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Is the Catholic Parish in Crisis?

In my doctoral program at Boston College, the predicament of the Catholic parish was a frequent topic. At the center of the sexual abuse crisis, parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston had seen precipitous declines in Mass attendance. Many parishioners refused to contribute money to their local parish, fearful that it would be used to pay off lawsuits.

Sexual abuse crisis or not, parishes in Boston were going to change. Parishes were established in the city during the zenith of Catholic immigration to the United States. A church on every street corner might have been necessary in 1900, but it was unsustainable in 2006. Even with a slight uptick in vocations to the priesthood, it remains impossible to sufficiently staff each parish in the Archdiocese. This dilemma will exponentially increase in the coming decades, as older clergy retire.

Further, the decline in the number of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston, as in many northeastern dioceses, seems inevitable. Catholics, like the general population, are having fewer children. Many residents of the northeast—tired of traffic, cost of living, and climate—are moving away, and the rise of the religious “nones” and disaffiliation is especially prominent there. In a 2019 Pew study, the northeast saw a 15-percent decrease in those who identify as Christian over ten years and a 12-percent increase of those who are unaffiliated. Once buoying Catholic demographics in the United States, the majority of Latinos are no longer Catholic.

Of course, there is a tendency to overly focus on northeastern Catholicism and give little attention to the southeast or southwestern United States. Dioceses in these areas are often in building mode because they never possessed the institutional infrastructure of northeastern Catholicism. In East Tennessee, where I grew up, there was but a single Catholic parish for the county, and it was normal for a new parish church to be built every year in the diocese. In 2018, the Archdiocese of Atlanta baptized over 8,000 new Catholics and welcomed close to 1,500 Catholics from other Christian traditions. The Archdiocese of Atlanta (which is only 14 percent Catholic) had close to the same number of baptisms as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (which is 26 percent Catholic). These stories are rarely told, especially by journalists and academics, who myopically focus on the I-95 corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Read more at The Public Discourse

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