Faithful GetReligion readers know that, in the past, we have praised the New York Times Metro desk team for its coverage of the painful wave of Catholic church closings and parish mergers that has hit the Archdiocese of New York.
However, there has been a rather ironic subplot running through some of the coverage.
You know how your GetReligionistas are always complaining that mainstream reporters always find a way to find each and every possible political thread in religion-news stories, even if there are doctrinal themes that are much more central to the event? Think coverage of papal tours, for examples.
Now, the irony is that the Times team -- when covering these parish mergers and closings -- seems almost completely tone-deaf to some pretty obvious elements of Catholic politics (and real-estate business) linked to this story, elements that are pretty easy to tune in online.
The Times folks know these elements are there, because they have seen them in the past and I praised them for it:
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 the latest story is totally centered on people and emotions -- which are crucial elements of the story, of course. But there are other layers worth pursuing, especially linked to liturgy and tensions in the church. Oh yes, and demographics loom in the background, once again.
Scenes of sadness, mixed with anger, unfolded across the New York region, as nearly 40 church buildings were closed, the culmination of the biggest overhaul of the parish structure in the history of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. The archdiocese includes the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island in the city and six counties north of it.
Parishioners at the affected churches gathered for a final time on Friday. The faithful mourned the closings, but many also vowed to fight and are awaiting the outcomes of appeals filed with the Vatican. The brewing tensions represent a potential headache for Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, as church officials prepare for the visit to New York in September of Pope Francis.
Ah, right. The superstar pope is on his way.
So what are the forces that are driving this story? Here is the crucial summary, which misses some of the elements that I praised in earlier coverage:
The closings are part of a reorganization plan for the archdiocese that reduces the number of parishes by 20 percent. The reductions, which archdiocesan officials said were being driven by demographic changes and a declining numbers of priests, are occurring through mergers. In some cases, the churches in the merged parishes will continue to hold Masses; in others, one or more of the churches will be closed except for special occasions.
In their appeals, parishioners seized on the way the archdiocese conducted the closings, arguing the process has been, in the words of Sister Kuenstler “invalid and illicit.”
For months, archdiocesan officials would not provide to parishioners copies of the official decrees ordering the closings. The documents are needed for parishes to file appeals. ...
The decrees, which are required to include explanations for why the parishes were to be merged, were virtually identical, except for the names and addresses of those involved.
The story does touch on some crucial themes, such as which parishes were operating ministries for the poor -- the kind praised by Pope Francis -- and which ones were not. Would the pope close soup kitchens?
However, what about those demographic questions? In other words, which parishes in this archdiocese are creating (a) new priests, (b) new converts and, well, (c) babies?
Ask those questions and, usually, one ends up involved in debates about what kinds of parishes are healthy and growing and what kinds are not.
"Kinds?" Think doctrine and liturgics. For starters, run an online search for "New York City," "Dolan," "Latin Mass" and "closings." Happy surfing.
The bottom line: Spiritual life often shows up in basic statistics linked to the PRACTICE of the Catholic faith. In other words, where are the most active Catholics in this archdiocese, especially the young ones with children? Once again, which parishes are producing priests and nuns? Click here for a typical online sermon on this topic.
I also ran into another fascinating angle to this story reading the coverage at the Al Jazeera America website. Check out this angle, which honors the journalism tradition that is usually expressed this way -- "Follow the money."
Also arousing suspicion is a complicated and confusing, two-tiered church system. Many of the churches marked for closure, are “personal parishes”, built to serve particular communities, mostly immigrant communities. In some cases, priests were brought over from their homelands, men familiar with their cultures, fluent in their native tongues. Often built with contributions from the people they serve, these parishes pay only a yearly stipend to the Archdiocese and are presided over by religious order priests, those who take strict vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and report first to their order, then to the Archbishop.
While most of these small, personal parishes take no money from the Archdiocese, they are nearly all financially sound, with many reporting budget surpluses. Yet they are being closed, their parishioners sent to larger, diocesan churches, many of which are heavily in debt, to the Archdiocese. Some fear the personal parishes are being closed so that their funds, along with any money made from the eventual sale of the church buildings, will be transferred to the struggling diocesan churches and used to pay down their debts.
Interesting? Keep reading:
But personal parishes have no borders and welcome worshippers from far and wide. Diocesan, or territorial, churches have strict boundaries. Parishioners must live within those boundaries in order to register. That means, while the Cardinal’s plan stipulates which diocesan parish becomes the sole campus for the congregation, many will find themselves turned away because they live outside the boundaries.
That also means any plan the Archdiocese might have to move the assets of the closed churches to the designated church could violate canon law, which says the assets of a closed parish follow the parishioners.
Stay tuned, as we wait to see if the Vatican hears the cries of some of these parishioners.