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.


Parishes Without Resident Pastors Steady in Number, Canon 517.2 Parishes in Decline

Since 1985, the Catholic Church in the United States has experienced a net loss of 11.6% of its parishes. As we’ve noted previously, much of this change has occurred with closures and mergers in New York and Pennsylvania while parish growth has occurred in the South and West. Some of these changes have occurred due to Catholics moving from urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest to the suburbs and the Sunbelt in the South and West. Fewer Catholics in an area means the need for fewer parishes while growth in the Catholic population requires the opening of new parishes.

Also part of this equation though is the number of priests available to serve as pastors in parishes. In 1985, there were 1.5 active diocesan priests per parish in the United States. Today, there is 1.0 active diocesan priests per parish. Canon Law stipulates that “If the diocesan bishop should decide that due to a dearth of priests a participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of the parish is to be entrusted to a deacon or to some other person who is not a priest or to a community of persons, he is to appoint some priest endowed with the powers and faculties of a pastor to supervise the pastoral care” (Canon 517.2).

About 15 years ago, there were more than 500 parishes entrusted to someone other than a priest. This represented about 17% of the parishes without a resident pastor (most were administered by non-resident pastors with multiple assignments). As of now, just 341 parishes are entrusted to a deacon or other lay person or about 10% of parishes without a resident pastor.

Forty-two percent of these parishes are entrusted to a deacon and 37% to a lay man or woman. Seventeen percent are entrusted to a religious brother or sister and a small number are entrusted to a team of persons (4%).

As shown on the map below, the states where one would be most likely to find a parish entrusted to a deacon or other lay person are Wisconsin (55 parishes), New York (38), Alaska (32), Michigan (28), and California (23).

 Note: Five Canon 517.2 parishes are in non-geographic eparchies and are not shown on this map.

Although the number of ordinations of priests has increased slightly in recent years (as well as priests from outside the country coming to serve here), the number of diocesan priests who are active in ministry is in decline. In 1985, 84% of diocesan priests were active in ministry. Today, only 66% are active in ministry. This, in addition to losses of priests due to mortality, continue to lead to net losses of priests each year. Parish mergers and closures have kept the number of parishes without resident pastors steady. The question is how long is this sustainable? Entrusting parishes to deacons or lay people seem to be an option being used less often.

At the same time, globally speaking, U.S. bishops use Canon 517.2 more often than bishops elsewhere. Some 7.6% of Catholic parishes worldwide are in the United States. Yet, 18% of all Canon 517.2 parishes entrusted to a deacon or lay person are in the United States.

Many of the figures used in this post are available on CARA’s Frequently Requested Statistics. These have just been updated with a number of new trends.

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