If You Were a Bishop

If you were an American Catholic bishop in the decades prior to Vatican II, your chief problem as an administrator was how to manage prosperity.  You had an ample supply of priests and seminarians and religious sisters.  You had churches filled to the brim every Sunday at three or four or five Masses.  You had a great multitude of generous Catholics who were quite willing to contribute money to the Church, including an ever-increasing number of Catholic millionaires who were happy to make very generous contributions.  (In those days, a million dollars was real money.)

If, on the other hand, you have been an American Catholic bishop in the decades following Vatican II, your chief problem as an administrator has been how to manage decline.  In this respect, your task has been rather like that of post-World War II British Prime Ministers, who had to manage the decline and collapse of the British Empire.

As a bishop, you had to deal with priests who abandoned the priesthood, with scant numbers of seminarians, and with a dreadful shortage of religious sisters.  You had to deal with a steep decline in weekend Mass attendance, with closing Catholic schools, with consolidated Catholic parishes.  You had to deal with independent-minded parish priests who no longer feared you.  You had to deal with rich Catholics who, while still contributing to the diocese, warned you not to make too much of a public fuss about such sins as abortion and homosexual conduct.

Worst of all perhaps, you had to deal with homosexual priests and seminarians, some of whom went so far as to molest underage boys.  And you had to deal with a very bad press and with lawyers eager to sue your diocese.

The years of Vatican II (1962-65) were watershed years; but I don’t mean to say that Vatican II was the cause of this disastrous decline, at least not the principal cause.  There were other causes, above all the entry of Catholics into the mainstream of American life at the very moment – the sixties – when Protestants were losing their cultural hegemony in the United States and being replaced by secularists; that is to say, by atheists and near-atheists.

But Vatican II contributed something to the decline, if only because it led to the creation of that toxic phenomenon, “the spirit of Vatican II.”

If you should happen to become an American Catholic bishop in the near future, your task, it seems to me, will no longer be to manage decline.  For the decline is now so far advanced, and looks like it will advance further and further, that there will be hardly anything worth managing.


At least the British prime ministers could say to themselves, “We may lose India and Burma, we may lose everything we had in Africa, we may lose Bermuda and the islands of the Caribbean, we may lose Hong Kong, we may even lose Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales – but at least we’ll have England.  And we’ll have the Queen, the BBC, some fine Shakespearean actors, and the friendship of our American cousins.”

But what will the Catholic Church have after the Church in America shrinks to its minimum?  England may be the minimum of the British Empire, but what is the minimum of American Catholicism?  It is no Catholicism at all.  It’s zero.

When I point this out, as I sometimes do, I am told by people who are far more optimistic than I am, that Jesus promised that his Church would never disappear: “Thou are Peter” etc.  When I am given this response, I note that Jesus never said, “The gates of hell will never prevail against my Church in the good old USA.”

In the last 2,000 years or so the Church has vanished in many places, most notably in the Mideast, where it was replaced by Islam, and in Northern Europe, where it was replaced by Protestantism.  There is no reason to believe that it cannot vanish here as well.

Future bishops will have to choose between two possibilities:

(1) On the one hand, they can prepare for the final liquidation of Catholicism in America.  They can consolidate more and more thinly populated parishes as they approach the stage at which each diocese has only one parish.  After this Rome will have to consolidate dioceses until we finally reach the stage at which we’ll have only one diocese, stretching from sea to shining sea.  These bishops will sell (or give) their vacant churches to Hispanic or Brazilian or African Pentecostal sects.  Or they’ll sell them to entrepreneurs who wish to convert them into restaurants or inns.  Or sell them to real estate developers who will tear them down.

(2) Or they will become heroic Christian warriors, defying the secular-atheistic spirit of the age.  They will call those, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who have an appetite for such a thing back to genuine Catholicism.  When some people demanded that Lincoln get rid of General Grant, the president replied: “I need Grant.  He fights.”  American Catholicism needs bishops who will “fight” – bishops who in their preaching of the Gospel and its implications, and in the management of their dioceses, will defy the slings and arrows of atheists and their semi-Catholic fellow travelers.

Every current bishop, I suppose, would tell us, if asked, that he’d be happy to see his life end with the crown of martyrdom – even though not many of them seem willing to accept the “minor martyrdom” of a bad press, or the defiance of “soft” diocesan priests who refuse to preach a “hard” kind of Catholicism, or the closed pocketbooks of multimillionaires who are displeased with the “extremism” of a bishop who (like Grant) actually fights.

Managing decline, it seems to me, is no longer a viable option, for it only leads to more decline.  If you are made a bishop tomorrow, you will have two options – surrender or lead a counter-offensive.


*Image: Bishop Odo of Bayeux rallying William the Conqueror’s troops at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by unknown artisans, c. 1070-77 [Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France]. This is a small section of the Bayeux Tapestry, the whole of which is 230 feet long and 20 inches tall. Odo was Duke William’s half-brother.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.