Made onsite visits to more than thirty parishioner groups in nine dioceses over the past few weeks:
Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Greensburg PA, Metuchen NJ, New York, Philadelphia, Saginaw and Springfield MA…
Many low-lights. My overall impressions:
1. Accelerating decline across Catholic America as parishes are closed, churches locked up, and peculiar reasons are given by the ordinaries; some dioceses appear on the edge of collapse.
2. While the tone and atmospherics in Rome are improving, the authoritarian actions and style of several U.S. bishops are becoming more pronounced.
3. Many of the faithful in the pews are going quietly, but more than a few are pushing back, and they ask me one recurring question:
Why is this happening?
Answer: IMO, Compelling financial need.
As a result, Catholic bishops are turning into weapons of Mass destruction.
If any of the ordinaries choose to reflect on their contribution to 2,000 years of Roman Catholic history, they should think back to the Latin adage,
“Si monumentum quaeris, circumspice”
[if you are trying to find your legacy, just look around].
Comments on each of the dioceses, infra.
Still working on a posting about the Vatican bank.
In Boston, three parishioner appeals against the deconsecration of churches built and maintained by the flocks are now docketed at the highest appellate level in Rome, the Collegium [bench] of the Signatura. Odds of parishioners’ success are very low, but they decided to press ahead.
In the earlier phases of these appeals the archdiocese argued that the churches themselves were in disrepair. Actually, this has been caused by years of diocesan neglect after the churches were locked up.
Sharp reaction from the spokesman for the archdiocese, suggesting that these appeals have struck a nerve.
Btw…effective Monday, July 1, all parishes across the archdiocese become liable for an 18% diocesan tax (‘Cathedraticum’) levied on all parish revenues regardless of source. Its tagline: IFRM, as in Improved Financial Relationship Model.
Will this stabilize Catholic Boston’s financial situation?
A French finance minister under King Louis XIV said that the art of taxation consists in plucking the maximum number of feathers from the goose while causing the minimum amount of hissing. Not much hissing as yet, Boston’s Catholics are tired.
In Chicago, the demolition of a historic Catholic church on the fabled South Side has started: St. James, built in 1870s, and now in the midst of a diverse neighborhood very much in need of the parish’s active ministries.
There has been a credible offer on the table from a developer, to repair and restore the church for a guaranteed fixed price of $4.5 million.
What the archdiocese has chosen, instead, is to demolish this historic church at an estimated cost of some $4 million, and to replace it with a church-to-be-built; but no cost estimates have been given for the land purchase and the construction of a hypothetical new church.
It’s really not that complicated to figure out a break-even against the $4.5 million firm offer from the developer…
$4 million plus X (the cost of a new church), where X is damned sure to be much more than $500 thousand
From Book of Revelation Chapter 13, Verse 18:
“A certain wisdom is needed here; with a little ingenuity anyone [a bishop?] can calculate the number”
In Cleveland, notwithstanding frequent mentions of clergy shortage, the local bishop (Boston homeboy, Arlington actually) has ‘accepted’ the resignation of a pastor, age 75, turning down the priest’s offer to remain in the saddle. Also, “a nun has been told by her superior that she must stop worshipping with a congregation that severed itself from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland” (The Plain Dealer, June 19 last). The priest who followed his breakaway flock has been excommunicated.
Bostonians will not be surprised.
Cleveland’s ordinary was the object of an Apostolic Visitation a few years ago, with focus on his management style. And as noted below, eleven of his parish suppression and church deconsecration decrees were reversed in March of 2011, something without precedent.
Yet he remains in charge.
From Cicero’s Philippics, slightly redacted,
Quo usque tandem, Episcope, abutere patientia nostra? [free translation, how much longer, pal?]
In Greensburg, PA, Fayette County, in coal country and a Marcellus shale play, the usual round of parish mergers, but with a twist:
In this rural area with narrow winding roads and harsh winters, four thriving parishes are being merged into a fifth parish, and closed.
But the diocesan bean counters seem to have overlooked the fact that the sum total of regular Mass attendees in the four to-be-closed churches is triple the seating capacity of the surviving parochial church.
