haphazard ways.

Yet collaboration will not save every institution. Some ministries have fulfilled their role and will have to bring their service to an end. This will be a painful process. Catholics have strong connections to the places that nurtured their faith. When a parish or hospital closes its doors, a rich piece of Catholic history is lost. But the church is called to be a wise steward of its resources. Keeping an institution alive for the sake of tradition prevents the growth of more urgently needed ministries.

On this difficult journey, church leaders can look to two examples to guide them. Communities of women religious have spent years contemplating their uncertain future. With diminished vocations and an aging population, they have by necessity engaged in an extensive process of discernment. In the case of the Sisters of Mercy, for instance, this process led to the merger of regional communities. Other orders have chosen to close their motherhouses. These changes are acknowledged for what they are: a moment for grieving that calls for prayer and liturgical commemoration. They have also been opportunities to look back in joy at all the good work these women accomplished.

Missionaries can also serve as a source of inspiration. The Maryknoll Sisters, for example, understand mission as the foundation of their charism. Before making key decisions, they study their own experience to discern whether their work overseas is truly shaped by this founding spirit. So too must church leaders in this country be focused on their mission and on how best to achieve it. Sometimes a community may no longer need a Catholic school, but it continues to need a rigorous program of religious education. In other cases, the church may not be the most efficient provider of direct services; other religious groups, or even secular agencies, may better meet the need.

All Catholic institutions, including enterprises like America Press, are called to a period of sustained listening and discernment. In recent years much energy has been spent on fundraising. This remains a necessary endeavor. At a time when Catholic donors lag behind their Protestant and Jewish counterparts, a culture of philanthropy must be further nurtured among Catholics. Success should be measured by current accomplishments rather than past performance. Leaders of Catholic institutions must be willing to see clearly where they have succeeded and where they have failed—and to work to understand why.

Anyone who witnessed the fight over the closing of St. Brigid’s in San Francisco or the tumultuous last days of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York knows how difficult the next few decades could be. The Catholic Church in the United States will always be home to faith-filled institutions. Yet the success of future ministries depends largely on the actions of Catholic leaders today. The church in the United States has been blessed with a vast network of Catholic ministries. To move on to a future the Spirit has prepared, it must trust its charisms will unfold in new ways.

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12 years 6 months ago
While we all want to avoid painful decision, we must, as the author points out, take up these challenge. We can find solace in the history of our Church. Religious orders, institutions, and ministries have risen and fallen in the past. By the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit new ones, better suited to the age have taken their place. As one who was the beneficiary of the ministry done at St. Vincent's hospital in New York, I mourn its passing but accept that some changes simply must take place even when we do not know what future blessing will take it's place.
Mike Evans
12 years 6 months ago
Is the church ready to surrender? Is the U.S. church going to go the way of the church in Europe and become merely a museum of out of date history? Closing parishes that have been viable for more than 50 years or even a century due to a lack of priests becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fewer parishes, fewer people attending. If the church is to grow and thrive, it must listen to the Spirit who is calling married and single, men and women to serve - there is no lack of vocations, just a lack of celibate male vocations. My old parish used to have three priests serving 400 families. Now it has two serving nearly 3800 families. A neighboring parish is down to one priest for 900 families. And the religious presence in hospitals and schools has made their aging members collector items. It is precisely the 'new ways unfolding' that seems to scare our hierarchy to death. And a new Roman Missal is not going to accomplish anything more than further alienation.
German Otalora
12 years 6 months ago
We are about one billion carholics in the world. Of them one million are menbers of the clergy, religious orders and some other forms of Intitution. Therefore, the problem is not in Institutions, but in the catholic people. Istitutions, starting from the Vatican and going down to the local organizations aimed at servicing the People of God, have lost impact on the spiritual lives (live of the spirit animated by the Spirit) of the laity. Emphasis was put on commandments instead of developiing rich spiritualities. It is the time to abandon the 1984 (Orwell's) model of the Church and move to one in which small groups, local communities, take over the responsibilities of living in the Spirit and by the Spirit of the Lord Jesus, and expressing this new and revitalized spirituality into actions and NGOs serving the needs of the poor, the sick, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, as the Way, the Truth and the Life did in his days on this planet.
Lisa Weber
12 years 6 months ago
I see a renewal in vocations to the priesthood, but the Church is not ministering well to women.  The feminine side of the Church has not grown or evolved in the past 50 years that I have been alive and cognizant.  We have no dialogue among the women - and the role of women in the Church is such a dangerous topic that women know better than to talk about it.  All dialogue about the role of women in the Church is assumed to be clamoring for ordination for women, so no other more relevant or useful discussion can take place.  We have no dialogue with the clergy about anything.

