In New York, a Smaller, Shrinking Catholic Church Greets Pope Francis

Cardinal Timothy Dolan at St. Patricks Cathedral (Victor J. Blue/Getty)

New York began receiving popes half a century ago, when Paul VI spent 14 hours here on October 4, 1965, inaugurating what is now the tradition of the Holy Father as apostolic world traveler and media rock star; for those too young to remember the fanfare that greeted Paul at Yankee Stadium, it has been darkly memorialized as background chatter in the movie Rosemary’s Baby. John Paul II came to New York twice (1979, 1995), Benedict XVI once (2008). Expect Francis to generate the usual crowds and cheer during his day and a half in the city. He lands at JFK this afternoon.

Papal celebrity makes great copy, but don’t mistake it for an indicator of support for the Catholic Church. After Francis departs for Philadelphia on Saturday morning, New Yorkers will go back to their business, to the Mets and the Jets, to the Giants and Bombers. True, love for the Church as the mystical body of Christ cannot be quantified, but commitment to the institutional Church, the society that gives concrete expression to the Catholic faith, can. Look around and count. By most measures, Catholicism in Gotham is shrinking.

The number of priests serving the Archdiocese of New York has fallen by about 40 percent since 1970, from 2,678 to 1,515. The number of women religious has fallen from 7,444 to 2,589, a decline of about 65 percent.

What about laypeople? It depends on how elastic your definition of “Catholic” is. The New York archdiocese reports that the population of nominal Catholics in the ten counties that make up its territory has risen by half since 1970, from approximately 1.85 million to 2.8 million, while Mass attendance has fallen sharply. According to its own estimates, only 12 percent of the Catholics who live within its boundaries attend Mass on any given Sunday. That’s half the figure for U.S. Catholics as a whole, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), and one-fourth the figure for all U.S. Catholics in 1970.

That means that 336,000 people across the New York archdiocese will go to Mass this weekend. In 1970, the figure was 903,000, if we assume that back then Catholics in New York attended at the same rate as did their coreligionists nationwide. Exact figures are necessarily guesstimates — headcounts at individual churches are often lower than surveys based on self-reporting would indicate — but no one disputes the trend. “Parishes are confronted with a declining number of faithful attending on a regular basis Sunday Mass,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop, and Monsignor Greg Mustaciuolo, the chancellor, write in their recent decrees formalizing parish mergers.

As the pool of New York Catholics who support their parishes has been evaporating, the archdiocese has responded by pouring money into the parishes that struggle to stay afloat. Dolan has stressed that the expense runs to more than $40 million a year, while the archdiocese itself has been running multimillion-dollar operating deficits at least since the late Cardinal Edward Egan was archbishop (2000–09).

Can it stanch the bleeding? It has just concluded a massive contraction of its operations, in an attempt to fit their scale to its dwindling population of churchgoers. It now has 19 percent fewer parishes than it did earlier this summer. On August 1, their number was cut from 368 to 296, in a sweeping consolidation of human resources and fixed assets. Ten years ago, the number of parishes stood at 409.

That reduction sounds drastic. It has brought predictable pain to thousands of practicing Catholics from Poughkeepsie to Staten Island. Some have appealed to Rome to restore their original parishes. They have been promised a ruling after September 1 and are waiting.

Others tried to appeal but were stymied by the chancery, which restricted their access to the decrees that they needed to cite to meet procedural requirements stipulated by the Vatican. The chancery reversed course and published the documents online the day after the New York Times contacted it about its alleged stonewalling. Some laypeople remain indignant. Don’t expect them to join in the excitement over the pope’s visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, whose recently completed renovation cost $177 million and symbolizes what some of Dolan’s critics in the pews regard as his skewed priorities.

After all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, New York Catholics enjoy a supply of churches and parishes that by the standard of 50 years ago is extravagant: The average parish church remains far more lightly attended than it was in 1970.

Still, after all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, New York Catholics enjoy a supply of churches and parishes that by the standard of 50 years ago is extravagant: The average parish church remains far more lightly attended than it was in 1970, when it accommodated 2,218 Sunday Mass-goers, on average, if we extrapolate from CARA figures. Today, even after the parish mergers, the figure per parish is about half that: 1,135. Per church building, it’s even lower.

A parish and a church are not the same. The former is the congregation, or community. The latter is the building they worship in. The archdiocese effectively closed 31 churches in the course of restructuring its network of parishes last month. Where a new parish that has been formed from a merger now uses only one church building regularly, at least one other church has been locked and shuttered but slated to be opened for occasional religious purposes, such as an annual Mass on the memorial of the saint in whose honor the building was named. Designating it for even limited religious use qualifies it for exemption from property taxes.