What will be needed is a kind of miracle of the loaves and the fishes, in reverse.
During the 2008 primaries, candidate Barack Obama was taped at a fundraiser saying (just before the PA primary) something to the effect that all they have is guns and religion.
Of course he was loudly criticized, and had to walk the statement back.
That’s what happens to the truth, sometimes. Just watch the first half of The Deer Hunter.
In Metuchen NJ, a vibrant Hungarian-American parish in New Brunswick is being suppressed; all of its metrics are strong, because – who knew – there is a strong and continuing flow of Hungarian immigrants, to this day.
The parish ‘feeds’ 100 children to a nearby Hungarian Iskola which ranges from pre-school to mid-teens. The school is secular, but with the parochial church one block away the children can easily fit parochial religious education into their curriculum.
However, one block on the other side of the Iskola is a Hungarian Reform Church [Lutheran, quelle horreur] just waiting for the Iskola to fall into its lap as the Catholic parish is suppressed and the congregants are redirected to more distant venues for worship.
The New Evangelization?
In the Archdiocese of New York, a truly perplexing case…Almost six years ago, in January, 2007 under then Cardinal Egan an announcement appeared in the diocesan weekly about the decision to ‘canonically extinguish’ a trophy parish in Lower Manhattan. But no decree was ever made public, and the ‘parish’ continued to function as a bona fide Catholic parish with the full menu of Sacraments. So the flock thought that all was well…until September, 2012, when Cardinal Dolan suddenly wrote a letter affirming the 2007 decision of Cardinal Egan to ‘close’ the parish. Which raises an issue under canon law that perhaps only a Jesuit could appreciate: for the intervening five+ years (2007 through 2012) of this Zombie parish’s existence, dead but apparently alive, were the baptisms and weddings performed there legit? Because these Sacraments may only be administered in parishes.
In a strange procedural twist, the prefect of the Signatura (where the case is now pending) shared with the advocates for the parishioners a remarkable letter sent to him by the chancellor of the Archdiocese of NY, which states in part:
“…the decision was made to sell the real property owned by [the parish], including the church building. A contract of sale was entered into in March, 2013 to see these assets for $50 million, subject to the Holy See’s approval [emphasis added], with the purchaser ready now…”
So much for the standard litany of reasons to justify a parish’s suppression.
The NY parishioners are not the only ones waiting with baited breath for the Signatura’s decision.
In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, shortly after his installation in September, 2011, the incoming archbishop replacing Cardinal Rigali warned that 2012 would be an annus horribilis; and he wasn’t kidding.
The parallels between Philly and Boston are uncanny:
cardinals who slip stealthily out of town; major clergy sex abuse scandal; wholesale closings of schools and parishes; sudden revelations of multi-million dollar losses by the archdiocese; and riding to the rescue, O.F.M. Cap. (‘cappuccini’) as the saviors.
But Philly has outperformed Boston in this race to the bottom:
Two of its cabinet-level diocesan officials are now guests of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the next few years, tastefully attired in pinstripes:
the former vicar for the clergy, and the former CFO…convicted for child endangerment and for embezzlement (about $1 million), respectively.
And the Philly clergy pension fund is – quelle surprise – busted. Boston Catholics are allowed to hurry on, they have seen this episode.
From Philly.com, June 18 last:
“[Archbishop] Chaput said the [retirement] fund needed $90 million to be solvent but had less than $4.5 million [sic!]”
And, the spokesman for the archdiocese adds,
“4 million in Heritage of Faith donations were transferred into the priest pension fund of Jan. 31 ;”
Soooo, six months ago the retirement fund had been depleted to half a million dollars, against estimated obligations of $90 million…in other words, an asset base to support future obligations 180 times greater…wow, that is Catholic leverage.
It gets worse…
Parishes and retired priests will have to contribute to the replenishment of the retirement fund [kick up points to the Family, as Tony Soprano would have groused]:
The assessment on parishes for the retirement fund goes up almost 30%; and
“clergy living at the [diocesan retirement home] and other church-owned facilities are expected to contribute 40% of their pensions to the archdiocese”
The current retirement stipend is about $12,000 per year, so retired priests in these centers will be left with about $600 per month.
