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Managing the Decline

Almost time for a "Going out of business" sign to be hung up.

May 15, 2016  0


In case you haven't noticed, the Church in the West is in a decline, and in the United States, it's about to hit a steep decline. The coming incredible shrinking is starting to show up in other demographic markers. 

For example, among voters, the number of voters who identify themselves as Catholic in polling research has taken a dip — from 22.6 percent in 2012 to just 20.3 percent in 2016. While that doesn't necessarily indicate an overall drop in the self-identifying Catholic population, it doesn't guarantee any kind of increase. 

It also points to a change not seen before. In previous years, stretching back for decades, Catholics have been around 23–24 percent of the population. That has been the case among the voting population — very near one out of four voters has been Catholic. But if current polls and sociological measures are reliable, that has now dipped to one out of five from the previous one out of four.

There is little to no evidence showing an increase in the overall Catholic population beyond baptismal records, which do show a slight increase in the overall number — but even that rate has begun to slow. By practically any other measure, it's a certainty that the Church is becoming less and less relevant. That's why there are constant parish closings and mergers and school shutterings and selling off of property and so forth.

When business leaders see the writing on the wall, that they are about to go out of business, all kinds of plans are rolled out, some with the aim of staying solvent, others with the aim of managing the decline, with the very real probability that they will be out of business in the near to midterm future. 

You can sense the "manage the decline" sense all over the Church these days in the United States. It's palpable. It's what the crush of parish closings and mergers is all about. It's what the increased appeals for money from cash-strapped dioceses is all about. In only a very few places in the Church is their any real sense that we will be doing this or that 30 or 50 years from now.

It's all about peering into a dismal future and figuring out if we will even be around in any meaningful way. In only a very few places is ground being broken on any futuristic vision. It's all about the decline. No one in the Church, with rare exception, is talking about growth and the need to plan for more parishes and more religious houses and so forth. All the talk is about managing the decline.  

This is the fruit of 50-plus years of betrayal of Faith and ignorance and refusal to look at the crisis. In about 10 years, this decline will propel into a freefall because of the huge numbers of current Mass attendees who will have died. Most people in the pews these days are older and aging rapidly. That's problem one.

Problem two? There isn't anyone to replace them. Younger Catholics have considerably less interest in the Church than their baby-boomer parents, and that’' really saying something. It's only the 65-plus crowd that shows up in any measurable and meaningful statistic when it comes to adherence to the Faith, and even there it's a bit sketchy.

Most of the bishops dealing with this fallout from 50 years of unfaithfulnes  are in the same age group — mid-60s-ish. They will disappear from the scene at just about the same time their aging flocks will — meaning, what will be left for their successors is something very different than today's reality.

Some of the current bishops are rolling out those last-ditch management plans to try and conserve what they can, to manage the decline. But,it's pretty much the same product with slightly different packaging. Like the nonsense ALPHA supposed evangelization program spearheaded in Detroit but ballyhooed all over the country — warmed-over Protestant Evangelicalism that does a better job of promoting confusion wrapped in emotion than authentic Catholicism.

Every now and then the old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words is true. And here is a telling picture from February of 2015. It shows Detroit archbishop Allen Vigneron leaving the former archdiocesan headquarters and leading archdiocesan personnel into their considerably scaled-down and less luxurious new offices. After decades of shrinking, the old offices simply became too much, and the archdiocese had to sell them — three different buildings. What was formerly 150,000 square feet of office and warehouse space got slashed to a little over 40,000.

This could not come as a surprise given trends in the archdiocese for years. In 1990 there were almost 400 parishes. Today, there are slightly more than half of that: 228. And many of those 228 are combo-parishes, so-called clusters, where two or three former parishes have been combined to create a new parish, but at the cost of immolating the other two or three.

This is happening all over the country, not just in Detroit. It's all part of managing the decline. Dioceses actually hire out huge firms and pay them big dollars, one firm in particular, to manage the decline for them. Archbishop Vigneron and other bishops in his age range with less than 10 years left are collecting as many pieces as they can and consolidating whatever they can. But this is just managing the decline.  

In 10 years' time, many of these newly created combo parishes will themselves have to be shut down because, just like the former parishes that were closed to cobble together these newer ones, these newer ones will also have to be shut down and sold off because the people in them will have died. But that will no longer be the concern for this current group of bishops. They will have gone into retirement and their successors will now be holding the bag.

The problems will not have gone away, they will have in fact increased. A downturn is offset by introducing something new, something the public wants — at least some of the public. The mystery here isn't that the Church is shrinking and bishops are leading their staffs into smaller hovels where there is no room to work, but that they feel the answer is to still not keep expressing authentic Catholic truth in all its glory.

Of course if a bishop instructed his priests and he himself stands up and refutes the much-loved evils of the world, some of those current parishioners are going to bolt. So what? In a few years they'll be dead anyway. And while they are still alive, they deserve to hear the truth, have a right to it.

But some people will hear the truth and recognize it because we're all hardwired for the truth ultimately. This outrageous plan of re-packaging protestant gobbledy-gook as kind of Catholic is DOA. It may enjoy some initial success here and there as emotion-based stuff generally does, but it has no staying power — which is why the approach of simply managing the decline is a non-starter. It won't work, and the evidence is all around. Just look at the picture.

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