Getting Ready for a Smaller Church

The Catholic Church in the United States has been experiencing a steep, accelerating numerical/institutional decline for half a century, and all indications are that the decline will continue for the foreseeable future.  Catholic lay people need to prepare now for the challenges that inevitably will bring.

Numbers for the country as a whole tell the story:

• In 1970 there were more than 59,000 priests in America, 37,000 of them diocesan clergy. Last year, the number was around 34,000, including 24,000 diocesans. About a third of the priests are retired.

From 1970 to 2022 the number of U.S. parishes went from a little over 18,000 to around 16,400; those without resident pastors rose from 571 to 3,215. Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more often dropped from 54.9 percent to 17.3 percent.

Parish closings and consolidations have become common occurrences in dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest. In the Southwest, where overall population is rising, Church numbers also continue to rise, but even there the priest shortage is a problem.

Now consider a few diocesan numbers – by no means the whole of the story but representative of what’s been happening generally.

In the mid-1980s the Archdiocese of Chicago had nearly 450 parishes. In 2016 it was about 350, and by next summer it will be 221. Over the last year the Archdiocese of New York whittled down 112 parishes (out of a total of 368) to 55. And similar shrinkage is happening in smaller sees like Madison, Wisconsin, which expects to have consolidated its 102 parishes into about 30 by next year, and Columbus, Ohio, with 97 active priests for 105 parishes as of late last year (and planning for a projected 80 priests by 2030).

When, shortly after Christmas, the Archdiocese of Seattle announced a consultation process before finalizing a plan for consolidating parishes, the chief operating officer explained: “We have churches that were built for many more people than are attending Mass, and most parishes have constrained resources with significant expenses to maintain facilities.” Many other dioceses could say the same.

Given the power of inertia in human affairs, it’s tempting to assume that, with a little tweaking, things will go on pretty much as before in the churches, though on a smaller scale. And maybe they will. But I doubt it. Here’s why.

The years of consolidation and shrinkage that lie ahead unavoidably will see significant social and psychological changes in roles and functions arising from the decline in the number of priests. Simply put, and leaving aside sacramental actions that require an ordained minister, either many things now done largely by priests won’t get done, or will be done irregularly, or else will have to be done by somebody else. That is true especially of teaching and evangelization, the need for which won’t be less in the future but even far greater than now.

And here’s where the laity come in.

In our soon-to-be-published book, Revitalizing Catholicism in AmericaDavid Byers and I spell out nine steps that lay people must take to prepare themselves for the unsought and largely unanticipated responsibilities in the smaller Church of the future. Here let me say a word about one such responsibility – a necessary condition for realizing several of the others.

It’s this: “Get rid of your (possibly unrecognized) clericalist attitudes.”

Catholic clericalism has at least two bad practical results. The more serious is its tacit encouragement to the laity to ignore Vatican II”s “universal call” to holiness and settle for a second-class spirituality. The other, visible in everyday Church affairs, is to foster a “Father knows best” or “Father’s in charge” mentality among many lay people, together with sullen hostility toward legitimate ecclesial authorities, among others.

Correcting these unhealthy attitudes will be increasingly necessary in the smaller Church as parishes are consolidated into parochial clusters in which one or two priests cover several geographically dispersed Catholic communities, with a non-priest (permanent deacon, religious, or laywoman or layman) as an administrator of each.

But that’s not all. Lay people will have to take the initiative on many other matters. Some, such as conducting Communion services, will require approval from the priest-pastor. But others, from organizing prayer groups to setting up and operating social service programs and running schools, will not. If they aim to do something within their professional competence, without invoking the authority of the Church and themselves accepting responsibility for the results, lay people can and should simply go ahead and do it, without seeking or receiving clerical approval.

That’s hardly a radical idea. For, as Pope St. John Paul II remarked, “Such liberty is a true and proper right that is not derived from any kind of  ‘concession’ by authority, but flows from the Sacrament of Baptism, which calls the lay faithful to participate actively in the Church’s communion and mission” (Christifideles Laici, 29). John Paul then proceeds to cite Canon 215 of the Code of Canon Law, which says essentially the same thing.

Are laypeople ready for the challenge? Some probably are, but many likely aren’t. Serious, faithful training and formation are needed to prepare lay Catholics for an expanded role in the smaller Church of the future. Anticipating this need, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J. proposed what he called “novitiates for life” for lay leaders. Except for the clericalist ring of  “novitiates.” The idea should be dusted off, fleshed out, and implemented – sooner rather than later, to meet a rapidly growing need.

A 1969 radio address by Father Joseph Ratzinger, has often been quoted for its prediction of hard times for the Church – “terrific upheavals” inflicting great suffering and calling forth saints. But in anticipation of the time of testing, the future Pope Benedict XVI also foresaw, a “more spiritualized and simplified Church” which  many would welcome  as “humanity’s home.” If he was right, getting there will be painful, but, in the end, it will be well worth the effort.


You may also enjoy:

Pope Benedict XVI’s  A Smaller Church

Stephen P. White’s The Church of 2050

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.