Yo, demographics: About that solid New York Times advance story on church closings

GetReligion readers may have noticed in recent months that I have been praising quite a bit of the metro-desk religion coverage at The New York Times.

Something is clearly going on there, when it comes to basic news about religion trends that are not linked to gay rights and other Sexual Revolution issues that lead to the application of "Kellerism" principles (as in former editor Bill Keller) that negate the need for balance, fairness and sometimes even accuracy.

Take, for example, the recent advance story about a church-closings announcement that will shake New York City's Catholic community this Sunday. Here is the top of the story, which does a fantastic job of offering an overview of a complex and emotional topic.

List the hot-button issues in your mind as they flow past.

An East Harlem church that was among the first in New York to welcome newcomers from Puerto Rico. An Upper East Side parish founded with $50 donations from working-class Italians in the 1920s. A 150-year-old Midtown church that is the only one in the city to offer a daily Latin Mass.
Each of these parishes is set to hear this weekend whether it will be eliminated as part of the largest reorganization in the 164-year history of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. Church officials say more than 50 parishes will be “consolidated” next year, the culmination of a planning process that began in 2010. And while the list of churches will not be released until Sunday, it is already clear that no corner of the archdiocese will be untouched.
Protests have already begun at some endangered parishes, and more are expected across the archdiocese, whose territory includes 368 parishes in the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and seven counties north of the city. In 2007, Cardinal Edward M. Egan closed 21 parishes, then the largest set of New York closings. The battles that ensued were public and wrenching, and in some cases, are still going on.

So implied issues of ethnicity, history, economic justice, liturgical style and theology. I've heard of churches exploding in fits of bitterness over the changing of hymnals and stained-glass windows. Imagine closing 50 churches in a city as complex as New York -- with all of the economic questions raised by locations of these facilities.

Air rights? How about prime land in a city with a real-estate and building boom that is almost out of control. For Cardinal Timothy Dolan, there are no easy financial and spiritual decisions here. 

But in the background there are larger issues linked to the state of American Catholicism. That is one of the only weak pieces of this fine story. Read carefully and don't forget that, as I wrote not that long ago, "Demographics is destiny, so is doctrine."

The driving factors behind New York’s consolidations remain stubbornly the same as in 2007. Among them, a shrinking number of priests, financial pressures and a declining number of Catholics being baptized and married in the church. The Brooklyn Diocese, which includes Queens, faced similar challenges and undertook a similar process, reducing its total number of parishes to 187 today from 199 in 2009.
“We don’t have the finances to annually give $40 million to support unneeded parishes,” Cardinal Dolan wrote on his blog last year.

So what is the ultimate question here?

What issues are looming over the crucial phrase that noted -- in addition to the issue of a declining number of priests -- a "declining number of Catholics being baptized and married in the church"? 

Yes, the rising number of Latino Catholics is an issue. So is the rising number of priests coming into America from parts of the world, think Africa, where Catholicism is in growth mode. But what is the other issue that affects all of this?

Think birth rates or lack thereof. 

Uh oh. Maybe this story has a Sexual Revolution angle after all. Stay tuned.

Photo: Holy Rosary Church in East Harlem.

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