The Archdiocese of Baltimore recently announced a new initiative designed to “reimagine Catholic life in Baltimore City and some nearby suburbs.” The initiative is being called, “Seek the City to Come,” and is described by Archbishop William Lori like this: “We are calling on the people of God to creatively renew the foundation and footprint in the city to bring new life, new enthusiasm, new pastoral activity and, yes, a new use for some structures.”
In plain words, the oldest archdiocese in the United States is beginning the process of restructuring – which almost certainly means closing – parishes in and around Baltimore City. Baltimore joins a long and growing list of dioceses coming to terms with increasingly limited resources, shifting demographics, and a significant decline in Mass attendance.
This is a hard reality for many parts of the Catholic Church in the United States. Such restructuring – including closing and repurposing parishes and buildings which have been “home” to the faithful for generations – is invariably painful.
The question for a growing number of dioceses is not whether such changes will be necessary, but whether such restructuring will actually succeed in revitalizing the local Church or simply be the latest stage in long-managed decline.
Even in dioceses where restructuring is undertaken with plenty of consultation and an unwavering dedication to mission – that is to say, in dioceses that are approaching the problem with the right plan and priorities – the question remains: What will Catholicism in the United States look like a generation from now?
The Church of 2050 (to pick an arbitrary date) will likely be smaller. It’s no secret that the Church has been hemorrhaging members in recent years, a challenge that COVID shutdowns seem to have badly exacerbated. Even before the pandemic, “lapsed Catholics” were the second largest “denomination” in the country.
For decades, the number of Catholics in the United States has been buoyed by large numbers of Catholic immigrants coming from Latin America. But recent studies suggest that the percentage of Hispanic Americans who are Catholic has been declining significantly. What was once taken to be an impending fact of demographic destiny – that a majority of American Catholics would soon be Hispanic – now looks like it may be farther off than previously thought, if it happens at all. It seems American culture may be as effective at making Latino Catholics into lapsed Catholics as it has been for the rest of us.
If the future of the Catholic Church is a smaller Church, it is also likely to be poorer. Many dioceses are already aware that the relative largesse of an older generations of American Catholics is not going to continue indefinitely. What this means for the myriad of institutions – hospitals, schools, universities, and constellations of charitable organizations – that have been the jewels in the crown of American Catholicism remains to be seen. Many of these institutions will face increasing pressure, either from lack of resources, legal pressures, or simply lack of a critical mass of Catholics devoted to the true mission of the Church.
It’s not all bad news, of course. Even a tiny band of faithful and Spirit-filled disciples can change the world when they are willing to lose everything to proclaim the Good News. (See the Acts of the Apostles.) And while the overall trends may be bad, there are more than a few bright lights shining in the deepening gloom.
As my colleague George Weigel pointed out recently, there are many places where Catholic schools, Catholic campus ministries, seminaries, and religious vocations are positively flourishing. This is undoubtedly true. But these signs of genuine hope are, for the most part, exceptions to the rule. There is a great deal of dead and dying wood in the Church in the United States. And a time for pruning may be close at hand.
Of course, both things can be true simultaneously: signs of genuine hope and vitality are present and there is much that was once good that will atrophy, die, or need to be cut away.
And that brings us to a third characteristic of what the Church in the United States might look like a generation from now.
Anywhere the Gospel is proclaimed confidently in full; anywhere the adventures (and risks) of discipleship are taken seriously; anywhere the mission laid upon each and every Catholic by virtue of Baptism is taken seriously; there the Church has hope. There the Church has a future.
Where the Church insists on measuring the Gospel according to the “wisdom” of the world; where the faith accommodates itself to the spirit of the age; anywhere the Church is reduced to a “charitable NGO” (as Pope Francis has warned) there the faith will continue to wither.
Joseph Ratzinger, as some of you will recall, foresaw all of this, way back in 1969. His words are worth recalling today, as they are both sobering and edifying.
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.
The future of the Church in the United States is not bleak, but it may well be that it is a future that is both the “smaller, purified Church” of which Ratzinger spoke. The future of the Church in the United States may also be the “poor Church that is for the poor” of which Pope Francis has spoken.
Whatever lies in store, we can be assured that more will be demanded of each and every one of us who claim to be disciples of the Crucified One.
*Image: Ruins with Saint Paul Preaching by Giovanni Paolo Pannini, c. 1735 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek’s The Bishops’ Bind and Their Cross
Francis X Maier’s 2022: There’s Good News and Bad News