The Times gets key details right in Philly pain

And now for something completely different. You may need to sit down. It's time for GetReligion to offer a positive (for the most part) take on a New York Times report about Catholicism and, in particular, the troubled Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

It helps that, in this case, the story does not focus on one of those doctrinal, cultural stories on which the urbane, sophisticated Times has shed all pretense of doing balanced, fair coverage (if the journalism gospel according to Bill Keller remains the norm in the world's most powerful newsroom). This story is, for the most part, about financial hard times in the city's Catholic pews and schools. Here's the top of the report:

PHILADELPHIA -- “It’s been a rough week” is how the Rev. Charles Zlock, pastor of the St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, started his 10 a.m. homily on Sunday.

It seemed like an obvious reference to the searing trial that ended Friday with the conviction of a senior Philadelphia archdiocese official, Msgr. William J. Lynn, on a charge of endangering children by placing a known pedophile in an unwary parish.

But the 120 worshipers attending St. Mary’s on Sunday, though upset by the case, were mostly heartsick for a different reason: After final services next Sunday, this handsome church in northwest Philadelphia, a center of life for nearby residents since 1849, is scheduled to close. For the unsettled Roman Catholics in this 1.5 million-member archdiocese, the closing is one more blow in sweeping and bitterly contested cutbacks. Across the city, thousands are already incensed because church leaders have closed 27 cherished schools.

So the archdiocese is having to pull the plug on quite a few parishes and schools. Something tells me that these moves are, in part, linked to familiar demographic issues -- think birth rates and Mass attendance -- that are missing from way too much of the mainstream media's coverage of Catholic life. The bottom line: Few Catholic schools close when they are packed with Catholic children and fueled by the support -- dollars and volunteer hours -- of growing or healthy parishes.

Alas, Philadelphia is the kind of place where many Catholics are proud of their past glories, while rather blind to their present realities. The Times states this rather clearly:

Faced with an unheard-of $17 million deficit this year -- worsened by millions of dollars in legal fees -- Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who arrived in September, announced last week that he was closing the youth office, shutting down the nationally known monthly newspaper and laying off 45 archdiocese employees. He has put the archbishop’s 13,000-square-foot mansion up for sale. ...

Philadelphia’s elaborate network of parishes and parochial schools was developed more than a century ago, after the settlement of European ethnic groups that have long since dispersed. For too long, officials here avoided making unpopular decisions, said Rocco Palmo, an expert on the Catholic Church and writer of the blog Whispers in the Loggia.

Parishioners were never told that the church was sinking in the red, Mr. Palmo added, and this year’s announced cuts, which will be far from the last, took many by surprise. "Chaput has taken on the toughest job any bishop in the United States has faced in at least 50 years,” said Mr. Palmo, who has been appointed by the archbishop to an advisory council, praising him for changing the culture of what had been an insular and often imperious clergy.

Note the gesture of the new archbishop selling his own mansion and trying to cut the central office, at the same time that he has to close historic, urban, often weakened, parishes. I found it poignant that, in one parish visited by the Times, some of the faithful mourning the decision to close these particular church doors were, in fact, suburbanites who returned, one last time, to a parish they no longer attended.

Most of all, I appreciated the balanced words of Father Charles Zlock, the pastor of one of the churches that is about to close. He underlined the pain, but noted that these decisions were a long time coming. This is the Times story, condensed.

Father Zlock said he was exhausted after being “screamed at” over the last year and a half by parishioners who were worried about their children and the loss of churches and schools. The Philadelphia officials and priests, he said, had become “arrogant and complacent” over the years, contributing to the crises today.

But like many others, he praised Archbishop Chaput for tackling unpopular issues head-on. “Chaput has put a steamroller in place and said we’re going to fix this thing,” he said. “Two years from now we’re going to be a smaller, leaner church. ... But the people who will be here will be spiritually vibrant and engaged.”

What would a smaller, more vibrant church look like?

While Chaput, once again, declined an Times interview request, the team that produced this story dug a very relevant quote out of a recent speech by the outspoken Franciscan. In it, he offered a statistical marker by which to judge the future health of this powerful, but weakened, archdiocese:

Archbishop Chaput declined to be interviewed, but in a speech last week he called for a zealous new missionary movement in Philadelphia. He lamented that only 18 percent of registered Catholics here attended Mass weekly, compared with 40 percent in Denver.

For what it's worth, this Times report also caught the attention of my friend Rod "Crunchy Cons" Dreher, who recently moved from Philadelphia back to southern Louisiana. He was pretty plugged into Catholic networks during the time he was in Philly and offered this reflection about the views of his Catholic friends there:

They are hurting like everybody else is, but they believe that with Chaput’s arrival, the hard decisions that ought to have been made a long time ago are finally being made, and a corner has been turned. I remember when I first arrived in Philly, back in 2010, having a conversation with a very well-informed and committed Catholic, who was quite melancholy about the situation in the archdiocese. He told me that most of his fellow Catholics there had no real idea how perilous the situation for the RC church there was. He wasn’t talking at all about the abuse scandal. He was talking rather about the complacency and the belief that all those buildings, and all that history, would protect the archdiocese from decay.

He told me that he seriously wondered if there would be much of a church in Philly for his children to inherit when they were grown. My friend is neither a conservative nor a gloom-and-doomer. What he saw back then is now becoming more widely known. Again, my Catholic friends there say it’s better to acknowledge the painful truth and to deal with the world as it really is than with pious illusions. They’re right.

Not a happy story. But it is a real story in which hard questions had to be faced head on.

Photo: Mass in the Philadelphia cathedral.

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