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In a radio address back in 1969, a young German theologian named Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, saw hard times ahead for the Catholic Church. It will “become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning,” he predicted, and the process would be painful. But though smaller, the Church of the future will have been “re-shaped by saints” to become a beacon for people seeking answers to questions of meaning, for which the arrogant secularism of those dark times will have no reply.

While the saints whom Fr. Ratzinger foresaw haven’t yet appeared, his prophecy of ecclesiastical shrinkage has proved to be right on target. Throughout the Western world, including the United States, for the last half-century religion in general and Catholicism in particular have been in decline. Now one in three Americans is religiously unaffiliated—something Baptist pastor Ryan Burge, writing in Religion News Service, calls the “most consequential” social shift in America since World War II. And from 2001 to the present, Gallup reports, belief in God among Americans went from 90 percent to 74 percent. 

If that last number is correct, the 83 million Americans who don’t believe in God now outnumber the 73.5 million Catholics, who presumably do, by a whopping 9.5 million.

Other numbers for self-identified Catholics are similarly dismaying. For example: Only about one Catholic in six attends Mass every Sunday, while seven out of ten don’t believe Jesus is really present in the Eucharist (which probably explains why so few attend weekly Mass).  

The numerical decline also includes fewer priests. In 1965, the 53 million American Catholics were served by 36,500 diocesan priests, 95 percent of them engaged in active ministry. Now 73.5 million Catholics are served by 24,000 diocesans, 66 percent of them in active ministry. Almost all the rest are retired. Meanwhile, not enough new priests are being ordained to keep up with the loss of priests. There were 805 ordinations, diocesan and religious, in 1970, and only 451 last year. 

As priests become scarcer in the American Church, parishes without resident pastors become more common—530 in 1965 and 3,215 as of last year. Dioceses all over the country are engaged in institutional contraction and reorganization in an effort to cope with numerical decline.

The process is particularly noticeable where dioceses have closed or merged a significant number of parishes with a dwindling body of parishioners and fewer priests to serve them. Even in areas like the Southwest, where Catholic population continues to grow as part of a general increase in population, the priest shortage is a real problem. Meanwhile, large declines in virtually all measurable aspects of Catholic life, from infant baptisms to funerals, have occurred in old-line Catholic strongholds of the Northeast and Midwest.

But not only there. When the Archdiocese of Seattle announced a consultation process with parish consolidations to follow, it pointed out that it had 80 pastors to cover 174 parishes and expected that by 2036 it would have only 66 pastors. “We have churches that were built for many more people than are attending Mass and most parishes have constrained resources with significant expenses to maintain facilities,” explained the archdiocese’s chief operating officer. Many other dioceses could say the same.

Parish closings and mergers don’t always go smoothly. When the Archdiocese of St. Louis this summer announced a plan for reducing the number of parishes from 178 to 135, people in seven of the 45 parishes slated for closing or merger said they would appeal that decision to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Clergy. The archdiocese, which had conducted an extensive consultation before announcing its plan, thereupon said it was suspending implementation—though not the reassignment of the priests involved—pending Rome’s decision.

Elsewhere, steps have been taken to adopt an arrangement whereby one priest is pastor of two or more parishes, with a deacon or religious woman or lay person (man or woman, as the case may be) serving as administrator of each, handling the practicalities of parish life and freeing the priest to concentrate on sacramental and pastoral functions. While this may seem strange to parishioners accustomed to having “Father” in charge of everything, canon law (Canon 517.2) already allows it when the diocesan bishop decides that a “dearth of priests” makes it necessary. We are likely to see much more of it in the smaller Church.

Lay people will thus be required to shoulder more responsibility in the work of the Church. Perhaps more than at any time since Christianity’s early centuries, lay people in the smaller Church will be the primary evangelizers. That’s hardly a new thought, of course, as Lumen Gentium makes clear: “The laity . . . are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth.” What would be new, though, is for those fine words to be taken seriously. The circumstances of life in a smaller Church with fewer priests may accomplish even that minor miracle.

If the lay initiators of apostolic ventures in the future want to designate the institutions and programs they launch as “Catholic,” meaning the Church has ultimate responsibility for them, they will need the approval of the local bishop. But if they simply want to tackle something within their own competence—establish a new classical academy, say—without situating it within the formal structure of the Church, they can and should simply go ahead and do it. As St. John Paul II pointed out, “Such liberty is a true and proper right that is not derived from any kind of ‘concession’ by authority but flows from the Sacrament of Baptism.”

The role being sketched here for the laity is considerably more substantial and spiritually intense than the conventional view of lay people would have it. While formation programs to meet this need have begun springing up here and there, more will soon be necessary. The formation of the laity should be at the top of the to-do list as the smaller Church takes shape.

Already, of course, efforts to cope with the new circumstances of Catholic life are multiplying. One is to bolster thinning clerical ranks with priests from places with priests to spare. Not so long ago that often meant “FBIs”—Foreign-Born Irish priests—but now Ireland has its own severe shortage of priestly vocations, making it necessary to look somewhere else.

One place is Africa. And how well does that work? A recent incident may hold part of the answer. A large retirement community in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., is served by a parish whose pastor would be alone except for two African priests whom he recruited. They serve as, respectively, Catholic chaplain at a nearby Adventist hospital and Catholic chaplain at the retirement community. A few Sundays back, one of those good men was preaching during Mass for the retirees when the expressions on people’s faces told him that some members of his nearly all-white congregation were having trouble understanding his African accent. The priest paused, looked out at his listeners with a grin, and said: “If you people don’t produce more vocations, this is what you get.”

People laughed; Father resumed his homily; Mass went on. Welcome to life in the smaller Church.

Russell Shaw is the co-author of Revitalizing Catholicism in America.

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Image by Mike Peel licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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