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.
And yet, trends in disaffiliation in the southeast and southwest are not dissimilar to what we find in the northeast. The South has also seen a 12 percent decrease in ten years among those who identify as Christian, with a 10 percent increase in those who are religiously disaffiliated. As a southerner in exile, I find these numbers shocking. In my public school in 2000, it would have been anathema to claim no religion. And yet, the decreasing religiosity among citizens of the United States is a national reality, not just a regional one. The decline of religious practice among Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) has been well documented. These Millennials are now parents, and it is likely that, as Christian Smith has shown in Souls in Transition, they will pass on their “none-ness” to their children.
These numbers do not yet consider the possibility of further decline spurred by the 2018–19 repeat of the sexual abuse crisis. For many Catholics—both conservative and liberal—it has become clear that the crisis is not evidence of a few bad apples but proof of a culture that repeatedly overlooked sexual and moral transgressions of certain bishops.
Furthermore, no one knows what is going to happen in the post-COVID-19 era. It is possible that many Catholics may never return, realizing that they did not miss parish life. Declining enrollment in Catholic parishes will only exacerbate the financial crisis that many of these parishes are already experiencing. Between 2014 and 2017, 56 percent of Catholic parishes saw a decrease in financial giving, with another 13 percent remaining constant. Parishes’ financial exigencies have only increased with fewer people attending Mass in COVID-tide. Lay parish and diocesan staff have endured layoffs and reductions in already tepid salaries.
Why and How to Rebuild Catholic Parishes
All of these trends should be worrying not only to Catholics but to those committed to the flourishing of the kinds of institutions identified by Yuval Levin in A Time To Build. Religious institutions, according to Levin, provide a telos for the human person that is not reducible to the market or the practice of politics. These institutions form men and women committed to pursuing the truth in a community dedicated to human flourishing. Without institutions proposing a transcendent end for human being, life becomes about power: who has it, and who can exercise it? The future of the parish depends on taking Catholic belief and practice more seriously, rebuilding neighborhoods of solidarity within the parish, and proposing Catholicism as integral to human flourishing. While what I write below focuses on Catholicism, the implications extend beyond Catholics to other religious traditions.
First, we must take the particulars of Catholic faith and practice more seriously. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, many in the Church assumed that the primary task of religious formation was adaptation. Creedal proclamations, understood to be archaic in form, were replaced by a general sentiment that one should be a good person. Liturgical prayer took on an increasingly didactic tone, where the priest verbally explained every sign and symbol in the liturgy. Clergy and lay leadership ensured that devotional and popular Catholicism would disappear from common life, since it was viewed as both superstitious and pious.
As Stephen Bullivant has shown in his Mass Exodus, this adaptation and relaxing of norms had the effect opposite to what was intended. The lack of seriousness or demands led to Catholics’ leaving. After years of adaptation, most parishes have become mirrors of American secular culture. They are reflections of a bourgeois and comfortable Catholicism in which individual families feed themselves with a bit of religious nourishment in the context of a life that is otherwise ordered to consumption, entertainment, and individualized pursuits of happiness. This trend was noticed as early as the mid-1980s with the publication of the Notre Dame Parish Study.
And yet, it is not impossible to turn this culture around. In the United States, Catholicism flourishes where doctrines and practices are taken seriously. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. At Notre Dame, active Catholics who are committed to their faith study theology, attend Mass, are often affiliated with the local Catholic Worker movement, possess a robust devotional life, and are moving toward lifetime commitments such as marriage or the priesthood. What makes Catholicism engaging for such students is that it requires something more of a person than beige niceness. American religions flourish where something more is asked of the person than being nice.
Notre Dame is not alone in possessing young people committed to transcendence. They may be found among FOCUS missionaries who spend time on college campuses in the work of evangelization; in the New York Encounter hosted each year by the apostolic movement Communion and Liberation; and in countless young adult communities dedicated to study, prayer, and the works of mercy throughout the United States. Parish life must attend to these renewal movements. Catholics can handle serious study of the tradition. They want to attend a Mass that is not just about affirming the community as it is but that invites them to a new form of life. They desire a rich devotional life, and an understanding of Catholic social teaching that transcends culture wars.
