An old ghost hidden in details of that New York Times story on shuttered Catholic churches

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Here is a comment that I hear every now and then, either in private emails or when I meet veteran GetReligion readers out in the wilds of daily life: Why do you make some of the same comments over and over, when critiquing religion news in the mainstream press?

Whenever I hear that I think about one of my favorite college professors back in my days as a history major, who used to note how often the same mistakes happen over and over and over again in history. Are we supposed to stop studying them? And then he would note that he also applied this concept to grading our blue-book tests.

So, yes, here we go again with yet another look at a news report about Catholic church closings.

Right now, the wave of closings and mergers in the Archdiocese of New York is in the headlines and with good cause. For starters, think of this as a real estate story. Can you imagine what the land and the space above some of these properties are worth in the midst of an insane building spree in Manhattan?

Here is a key chunk of this very interesting and detailed story:

Church officials said in November that 112 of the archdiocese’s 368 parishes would be consolidated to create 55 new parishes, the largest realignment of the parish structure in the history of the archdiocese, which stretches from Staten Island to the Catskills. In 31 of those new parishes, one or more of the original churches would no longer be used for regular services, effectively shuttering those churches by August.
But the documents show that Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan has now proposed that an additional 38 parishes merge, to create 16 new ones. ...
The parish reorganization is being driven by a shortage of priests, financial troubles and declining weekly church attendance, which hovers at less than 15 percent of the archdiocese’s Catholics on an average Sunday, according to the archdiocese. But church officials have been reluctant to comment on the reasoning behind specific mergers, which can be especially frustrating to parishes that appear to be flourishing.

First, it is clear that the cardinal is looking at long-range trends in his flock and, as the old saying goes, "demographics is destiny." Here at GetReligion we also like to note that, in a wide variety of religious groups -- on left and right -- demographics also tend to be reveal theological trends. As I noted the other day, "babies are a statement of faith."

Thus, I do not question the Times statement that what is happening in this parish reorganization plan is being "driven by a shortage of priests, financial troubles and declining weekly church attendance."

Ah, but what are the realities behind those trends? Are there other factors, theological factors perhaps, that result in some parishes (and their schools) growing and others shrinking? What are the hidden factors in the declining number of priests?

In other words, this Times list is incomplete. Perhaps it is time for a piece on, oh, which parishes in this archdiocese are producing a higher than normal rate of priests? Which parishes have the highest rates of people going to Confession? Where would you find parishes with higher than normal rates of infant, and adult, baptisms?

One more thing. As I said, this really is a fascinating story, one of many coming out of the Times metro desk (which does a great job when working on topics other than the Sexual Revolution and other Kellerism topics). Consider the following passage, which may hint at other tensions in this story:

Among the parishes that are now endangered ... is the Church of St. Thomas More on the Upper East Side, which parishioners call vibrant and strong, with about 3,500 members and Sunday services that are filled with young families. The parish covers its costs and has $1.5 million in cash reserves. Its intimate sanctuary was the setting for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s memorial service, because it had been Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s parish.
The parish has one of the highest per capita donor profiles in the entire archdiocese, Christopher E. Baldwin, a trustee, said. It recently finished an $800,000 round of improvements to the church’s buildings. Its community space hosts a highly regarded nursery school and accommodates some 400 community meetings per year.
Shocked by the archdiocese’s recommendation, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Kevin Madigan, told his parishioners in a Nov. 23 letter that he pressed church officials for the reason St. Thomas was being recommended for closing. He was told, he said, that “since St. Thomas More will eventually close some day, it is better to do it now rather than later, when there is presently a momentum within the archdiocese to merge parishes.”

Since the parish will "eventually close"? Say what?

Stay tuned. I suspect there are plenty of chapters left in this drama. I am simply saying that the folks on the metro desk may want to back up a bit and look at the trends -- demographics are like the force of gravity, after all -- that are shaping the action. Might the cardinal being seeing some theological trends, as well as financial trends?

In other words, there are facts about faith, religion and doctrine to probe here, as well as finances and real estate.

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