Social scientists connect the dots of the Catholic future

Parishioners at San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission in Carmel, Calif., attend Mass Sept. 23, 2015. (CNS/Reuters/Michael Fiala)

Parishioners at San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission in Carmel, Calif., attend Mass Sept. 23, 2015. (CNS/Reuters/Michael Fiala)

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By Charles E. Zech, Mary L. Gautier, Mark M. Gray, Jonathon L. Wiggins and Thomas P. Gaunt, SJ
Published by Oxford University Press, 176 pages, $24.95

A number of demographic forces have been reshaping the Catholic landscape for decades, causing concern in some places, offering opportunity in others, and changing the church in ways that couldn't be decreed by synods or ecumenical councils.

News about those forces has been delivered with some regularity by social scientists, mostly those working at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). They've appeared as little dots of information that, over years, would become larger, obscuring a popular image of the church that has persisted well beyond its expiration date.

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century gathers those dots in one place, begins to connect them and provides a timely, if skeletal, outline of a new image of parish life. The five authors of this study have been gathering data on church matters for years. Charles Zech is director of the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics at Villanova University. Jesuit Fr. Thomas Gaunt is executive director of CARA. Mary Gautier is editor of The CARA Report. Mark Gray is director of CARA Catholic Polls, and Jonathon Wiggins is director of CARA Parish Surveys.

On one level, the takeaway from the research is an easy calculation. The image that the pre-millennial generation grew up with — the parochial structure of parish, elementary school, convent full of habit-wearing sisters and rectory with several priests — no longer applies. In the foreword, theologian Marti Jewell, who oversaw the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project that contributed significant data to this text, recalled the iconic, if highly romanticized, image of Catholicism represented by the 1945 movie "The Bells of St. Mary's." That reality, long in decline, now can be consigned to historical memory once and for all.

In the same vein, the infrastructure that supported that arrangement — the numbers of priests and women religious who ran the institution (the latter for a pittance) and provided immigrants an entry point for cultural assimilation — is increasingly understood in the passing of time as an aberration. The number of priests and nuns during that period lies outside the norm of historical patterns of religious vocations.

"Today's pastoral leaders," writes Jewell, "are being asked to reimagine who does ministry, what leadership looks like, and where and what a parish is."

This book provides a solid foundation on which to begin the re-imagining. Demographics may not always be destiny, but in the case of the Catholic church in the United States, shifts in population and immigration have certainly worked to shape a new reality. And while the social scientists have occasionally been looked upon as dissonant players in a heavenly orchestral suite, they have more than earned their credibility over the past 50 years as among the first to understand trends large and small affecting the Catholic community.

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century uses, as a basis for comparison, an earlier series of reports "from the groundbreaking Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life," conducted during the 1980s, some 20 years after the Second Vatican Council set church reform in motion.

That study, which resulted in a host of books, reports and articles, began to sniff out the changes afoot:

  • Increasing role of laity in parish decision-making;
  • Changes in liturgy and worship inspired by the council;
  • Increasing diversity, especially due to growth of Hispanic members;
  • Decrease in parochial schools;
  • The migration of Catholics out of inner cities and from the Northeast and Upper Midwest to the West and Southwest.

The more recent studies drill deeper into questions and trends that either were in infancy or didn't exist when the Notre Dame Study was executed.

When Catholics moved out of the Northeast and Upper Midwest, they didn't take their priests and institutions with them. Even with the exodus of priests during the post-Vatican II era, there remained an imbalance. Regions were left with diocesan and parish facilities that were increasingly expensive to maintain at a time when the source of their revenue had migrated to places that even today are straining to satisfy demand.

At the same time, and despite the amply reported membership losses the church has experienced, the Catholic population continues to grow in real numbers and remains steady, at about 25 percent, as a portion of the U.S. population.

As in the past, the growth is due to a continuous influx of immigrants. Today, they aren't white Europeans; they are mostly Hispanic but also include significant numbers of Catholics from Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands.

This text should be required reading for bishops, priests and people who daily confront the demographic shifts — bringing new languages and cultures and enormous changes in pastoral responsibilities — that have occurred and will continue to change the church. The data alone is essential to understanding where things might be headed.

But as significant, if not as apparent, is the value the text has in taking the ideological heat out of discussions that, for some, often contain as subtext: How do we reconstruct, or return to, the church we knew and loved? Or whom do we blame for the "diminishment" we experience, for the fewer priests, fewer nuns, closed or merged parishes and schools?

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century might incline toward an answer that says the church is not so much in a state of diminishment as it is in a state of change. That is not to disregard concern for the numbers of young people not attaching as intently as their parents have to the church; nor is it to disregard concern for preserving the eucharistic community as the number of priests continues to dwindle.

Imagining, then, might take a form that seeks answers in the trends suggesting that Catholic communities may be sustainable, just not in the forms that became dominant during a period when the number of vowed religious and priests went through the roof. Facing reality means recognizing that although the U.S. has more priests per capita than most of the rest of the world, "the number of priests has been declining and the number of Catholics per priests has been increasing." The pattern that began in the 1960s "has continued unabated."

It also requires recognizing that the decline in the number of women religious and priests "has opened the door for the laity to carry out the promises of Vatican II. Few parishes could operate today without the professional laity filling roles such as director of religious education, youth minister, music minister, pastoral associate, business manager, and myriad other ministry roles that were once held by clergy, vowed religious, or volunteers." CARA estimates parishes today are served by around 40,000 lay ecclesial ministers, an increase of more than 80 percent since 1990.

Those numbers, reflecting lay commitment to maintaining Catholic communities, would fly in the face of the analysis that concludes the church is in decline. In addition to theological and pastoral implications, the growth in the number of lay church professionals has financial implications because lay professionals need a living wage. That is a problem particularly, as one segment of the book details, in a church whose members lag well behind their Protestant counterparts in the giving department.

One of the big puzzle pieces for the future involves what place 18,000 permanent deacons will have in the church. The deacons constitute another layer of all-male clergy, most of them married, with 40 percent of parishes served by at least one.

This book, far from dissonant, contains the basic score that we all have to master before any improvising can occur. Send your bishop a copy. Make sure the pastor has one. Use it to start a discussion group with parishioners.

The questions that flow from this work regarding the shape of the future, how pastoral planning proceeds, the place of laity, especially women, within the future church, are many and sometimes quite challenging. The future church will occur, of course, if for no other reason than that millions of Catholics will remain Catholic. Their determination is evident.

The question for all of us is whether the church will continue to confront the future by lurching from crisis to crisis, from one financial difficulty to another, trying to patch things together on the run. Or will we engage a more deliberate planning, one that capitalizes on consultative models already functioning in some places, to cut a clearer path to the future?

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. NCR's book reviews can be found at]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 10-23, 2017 print issue under the headline: Reshaping the Catholic landscape.

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