Will the archdiocese eventually sell the churches? “One of the outcomes of the pastoral planning process is that we will likely have unused properties, that could eventually be sold,” Dolan confirmed two years ago in a pastoral letter addressed to members of the archdiocese. “As part of our planning, the proceeds of any sale will be used for endowments to support important initiatives of the archdiocese that you have told us we need.”

Sister Kate Kuenstler, a canon lawyer advising members of 15 former parishes that have filed appeals with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, points to the high real-estate value of some of the churches that have been all but closed and questions the assumption that the primary reason that their associated parishes were merged out of independent existence is that they were bleeding money and losing active members. The Church of Our Lady of Peace, for example, on East 62nd Street between Third and Second Avenues, served a parish that, according to its supporters, was solvent and “vibrant.” Their former church, a specimen of Victorian Gothic architecture, now locked, is located near the forthcoming Second Avenue subway line, which will likely raise the value of the property.

Established in 1918 to serve Italian Americans, many of them immigrants, Our Lady of Peace was an ethnic parish — a “national” parish, in the parlance of the archdiocese, and a “personal” parish in the parlance of canon law. It has been merged with St. John the Evangelist, a territorial parish, defined strictly by geographical boundaries rather than language or national identity. St. John’s Church, an in-the-round affair of 1970s vintage, is incorporated into the building that is 1011 First Avenue, the archdiocesan headquarters, and is now the church of former parishioners of Our Lady of Peace. Father Bartholomew Daly, the pastor of Our Lady of Peace, was dismissed. He returned to his order, the Mill Hill Fathers.

Can the archdiocese afford to turn priests away? About a third of them serving in the archdiocese are here on loan, as it were, from religious orders. Traditionally, “religious” priests have run the ethnic parishes in the archdiocese, freeing up diocesan priests for other assignments. A member of another parish that was negatively affected by the recent mergers tells me that, like Our Lady of Peace, it was solvent and pastored by a religious priest whom the archdiocese also sent packing. The parish cost the archdiocese no money and no expenditure of human resources. Examples can be multiplied. What was Dolan thinking?

From 30,000 feet, Cardinal Dolan can look down and reasonably conclude in general terms that a thinning of the parish network makes good business sense, although it implies a resignation to the reduced state of Catholicism in New York.

From 30,000 feet, he can look down and reasonably conclude in general terms that a thinning of the parish network makes good business sense, although it implies a resignation to the reduced state of Catholicism in New York. If he takes the further step of selling churches, he doubts that the New Evangelization, a movement that in the post-Christian West takes the form primarily of the effort to reach disaffected Catholics, will produce much fruit in the archdiocese any time soon.

On the ground, laypeople who disagree with Dolan’s tactics in isolated cases could acknowledge the necessity of his fundamental strategy, but when I asked them about it, most of them hedged. What do they expect Dolan to do? It would be helpful if those who were contesting his decision on a particular parish offered an opinion as to whether he should make any cuts at all and, if so, where. Good reasons for leaving a parish alone will always present themselves, but they have to be weighed against the good reasons for leaving other parishes alone and against the pressure on the archdiocese to prune and trim somewhere.

A large part of Dolan’s problem with laypeople may be simply that the tone of his communication often contradicts its substance. Given the sobering reality of the action he has taken, the irrepressible jolliness of his self-presentation registers as inappropriate. The name of the parish-reduction plan, “Making All Things New,” was not well received.

Dolan is ebullient and optimistic, a high-energy extrovert. Upbeat rhetoric in the spirit of Saints John XXIII and John Paul II comes to him naturally, but it sounds false under the circumstances. The decisions that he and bishops across the Northeast and Midwest have made in recent years to downsize are in fact more consistent with the near-term pessimism — or realism, as it turns out — of another post-conciliar pope, Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI. “The Church of tomorrow” would be “a Church that has lost much,” Ratzinger, ever clear-eyed, predicted in 1970. “She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.”

Alas, between the Church’s accepting her reduced circumstances and her succumbing to the allure of cashing in big-time by liquidating prime real estate, isn’t the line fuzzy? Kuenstler estimates that the value of one church campus that has been effectively closed is $100 million — an amount, she adds, that would enable the archdiocese to pay what it still owes on the cathedral renovation. Churches under the protective umbrella of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission cannot be demolished but can be converted to residential or commercial use if their architectural integrity is preserved.