All of the dialogue about how women can live a satisfying, moral life in modern times is taking place in the secular part of society.  This dialogue is taking place without guidance from theology because the discussion cannot take place in the Church.  Women in the Church are not allowed to be adults - this is enforced by the women in the church, particularly women religious.  If a woman cannot be an adult in the Church, she has much less motivation to stay.  Until women get some help from the clergy in forming female leaders who are themselves mature adults, who are capable of leading other adult women, the Church will languish because it cannot form a message tailored to women and their lives.  Lack of a message paired with an incredible of aggression toward women who strive for adulthood is a deadly combination for the Church.
Leonard Villa
12 years 6 months ago

The current malaise may be the divine commentary on the last fifty years. The enemies of the Church could not have done to us what we have done to ourselves due to a false hermaneutic of the Council. This brought about massive departures from Church teaching, dancing to tunes set by the world in education, the destruction of many religious orders/congregations thinking that everything that went before the Council was no longer true or valid. Even the comment above about not doing enough for women reflects a calculus based on secular feminist canons. The Church has not done enough for men and has not even acknowledged there is a crisis among men about the practice of their religion. If you want a pictorial representation of that crisis view the Norman Rockwell painting which shows the mother and children dutifully going off to church while the father is hiding slumped down in a chair reading the papers. Real men don't do church. That's all over the place. Things will come around when a sound hermaneutic of the Council becomes commonplace and the reality that there are sectors in the Church that no longer believe what the Church teaches in dogma and morals will be squarely confronted. The solution is to become more Catholic than ever and imitate the great "crisis" saints like Athanasius, Catherine of Siena, Thersa of Avila, John of the Cross, Vincent De Paul,Maximus the Confessor, Thomas More, Peter Canisius, Ignatius Loyola and many many others.

Craig Hanley
12 years 6 months ago
As per the following article published this week, vocations are actually up and of higher quality than in the recent past:


Moving forward, in an increasingly secular culture, it will certainly be no surprise to watch religious groups with secular leanings continue to lose relevance, followers, and cash. 

As for the Church, Pope John Paul II used to like to slap the table and share this bit of wisdom when badgered by staff who were overly-frightened by the daily news:

Deus providebit!

And the Church he used to run continues to add 30,000 souls a day, people whose affection for the institution puts the more querulous of the cradle crew to shame.
Robert Riley
12 years 6 months ago
I think we are very possibly in the early stage of a transition to the human experience narrated in John (a gospel which, to me, has a blend of truly historical narrative AND later layers of early theological soliloquies - placed on to the lips of Jesus by the author).  In this situation in history (2011), I am reminded of what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well (words approximate, because I am relying upon memory):  "The time will come when people will no longer worship at the Temple [my translation: religious edifices] or at these two mountains where the Samaritans worship.  Instead, people will worship God in Spirit and in Truth" [my translation: Love each other and the whole Creation with no bounds].  See Mt 5:43-48, the last verse translated in my New Jerusalem Bible as "You must therefore love with no bounds" (or something close to that).

To adapt to what I see as the coming of this new reality of religious expression, the Church must not confine itself to the old way of thinking characterized by devotion to institutional tradition and the "need for certainty," but rather embrace the global pastoral mentality exemplified by the late John XXIII (one of my heroes, I admit; a terribly loving man).
12 years 6 months ago
Wow!  What a great topic!
Bob #7  I love your comment.
Maybe we are just beginning to really wake up!  We've been so comfortable all this time, leaving all the decisions to the higher ups. that we've forgotten we are suppose to grow up and be individually accountable and responsible adults, i.e. in terms of our faith.
Jenny Ocegueda-Reynosa
12 years 6 months ago
Jenny Ocegueda-Reynosa
12 years 6 months ago

I love most of the above comments, especially the ones referring to the fact that we are all called to grow up and become mature people in our faith. We are. As I like to tell those who come to my retreats, "We are all children of God. but it's time we become ADULT children of God." We are meant to mature and take on personal responsibility for our lives and our faith. But we are also still called to be community. Small faith groups is one way of doing it and so is still going to church.

