Studies show shift in numbers, geography of parishes

by Peter Feuerherd

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While the church promotes evangelization as a cure for the decline in the number of Catholics, studies continue to argue that demography is destiny, at least most of the time.

That's the conclusion reached in studies from CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate based at Georgetown University.

Mark Gray, senior research associate, notes in the group's Nineteen-Sixty four blog that the church Pope Francis will visit in the United States has been transformed since Pope John Paul II came for his first papal visit in 1979.

The numbers of Catholics and parishes are shifting, from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West.

"It will become more and more a 'southern' church," says Gray about the facts illustrated in the numbers.

The number of U.S. parishes peaked in 1988 at 19,705. They have since declined in number by more than 12 percent. The closures largely affected the Northeast and Midwest while the gains in Catholics in other regions has yet to be fully reflected in new parishes.

Related: Opponents challenge parish closings, mergers in NY archdiocese

"As these population shifts have occurred, the Catholic church's U.S. parishes, built to serve urban immigrants of the distant past, are increasingly misaligned with the 21st century Catholic population," Gray notes.

Pope Francis' eastern swing through New York, Washington and Philadelphia, is a visit to a region which reflects an older church losing steam.

While the decline is evident in the East, the Midwest, which has 37 percent of the parishes but just 22 percent of Catholics, the fall-off is even greater. By contrast, the growing West has 15 percent of parishes with 26 percent of the Catholic population. The leaders in the drop-off include dioceses/archdioceses in Philadelphia; Brooklyn, NY; Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago. Catholics have gained in numbers in Galveston-Houston (667,000 added since 2005); Atlanta (plus 633,000), Fresno, Calif. (plus 619,000) and Phoenix (plus 589,000).

[Regular Catholic press contributor Peter Feuerherd writes from Queens, N.Y.]

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