When you see gross deficiency in the church, you don’t shrug. You object as Phil Lawler does over news of a new Roman Catholic church in Boston:
in the past 50 years, the Archdiocese of Boston has opened zero new parish churches. Over the same span, roughly 125 parishes have been shut down or merged into “cluster” units.
This might be understandable, if the Boston’s Catholic population had disappeared. But it hasn’t—at least not according to the official statistics. On paper, it has grown. There were about 1.8 million Catholics registered in the area covered by the Boston archdiocese 50 years ago; today the official figure is 1.9 million.
The trouble, of course, is that most of those 1.9 million Catholics aren’t practicing the faith. Consequently it should be no surprise that their sons don’t aspire to the priesthood. There were just over 2,500 priests working in the archdiocese 50 years ago; now there are fewer than 300. That’s right; nearly 90% of the priests are gone. If you can’t replace the priests, you can’t keep open the parishes.
Let’s be frank. These figures are not a cause for concern; they are a cause for horror. Panic is never useful, but something close to panic is appropriate here. Things have gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Lawler also identifies four possible responses:
A) “This is a disaster! Stop everything. Drop what you’re doing. “Business as usual” makes no sense; this is a pastoral emergency. We don’t just need another “renewal” program, offered by the same people who have led us into this debacle. We need to figure out what has gone wrong. More than that. We know that the Gospel has the power to bring people to Christ; therefore it follows that we have failed to proclaim the Gospel. The fault lies with us. We should begin with repentance for our failures.”
B) “Don’t worry. Times change, and we have to change with them. Religion isn’t popular in today’s culture, but the faith will make a comeback sooner or later. We just need to keep plugging away, to have confidence, to remember God’s promise that the Church will endure forever.” . . .
C) “It doesn’t really matter whether or not people go to church on Sunday. As long as we’re all nice people, God in his mercy will bring us all to heaven.”
D) “Don’t bother me with your statistics. Actually the faith is stronger than ever. Our parish/diocese is vibrant! You’re only seeing the negative.
Lawler takes no comfort from the idea common refrain that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church:
You see what’s wrong with argument B, don’t you? Yes, the Lord promised that the Church would last through the end of time. But he did not promise that the Archdiocese of Boston (or your own diocese) would last forever. The faith can disappear, indeed has disappeared, from large geographical areas—northern Africa, for instance.
If the Archdiocese of Boston won’t last, what about the global diocese centered in the Eternal City?