I agree with Michael's (#2) comment about the fact that there ARE many vocations in the church still. I do believe the Spirit if calling and moving us to re-evaluate what that looks like and yes, married and women pastors I think are also where we are being called to move toward. It is unfortunate that the present hierarchy is so unwilling to take a look at the question of the role of women in the church. Even if our seminaries were filled with men wanting to become priests now, they would still not be enough to serve our people. I also think it is time to change from the patriarchal stance that our church has had for so long and allow the feminine stance to take a greater role in our church. It is not just "feminism" but another aspect of something that is sorely needed, not just in the church, but in society as well
Ronald Hoover
12 years 6 months ago
The sentiment and the conclusions of the authors ring true. I would add two further points for consideration. First, thought needs to be given to lay staff who for many years have collaborated in mission at many soon to be shuttered institutional ministries. Often the lay staff is not treated particularly justly or well despite what amounts to years or decades or lifetimes of laboring for substandard wages and benefits. "You chose to work this way" is hardly a compassionate response. Please consider the needs of laid off lay folk left without the safety net assured to priests and Religious. Secondly, stronger religious institutions and wealthier orders might want to consdier how fairly they are playing in what can become a competition for resources and clients. Collaboration is not always a given. Competition, sometimes underhanded, can rule the day. Ubi caritas....
C Walter Mattingly
12 years 6 months ago
A good editorial that provides much for all to ponder. But one question: in a 2010 article here, Austin Ivereigh stated that the number of priestly vocations in the US, and indeed worldwide (excepting Europe), had increased in 2010, and that trend seems to be continuing in the US. The editors here state that priestly vocations here are in decline. What is the accurate statement?
John Chuchman
12 years 6 months ago
And well it should happen.  Church has not yet become the People of God, resisted by the present hierarchy, and so the old pyramid must be abandoned so that the Circle of Humanity can be the Church for all as envisioned by Jesus.
Let's Hospice our Church.
Colin Donovan
12 years 6 months ago
On the one hand, I agree with the expressions of gratitude for the many services provided by religious and other Catholic communities in the days of their vibrancy, but on the other hand, this editorial misses the big picture.

U.S. parishes and dioceses which manifest an orthodox and evangelical Catholicism receive thousands of adult caetchumens into the Church each Easter, their married couples, adhering to Church teaching, provide the next generation of the Church, their members fill adoration chapels year-round, their teenagers attend World Youth Days in the hundreds of thousands and in the dead of winter participate in the March for Life in the tens of thousands. They join young, habited, religious communities in teaching and other apostolates in order to give to others what they themselves have received. Outside of the dead zones of Europe and America, the picture is even more remarkable.

The Church is not struggling, some Catholics and Catholic communities who won't think with the Church are struggling.
Eileen Gould
12 years 6 months ago
I agree with #8, 9, 10 and others who are not disheartened by happenings in the American Church.   It is my strong instinct that it is spiritual evolution finally taking hold and John XXIII was the prime instrument of the Holy Spirit.    Eileen 
Anastasia Theodoridis
12 years 6 months ago
The discernment process ought to focus on why there is this current "contraction" and what may be done about it.
Craig McKee
12 years 6 months ago
Not to worry. The NEW EVANGELIZATION coupled with the NEW ROMAN MISSAL's continuing REFORM of the REFORM is gonna bring everybody back...
12 years 6 months ago
Frankly, I am wary about terms such as "orthodox" or "evangelical" when they are attributed to groups of Catholics.  These terms carry political overtones that belong more properly to secular governments:  conservative and liberal.  Conservative Catholics, both moderate and right-wing, long for the 'good old days' and many of those who speak for them, like the folks at EWTN, make no secret of their judgement that those Catholics who are not conservative are neither "orthodox" nor "evangelical."

The vision of the Church we are becoming - precisely because of the new world in which we find ourselves - was already accepted and described (fifty years ago!) in the Documents that came from the Second Vatican Council.  I'm not talking here about 'distorted hermeneutics' misinterpreting the Documents:  we need to read and study those Documents, not simply interpretations of them.  These were given to us by a General Council of the Church, and we are paying dearly for taking them lightly, or worse, ignoring them!

The leadership of the Church - worldwide, national and local - spend so much time shoring up the status quo in the Church that they devote scarcely any time to doing what Pope John urged us to do:  discern the 'signs of the times'.  He called the Second Vatican Council because he feared that "the Church is becoming a museum," and said that we must "open the windows ... so that we can look at the world ... and the world can look at us."  We still have yet to honor his request!  The institutional Church is more a museum than ever!