Just a few days ago the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, reached the 75 anniversary of its founding. When the ordinary, a former Philadelphia auxiliary bishop, celebrated Mass a few days ago at Saginaw Valley State University, a courageous diocesan priest celebrated a competing open-air Mass in an adjacent parking lot, to give solace to hundreds of parishioners displaced by the bishop’s decision to close almost half of all Saginaw parishes, from over 100 currently to an end-state of 56.
A strange circumstance at the intersection of canon law and present-day technology:
In many instances the only notice of parish closings given by the bishop to the congregations was through a posting on the diocesan website. Unfortunately, the rural parts of the diocese have lousy connectivity; and, more to the point, many parishioners are not Internet savvy – particularly the elderly.
So when the announcement was posted, and the ten-day clock started to toll for the filing of a valid canon appeal, many loyal parishioners were helpless.
Not a Christian way to treat men and women who placed their trust in the bishop.
Bishop Accountability has quite a cache of documents on the previous tenure of Saginaw’s ordinary in Philly. The bishop, reportedly, is often away from the diocese, traveling to Philadelphia where there are civil suits arising from clergy sex abuse at a time when he was a senior diocesan official.
The Diocese of Springfield MA is NOT the hometown of The Springfield Simpsons (that is Oregon’s prerogative).
However, the ordinary of Springfield holds the Bronze Medal for most parish decrees reversed by Rome, three.
The Silver is held by Allentown’s ordinary, eight; and
The pride of Boston now in Cleveland holds the Gold, eleven.
But game is not over, yet…There are currently two Springfield decrees pending before the Signatura, and at least one of these cases will probably be adjudicated by the highest level of the Signatura, the Collegium, by the end of this year.
Interestingly, the ordinary has also managed to get embroiled with secular law in both of these cases, as well as a third.
In the first case, the bishop sought an emergency motion to evict vigilers; denied.
In the second case, a probate judge awaits the definitive ruling from Rome before instructing the executor of a $640 thousand estate on where the proceeds should go; tangled back story here.
In a third case not involving a canon appeal by parishioners, the ordinary has taken on the City of Springfield regarding the city’s designation of a historic district which includes the diocesan Cathedral.
‘His Excellency’ has lost at the federal district court level, and he has chosen to exercise his right of appeal to the federal appeal court for the New England district, one pay-grade below the U.S. supreme court. Case to be heard in October.
Perhaps it was not a shrewd move on the part of His Excellency to seek relief from secular courts, although this is entirely within his secular rights:
In litigation there is the ever-present danger of discovery, including documents between the diocese and the Vatican; some day this might ‘pierce the veil’ of the Holy See, sovereign immunity notwithstanding.
Also, the decision to go up the appellate ladder has another set of risks:
If the bishop loses the appeal, he would enshrining more firmly into case law a judicial decision that might bite other ordinaries in their cassocks. This was the outcome in Massachusetts on the issue of property taxes levied on locked-up churches. The Archdiocese of Boston took the issue just one step short of the highest court, lost, and now local taxing officials have taken note, given the sizable number of locked-up churches throughout the Commonwealth.
Finally, the Diocese of Springfield is not exactly flush with cash, and unless the law firm involved is doing this pro bono, (hah), the meter is running.
This is a long posting, but – with no claim of modesty – my current experience in handling many parishioner appeals is bringing into focus the fact that the dysfunction is not limited to one or two dioceses, known for their wayward ways…it is systemic.
There is a common view that the Catholic hierarchy in America is monolithic…not so.
Each of the (almost) 200 dioceses in the U.S. is a fiercely autonomous fiefdom.
So it is hard for the ‘Dicasteries’ (departments) of the Vatican to get an accurate overall picture when many bishops are ‘economical with information’ (to borrow a lovely phrase from the British civil service), and when there is little shared information, with each reporting unit putting things in their own format – something reminiscent of stove-piping in the intelligence community.
Slightly more than a decade ago, in early January, 2002 before the Boston Globe series on clergy sex abuse started, the general view would have been that all was more-or-less well in Catholic America. Today ask yourselves this, what will things look like in ten or elevn years?