The Catholic Church has certainly seen some downsizing in America through recent decades. Empty Churches? Who’s to Blame. Peter Borre’, Co-Chair, Council of Parishes, seems to believe the answer is simple: American bishops.

The New York Times ran an article last Sunday, April 13, quoting me on the issue of the shortage of clergy in Catholic America; TIME magazine picked this up yesterday and has posted it on its webpage in the “Quotes of the Day” section. To deal concisely with a very difficult topic, Catholic America is in the initial phases of a “tipping point” crisis:

– One-third of adult Catholics have left the faith in which they were raised (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, March report); these 23 million Americans would constitute the second largest religious denomination in the U.S. today (behind practicing Catholics);

– The Catholic seminaries are emptying out; this fall in the seminary of the Archdiocese of New York, there is not a single entering seminarian, for the first time in its 108 year history;

– The American bishops are well into a massive parish closing program nationwide, with downsizing underway in at least 40 dioceses across 14 states, involving over 800 parishes; many more will come on to the closing lists over the next few years.

Catholic bishops point to a standard list of suspects as the reason for this sizeable parish closing program: (a) changing demography; (b) shortage of clergy; and (c) insolvent parishes. None of these reasons check out under close scrutiny.

By changing demography, the bishops mean that Catholics are getting old and dying. But the bishops fail to fess up to the fact that they themselves are responsible for a market share loss of one-third, due to the millions of Catholic drop-outs; and the bishops fail to mention that this is a time of surging spirituality in the U.S.; it is just that they – the executives of Catholic America – can’t cope.

The shortage of priests is a pretext; in reality, there is plenty of supplementary supply to bridge of clergy over the next several years: the thousands of “religious” from the Catholic orders, Jesuits, Franciscans, Paulists, Benedictines and so forth; and priest-exporting countries such as Poland, The Philippines, India (Catholic Goa), and the diaspora of Vietnamese Catholics.

The insolvent parish argument is an outright falsehood in my own Archdiocese of Boston, where at least half of the 83 parishes listed for “suppression” four years ago were (and are) vibrant, and in many cases wealthy. These viable parishes were put on the suppression list so that the Boston bishops could get hold of the parishes’ bank accounts and their lucrative real estate.

Authoritative estimates from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate indicate that from a current level of 19,000 parishes, eventually as many as 7,000 American parishes could be shut down by the diocesan bishops. This would amount to a 37% downsizing in the U.S., a country which today is second, after Brazil, in the ranking of the most numerous Catholic populations world-wide.

A downsizing of one-third or more would constitute a pervasive failure on the part of the American bishops:

– Their failure to evangelize among the faithful, at a time of robust growth in the U.S. among other religious denominations;
– Their failure to uphold the dignity of the priestly calling, as seminaries empty out; and
– Their failure to safeguard the material patrimony of the Church, as billions of dollars have been (justly and appropriately) paid out for the decades of clerical sex abuse; today, the finances of many dioceses are in disarray.

There is a bit of scripture which applies to these shepherds of many American dioceses, from The Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 34:

Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!…
You have fed off their milk, and slaughtered the fatlings…
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost…
You lorded it over them harshly and brutally
So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd…

I think Borre’s view is a litle dark because I believe I see a rebirth on the horizon despite the mismanagement from many corners. Many of the younger clergy are on fire with their faith and seeking to return the Church in America to her former glory. I, along with Patrick, believe it is Morning Again in the Church. And perhaps the Pope’s visit is the new “tipping point” we’ve been waiting for.