Our leadership is looking backward ... not forward!  We need a healthy sense of our tradition, but we also need the openness of mind and spirit it takes to reach out to our world, to be the Living Body of Christ in the world ... the leaven Our Lord speaks of in the Gospels.  We need, in short, to pray deeply, to discern honestly, and to dream boldly ... anything less is not worthy of Christ!
Faculty Staff
12 years 6 months ago
Wow, Ken (18): well said!
C Walter Mattingly
12 years 6 months ago
Whereas some, such as Ken above, may have taken the word "orthodox" away from its primary theological meaning to somewhere else, to most Catholics, as applied to faith questions, it likely means in conformity with the words of Christ and the authors of the NT as well as the tradition of the Church, and "unorthodoxy" or "heterodox" would suggest at variance with the NT and/or Church traditions.  For example, Christ's words in Mark and Luke in which he quite clearly and explicityl disapproves of divorce cost Him many followers, we are told, at the time, as they still do in the Church today, yet to contradict His words here by approving of divorce would be "unorthodox" or "heterodox."

Jim McCrea
12 years 6 months ago

Lisa @ #4: there will be no dialog "about women" in this church so long as men control the agenda, the time, the place and the access.

Men should be listeners to the dialog about women held BY women, not the controllers.

Eileen Gould
12 years 6 months ago
Thank you, Ken Lovasik, (#18), you put so clearly what I believe in all my heart.
12 years 6 months ago
Walter (#20), I detect a note of 'condescension' in your response.  Be sure that I understand fully the notion of 'orthodoxy'.  In my post I was referring to the name-calling that often goes on when Catholics of a more conservative viewpoint declare that Catholics who do not share their viewpoint are either not 'orthodox' or not 'evangelical'.

Sorry, Walter, but I don't buy the attitude that "I'm right ... and you other poor souls are wrong ... not orthodox ... not evangelical!"  I don't need you to decide what I am ... I leave that to the Lord.  But ... believe me, Walter, there are people who may disagree with you who are deeply Roman Catholic.  Our Lord also said, "Judge not lest you be judged."  I'm orthodox ... I believe that.
C Walter Mattingly
12 years 6 months ago
Ken, while I have little control of your detection of notes in my comment, I can reiterate in brief what I intended my comment to actually denote: that your definition of orthodox is, well, unorthodox, at least as I understand its usage in theological discussion.
As far as concerns the "I'm right" attitude, that's common to almost all here who take a position, really. For example, those who support homosexual marriage within the Church think, I would presume, they are "right," whereas those who oppose it likely believe they are "right." We can say, however, when referring to the Church, the position of the former is heterodox; the position of the latter, orthodox. There is of course nothing new here; the orthodox is always being challenged. even needled, by the heterodox, and vice versa. That has a constructive place, I think, in Church dialogue, especially when it remains open and civil.
Personally I see little benefit in judging anyone here, or detecting notes of this or that, but rather of dialogue, both to learn and to teach, hopefully.
Beth Cioffoletti
12 years 6 months ago
If so many people are not looking to Church to satisfy their spiritual hunger, where ARE they looking?

It's pretty easy to see that certain kinds of contemplative retreats (check out Contemplative Outreach), meditation workshops, and wisdom schools are very popular these days.  People flock to Yoga.  The Centering Prayer Group that meets at my local parish church is thriving.

The bottom lines seem to be that most people hunger for genuine spiritual formation (not doctrinal imprinting) in an atmosphere of embodied practice, non-sentimental but profound mystical devotion, and open, interSpiritual inquiry that draws respectfully on the transformative wisdom of all the great spiritual traditions.

THere's a place at the table here for the Catholic Church and her contemplative tradition.

William McGovern
12 years 6 months ago
It troubles me to see some Church leaders resigned to contraction.  If we believe that our time on Earth is to know, love and serve Our Lord with the expectation that we will be rewarded by Him eternally, we should want to encourage others to share that love.

Acceptance of a smaller Church is not compatible with that vision.   All of us need to do our best to make the Church the center of our lives and community, in order that others may seek God's love as well.

The standards of the community may have been a single male priest in the past but it is not so today, at least in this culture.   One of the actions that the Church could take is to broaden the appeal of the Roman side of the Church to include both married and unmarried men and women.


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