Second, a serious approach to doctrine and practice is not sufficient. Equally important for the renewal of the parish is rebuilding the bonds of solidarity in the neighborhood. A parish, in Catholicism, is not reducible to the church building. The parish is, strictly speaking, a geographic area. Every Catholic living within its boundaries is part of that parish. Yet this is not how U.S. Catholics treat parishes today. Instead, parish shopping is the norm. If I like the parish, if it sustains me, then I join up. U.S. Catholics go where they are fed, rather than belonging to a communion that transcends their individual desires. This leaves parishes susceptible to the instability of the market economy. Understood in this way, the parish ceases to be a stable community of men and women united in solidarity with Christ. Leaving the parish is easy, because I have no bonds that keep me connected, including a financial commitment to the flourishing of the parish.
The liquidity of the parish can be counteracted through rebuilding bonds within the neighborhood. Catholics in the United States will not return to entirely ethnic parishes, even in communities that are primarily Hispanic. Yet we can still learn something from those ethnic communities, which understood that parish life was a neighborhood phenomenon. They did not just go to Mass on Sunday. They were Catholic together with their neighbor, raising their kids within a religious culture. The presence of Hispanic Catholics who practice this popular Catholicism in the neighborhood should be a reminder to the U.S. Church of what is possible even today.
A parish can help rebuild these bonds of solidarity in two ways. First, parishes can take an active role in introducing people to their Catholic neighbors. A parish might take all those who have formally registered, letting them know who lives near them. Parish programming could take place at the local level, rather than forcing everyone to come to a church hall on a Wednesday night. In other words, parishes should be rebuilding neighborhoods, not just running programs. This rebuilding of neighborhoods may be shared among a variety of religious traditions.
Second, catechesis and preaching alike must attend to stability. We have grown used to moving on from each other too quickly. Stability matters for neighborhoods and parishes, and we must attend to the way that a globalized culture has damaged our ability to enter significant relationships. It may be a challenge, but pastors could invite parishioners to recognize the gift of staying even if that means turning down a new job.
Lastly, the whole task of evangelization, of teaching and preaching in the Church, will need to take on a spirit of proposing the fullness of Catholic teaching. The Church possesses a memory of what constitutes human flourishing—grounded in the person of Jesus Christ and the saints—that may serve as a medicine for many modern ailments. But Catholic parishes no longer have the power or authority to make people bring their kids back for First Communion. The cultural memory is gone. And that means that priests and catechists alike cannot depend on a vague memory of a once-remembered religiosity, a return to the rites of passage. Other religious communities are in the same boat as Catholicism. Cultural practice is not enough to sustain religious growth in the future.
A Moment of Opportunity
The post-COVID era may provide an opportunity for a persuasive invitation to return. COVID has revealed to many of us the insufficiencies of a digital life, disconnected from communities of concrete flesh-and-blood persons. We were not made to be alone, to operate as monads separated from one another. We were not made to worship via Zoom. Human beings are made for communion. Ironically, this vocation to communion may be the most important thing that Catholic parishes both propose and perform within the present polis. Communion does not mean benign tolerance that bypasses every disagreement, but the flesh-and-blood reality of abiding together even as we disagree with one another. After COVID-19, people may be looking once more to belong.
On this point, conversion within the Catholic parish itself may be necessary. As the black Catholic and longtime radio host Gloria Purvis has shown, American Catholic parishes still suffer from the sins of racism. Rather than proposing the Gospel from the pulpit, Catholics often hear either vague religious sentiment and even patent heresy against Church doctrine on marriage, family, abortion, and the Eucharist. Catholic parishes should be ready to admit to the world their own deficiencies. In a culture that possesses a certain expertise in scapegoating and blaming the other, the public confession of personal sinfulness is at the heart of the Church. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
After all, the Catholic parish is always in crisis—the crisis of not living up to the demands of Jesus Christ. The proper response to this crisis is not to run away but to experience conversion. Such a conversion may benefit not just the Catholics but the common good of the nation itself. Institutions matter, and the disappearance of the parish would be bad for all of us.