Whether a church that the bishop is selling is destined for the wrecking ball or for a makeover and repurposing, he must desacralize it first, relegating it “to profane but not sordid use” (1983 Code of Canon Law, 1222.2). Here he finds latitude to balance his duty to the institutional Church with his duty to the Church as the mystical body of Christ. That is, every bishop has the duty of sanctifying (munus sanctificandi), but also of governing (munus regendi). He must make do with the material resources that he has. In Dolan’s case, that’s a lot of real estate and a lot of debt that assorted parishes under his care owe to the archdiocese. So he’s more likely to sell than to buy, and what he has to sell happens to be valuable to the faithful who recognize its holiness and valuable to everyone else who recognizes the price it commands on the real-estate market.

As the steward of the Church Visible in New York, Dolan has decided to concentrate funding on the center, the cathedral, while saving money — and raising money, if he intends to desacralize and sell closed parish churches — by streamlining the periphery. Remember that parish churches, smaller and quieter than the cathedral, are more conducive to prayer. They’re nodes of holiness, lighthouses in an otherwise dark urban landscape. No doubt many pious souls pray hard at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and contribute to its deposit of sanctity, but how they manage to do so is a mystery of the faith, given that tourists outnumber worshipers at St. Pat’s by an order of magnitude, creating a commotion that clashes fiercely with mindfulness of what it means to visit God in his house.

That is the view of Dolan’s embittered detractors who think that the prospect of puffing up the visible Church in the eyes of the world has gone to his head. To add to his headaches, he has a third duty, of teaching (munus docendi), and some conservative Catholics accuse him of subordinating that to the this-worldly objective of placating secular elites when instead he should be enunciating controverted truths enshrined in the Church’s magisterium. Dolan, appreciating that Catholic doctrine on sexual morality and complementarity is unpopular in this gay-friendly city, makes ambiguous statements and gestures that lead people to conclude that what the Church teaches embarrasses him. They smell weakness.

In juggling his duty of governing and his duty of sanctifying, Dolan, no doubt like many harried and well-meaning bishops in the history of the Church, has unfortunately lost sight of the Church’s reason for being.

If Dolan were to speak like the frank and highly orthodox Cardinal Raymond Burke, he would drive New Yorkers away, further shrinking the Church under his care. Other New Yorkers, though, he would probably attract: people who agreed with the Church’s moral doctrine and were grateful for strong public affirmation of their beliefs. Would he drive away more New Yorkers than he drew in? He might. But it’s the wrong question. His job, like that of any Christian, is not to be successful. It’s to be faithful — to the truth. Seek ye first the kingdom of God . . .

Parishioners stress to me that, in their separate appeals to Rome, they have steered clear of such observations, focusing instead on procedure and brass tacks, arguing not that the grand sweep of Dolan’s contraction of the parish network is misguided but that he has failed to present compelling reasons for targeting a particular parish or church. Parishioners who want the Vatican to rule in their favor must make careful, narrowly framed legal arguments. Big-picture philosophical arguments would be a non-starter. They are implicit, however, in the larger debate, which would make little sense to us otherwise. In their absence, how would a parishioner aggrieved by the loss of his parish or church, or both, begin to explain why he even cares?

The big picture is this: In juggling his duty of governing and his duty of sanctifying, Dolan, no doubt like many harried and well-meaning bishops in the history of the Church, has dropped the latter and let it lie at his feet on the floor. He has lost sight of the Church’s reason for being. It is not to expand like a successful business or to avoid losing a culture war. It’s to make the world holy.

For an illustration of the degree to which that understanding in the archdiocese has been lost, consider the LinkedIn profile of the pastor of a New York parish that, as it happens, was formed from the merging of two smaller parishes: “My work as pastor has made me an administrator, taught me to deal with personnel issues, state regulations and finances,” he writes. “It has required patience and understanding with my paid employees and the subtle art of encouraging and supporting volunteers in their service. It has also taught me to set clear goals for my staff/team and guide them as they achieve these goals.”

He sounds more like a businessman than a priest and, yes, looks the part, sporting a jacket and tie — what, no Roman collar? — in his profile photo. Such is the state of the institutional Church in New York. Its leaders who are caught up in the urgent business of steering a leaky vessel through rough waters deserve sympathy insofar as their effort is honest. At the same time, they need to look up and take note of the direction in which they are taking the sacred thing they’ve been entrusted with. For a church to be relegated to profane though not sordid use is a pity. For the Church to be so relegated is a crime.

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