It’s built, so come or expect it to close


“If you build it, they will come.” The baseball movie from a few years ago featured this memorable line. If the visionary farmer were to carve out of his cornfield a ball field, the legendary greats would return and play ball. It was good entertainment, but we don’t rely on Hollywood for wisdom. I say this because we built the American church but they are staying away in growing numbers. Yogi Berra said it: “If the people don’t come out to the ball park, you can’t stop them.”
A recent article in the New York Times, called to my attention by Andres Arango, Bishop Sullivan’s delegate for Hispanic Ministry, noted that the constant growth of Spanish membership in the U.S. church is now at 40 percent with the date in sight when Latinos will be the majority ethnic group. No longer will we Italian, Irish, German, French or Polish children of European immigrants dominate. In our time we Europeans flooded ashore at the end of the 19th century and far into the 20th, often bringing with us our own priests and religious sisters who spoke our languages. Bishops here, all of European descent, set up temporary ethnic parishes to minister to the newly arrived seven days a week. Pastors and their assistants provided not only the sacraments but also translation services and many other, non-religious helps to melting-pot immersion. Religious women did the immense job of teaching generations of children tuition-free, in classes of perhaps a hundred. Bishops knew that second generation members would grow up bilingual and likely move out of the ethnic neighborhoods into the open waters of Protestant America. And so it happened.
In the last decade the U.S. church had 19,600 Catholic parishes, more parishes than post offices. All this when we were less than 25 percent of U.S. population. Now we are down a thousand parishes from our high-water mark due to the mournful imperative to merge parishes since the size of our clergy has fallen by 20,000 in 40 years and the average age of the American priest is about 65. Seminaries are closing due to non-use. Many children have never seen a religious sister, with or without habit. In fact, if it were not for the great influx of Latino Catholics, the church would be fading into the obsolescence that Protestant churches now forecast for themselves.
Can we count on the sons of Latino immigrants to repopulate the seminaries, supplying the future church with needed personnel? I doubt it because Latino children cannot afford Catholic schools, the traditional seed bed of so many male and female vocations. Those schools now charge hefty tuition. They have expenses undreamed of a few decades ago besides salaries, such as liability insurance, and they return no financial profit. They in fact are heavily subsidized by parish collections. Catholic schools continue to close their doors, with America’s Catholic elementary and high schools teaching about a mere 7 percent of all U.S. youth.
My glum prediction is that we will continue to lose members not just to other churches but, more so, to no practice at all. Those who stay home from church on weekends, teaching their children to casually ignore membership responsibilities like worshipping and contributing, will be the reason for the church dying of thirst. I know that surveys have explained and bishops have admitted the many reasons for discontent: priest pedophilia and hierarchy cover-up, chastity out of step with a changing America, those neuralgic parish mergers, severity to divorced people without annulments before remarrying, widespread social approval of unchurched life, inertia at returning to worship once the person or family simply has gotten out of the practice of attending, liberal laity with conservative pastors or vice versa, an argument with a long-dead priest or sister, and you could probably add to this list. We Catholics are America’s largest single denomination. Ex-Catholics are the second or third.
But Catholics must understand that bishops do not want to close parishes or schools. They close them when they cannot be viable with the hemorrhage of parishioners or pupils without which you cannot have a parish or school no matter how angry some affected people become at closures. Maybe we should put up billboards saying, “If we build it and you do not come, expect it to close. Priests and sisters may not marry, so don’t expect us to provide the children.”
Since these things are so, the Second Amendment must be repealed.