Earlier this month the Archbishop of Cincinnati announced his plan to restructure the archdiocese in light of changing demographics and the declining number of priests. The goal: to reduce the number of parishes by 70% over time.
Pause for a moment and reflect on that: a major United States archdiocese plans to shut the doors of 7 out of every 10 existing parishes. If you weren’t convinced the Catholic Church was in a state of crisis, then surely that number should wake you from your slumber.
It’s easy to criticize the plan, and it’s easy to lay blame. It’s also tempting to play “What If?” What if the Spirit of Vatican II were a spirit of faithfulness and orthodoxy, rather than a spirit of chaos and destruction? What if bishops and popes had acted quickly and decisively to stop priestly abuse? What if the liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II actually followed Vatican II?
These are all interesting questions, but we live in the here and now. We can’t go back and change the past—millions of Catholics have left the Church, we’ve lost tens of thousands of religious vocations, and the Church’s moral standing in the world is in tatters. Decline is a reality we can’t avoid.
Another temptation is to propose simple solutions to this problem. “Let’s start a new diocese-wide evangelization program!” “We need to return every parish to the traditional Latin Mass!” “Bishops need to stop supporting liberal politicians!” While these ideas might have value, here’s the grim reality: No matter what we do, the Church will continue to decline in the coming years, barring some divine intervention (which we hope and pray for, but cannot presume).
Why am I so pessimistic that we can reverse the downward spiral anytime soon? Because the foundations of our decline have been in place for decades, so it will likely take decades to rebuild what was lost. For over a half a century many of our seminaries have been watered down, our bishops have given in to the culture, and our parishes have proposed few convincing reasons to remain Catholic.
While the Church possesses an inexhaustible treasure, we’ve spent decades burying it under mounds of modernism and novelty. No innovative idea or new program will remove the layers of dirt. We can’t halt the slide that began 50+ years ago anytime soon. So managing that decline is necessary.
That’s why I commend Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati for looking reality in the face and finding a way forward. His plan is to convert the archdiocese’s 208 parishes into 60 geographically-connected parish “families.” These parish families will have multiple priests living together at one central parish, with a single staff running the whole family. Eventually, many of the auxiliary parishes in the families will be closed, with most services and activities primarily held at the main parish.
Right now many priests are living unsustainable lives, residing in rectories alone and celebrating Masses at multiple parishes. This is a recipe for burning out the priests we have and turning off potential priests. With Schnurr’s plan, priests will live in community and eventually be primarily based in their main parish. Yes, it means longer drives for many of the laity, as they will now have to drive to the central parish rather than the parish down the street, but this is better than asking priests to run around ragged and alone.
Schnurr knows any attempt to close parishes will be met with fierce resistance from the “Not my parish!” folks. Yet he is trying to manage the decline smartly. Too many bishops around the world are punting on this issue, pushing off the difficult decisions to their successors. Eventually dioceses will collapse under the weight of too many parishes and not enough parishioners.
But managing the decline is only one aspect of the path forward. We also have to ask what kind of Church we want to emerge after this decline. Will it be a Church that stubbornly and irrationally clings to the post-Vatican II status quo? Pope Francis often speaks against rigidity and living in the past, but none are more rigid and stuck in the past than the Church officials who want every year to be 1976 again.
Yet too many of these ossified officials run our chanceries and parishes, putting the Church in a quagmire she hasn’t been able to escape. If we continue with the disco-era status quo, the decline will leave few people behind to clean up the mess. After all, this is the status quo that helped accelerate, if not cause, the slide in the first place.
If we reject the status quo, we can build for the future. Note, even radical changes won’t stop the slide. As I said, it’s inevitable barring divine intervention. But what will the smaller Church look like in ten years? Will it be more of the same, just smaller, or will it be a small faithful remnant prepared to go out and re-evangelize the world?
Archbishop Schnurr is right to shut down parishes. But that’s only half the solution. We should also work to make the remaining ones faithful bastions of unadulterated Catholicism. No more insipid homilies. No more bland liturgies that reflect the surrounding culture. No more pseudo-Catholic catechism classes. No more cozying up to the world. Bring back that ol’ time religion—the Catholicism that didn’t just “encounter” the world, but converted it. To shut down 70% of parishes but stick with the post-Vatican II status quo means that eventually we’ll have to shut down the remaining 30%.
In the difficult days ahead for the Catholic Church, bishops have to make tough decisions. But these decisions should look not just at the grim reality of today, but also plan for the future. While we can’t stop the decline, we can begin now to lay the foundation for growth in the future.
[Image: Archbishop Dennis Schnurr (Archdiocese of Cincinnati video screen capture)]