Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Which is more difficult, closing a parish or establishing a new one?

Today, the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project will be releasing the first report from their ongoing landmark study of parish life in the United States entitled, The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes. A significant piece of the first findings are on the issue of the growing scope of parish life. As the Church has closed parishes in the last decade, those that now remain, on average, include more individuals and are celebrating more Masses. These changes may begin to take a toll in the future as the study, conducted by CARA, also finds that larger U.S. parishes tend to have lower rates of attendance, lower levels of sacramental activity per household, and less giving per registered household than what is reported in smaller parishes. There appears to be a size limit at which the parish community begins to become less active and less giving.

Much of the recent focus in the news on these topics has been on parish closings. For example, it has been reported that Bishop Richard Lennon has requested the Vatican to evaluate recent decisions to close parishes in the Diocese of Cleveland. Yet it has not been uncommon for dioceses in the Midwest and Northeast to close parishes in recent years (some of these are typically maintained as worship sites). Many parishes in these areas were established 70 to 130 years ago to meet the needs of new and growing immigrant Catholic populations (often speaking different languages) in urban centers. In the post-World War II era, Catholics (along with the population in general) shifted to the suburbs and South and West into the growing Sun Belt economy. As emotionally difficult as it must be to close some of these parishes, it is also sometimes necessary to do so given the maintenance costs for these aging physical plants in light of smaller numbers of parishioners and priests often being in shorter supply than they were decades ago (note I have no knowledge of the specific decisions or data in Cleveland so I cannot say whether those closings generally fit the broader patterns).

An equally challenging question for the Church is how will it address the needs for all the Catholics in areas where there really never was a “local” neighborhood parish? As we have shown in a previous post, there are not a lot of dioceses building new parishes in areas where the Catholic population moved and is growing strongly. I understand there are challenges to building a new parish including capital campaigns, planning commissions, architects, and construction companies to deal with. This was all I imagine much easier to do in the 19th century. But a parish building boom will likely be needed in the U.S. Sun Belt in the 21st century.

The migration trends I note above are long-term but just look at the short-term effects below of the recession on mobility for two counties. The top image is for those leaving (red) and coming to (black) the county which includes the city of Cleveland in 2008 (the source is IRS data and the image is generated from Forbes). The bottom image shows the same for the county including the city of Atlanta. As one can see some of Cleveland’s population loss has been Atlanta’s gain (note we do not know the religion of any of the individuals in the IRS data).
In 2001, the Archdiocese of Atlanta had more than 320,000 Catholics, 131 active diocesan priests, and 77 parishes (note in 1991, the Archdiocese had 176,000 Catholics and 65 parishes). Moving a decade ahead, the diocese now has 900,000 Catholics, 141 active diocesan priests, and 87 parishes. Thus, the number of Catholics increased by 181% in the last decade but the number priests only increased by 8% and the number of parishes by 13%. This means the number of Catholics per parish in the Archdiocese has grown from 4,156 in 2001 to 10,345 in 2011. Ten new parishes have been added to accommodate 580,000 additional Catholics. I certainly do not mean to sound critical in any way of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. In fact this Archdiocese is one of the few that has added significant numbers of parishes in recent years. Thus, even where the needs are recognized and growth is occurring, the arch/dioceses doing the most to focus on new construction still tend to be a bit behind the pace of the rapidly changing distribution of the Catholic population in the United States.

The Church should take great care in dealing with the future of parishes in communities with diminishing Catholic populations. The decision to close a parish must always be very difficult. Yet, it may also be time to ask, with great care as well, when and how do we open new parishes where they are needed? After moving, will Catholics always have a new Catholic home to “come home” to?

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