The big Catholic news out of the Archdiocese of Chicago -- the nation's third-largest diocese -- has become shockingly normal, perhaps so normal that journalists aren't even asking basic questions about this trend anymore.
The Chicago Tribune put one of the big numbers right up top in its latest report, noting that the Chicago archbishop -- a man closely identified with the tone of the Pope Francis era -- is now facing a crisis that will literally cost him altars. How many churches will he need to shutter? The current estimate is 100.
It's hard to keep Catholic church doors open without priests:
A radical overhaul in the nation's third-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese could shutter many of the Chicago church's houses of worship by 2030 as it reckons with decaying buildings and an expected shortage of priests, the church's chief operating officer confirmed Friday.
Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich told priests and advisers in meetings in recent weeks that the shortage -- an estimated 240 priests available in 2030 for the archdiocese's 351 parishes -- could necessitate closings and consolidations. The archdiocese governs parishes in Cook and Lake counties.
So what are the basic questions here? Yes, obviously, there is the question Catholic leaders have been asking for several decades: Where have all the seminarians gone? Why is a larger church producing fewer priests?
Looking at the hard-news coverage of the Chicago crisis, other questions leap to mind (or to my mind, at least). People keep saying that the "demographics" of the church have changed. This is true, but that only raises more questions that link demographics and doctrine. Hold that thought.
The Cupich statement about this trend states that each generation of Catholics needs to make its own sacrifices, if renewal is to take place. But what, precisely, is renewal?
Over the next few weeks and months, you will be hearing more about this effort as we engage various groups in a series of consultations, some of which have already begun with our clergy. As I wrote in a letter to all parishes last October, the archdiocese has changed in significant ways over the past several decades. Demographics have shifted dramatically. Some of our parish buildings are in disrepair. We have fewer priests to pastor our faith communities. The result is that we end up spreading our resources too thinly. We should not be afraid to face these realities, but rather see this moment as a graced opportunity to chart new ways to live out our mission more fully.
Over at Crux, the bad news out of Chicago is applied to the national scene as a whole.
The previous Catholic era in America focused on Germans, Italians and the Irish, settled in the megacities of the Northeast and Midwest. Now, many of these cities are in decline -- in part because they have become such harsh environments for working families. Thus, all eyes have turned to the Sunbelt and the rising numbers (so far) of Latino Catholics.
But the consequences of the Rust Belt decline are becoming obvious:
The Archdiocese of Boston, for example, launched a years-long review process in 2012 in order to face decreased resources, including priests. The result was the creation of several “parish collaboratives,” which include multiple churches sharing one priest. The project is currently in its final phase.
In 2014, the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would consolidate 112 of its 368 parishes into 55. And in Philadelphia, where Pope Francis celebrated a public Mass in September that attracted close to 1 million worshippers, dozens of parishes have been merged or closed since 2011.
According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest fell 4 percent between 1965 and 2015, with the percentage rising by about the same amount in the South and West. But it’s no sure bet that Hispanic Catholics can make up for the decline, as the share of US Hispanics who identify as Catholic has fallen more than 10 percentage points since 2010.
Many of those Latinos are moving into Pentecostal and evangelical churches -- which have plenty of pastors. Might they also have plenty of baby beds, as well?
So what -- let's go back to the Tribune -- is at the heart of this demographic crisis?
Let the questions begin. Are modern Catholic families facing tougher lives in their urban and suburban homes than previous generations of believers? Are they less well off, financially, and thus have fewer resources to share with their churches? Do they face similar levels of anti-Catholic prejudice?
Here's a very basic question: The story notes that the Chicago archdiocese is currently ordaining about 10 priests a year. What was that number in previous decades? What was the ratio of church members to new priests in the past, compared with today?
Would it be possible to insert questions such as these, and maybe even the answers, into the following dire material in the Tribune report (which is based on information from Chief Operating Officer Betsy Bohlen)?
By 2030, there will be an estimated 240 priests available to fill Chicago's pulpits, Bohlen said. Those priests could be assigned individually to parishes, or to multiple churches in any variety of configurations, which ultimately will affect how many parishes eventually shutter. The estimate of 240 priests available for parishes by 2030 is not a firm figure, because not all ordained priests serve as pastors. Some work as canon lawyers, professors or administrators. And some simply aren't ready to serve as pastors right after ordination, Bohlen said.
At the present rate, about 180 priests are expected to retire by 2030, replaced by roughly 10 ordinations a year, Bohlen said. Since religious orders, which sometimes help fill pulpits, are facing the same shortages, the archdiocese may not be able to rely on them to fill the gap.
"No one wants to be the pastor of two or three parishes if they can help it," said the Rev. Don Nevins, co-chair of the priests' steering committee for the reorganization effort. "How do you make each of those parishes very vital?"
But what makes a church vital?
The Crux report, in one brief paragraph, showed a glimpse of the other questions that need to be asked, if the ultimate subject is demographics.
Yes, fewer priests almost certainly means fewer altars. A church that is producing fewer priests will probably be a church that is producing fewer resources of other kinds that are necessary when it comes to keeping old congregations vital, while opening new churches for new believers.
So what are the other demographic issues?
In 2012 ... the archdiocese ran a $42 million deficit, and the number of Catholic baptisms and weddings in the archdiocese had fallen each year since 2000.
Ah. So there have been fewer weddings and fewer baptisms. How about converts to the faith? Are those numbers heading up or down?
So, perhaps journalists should be working with a larger equation, one that may look like this: Fewer marriages plus fewer children equals fewer priests and, thus, fewer altars. Does that make sense?
Now, does this equation -- if it is valid -- raise any questions about faith, practice and doctrine in this day and age?
FIRST IMAGE: For those who are curious, this is NOT a church in Chicago.