COMMENT: Will it happen to us? by Patricio P. Diaz

The crisis is manifested in the closure or merger of parishes, the closure of Catholic schools or their merger with government schools, and the reasons for the closures and mergers. The New York Times headlined aptly the anticipation of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit: “Uncertain Church Awaits Pope in U. S.” The Pope arrived in Washington, D.C. April 15.

Parishes

As of 2007, there were 18,634 parishes in the U.S. of which 3,238 or 17.38 percent had no resident parish pastor. The situation had deteriorated more than five times in over 40 years, as in 1965 there were 17,837 parishes of which 549 or 3.11 percent had no resident parish pastor.

Shortage of priests is one reason. In 1965, there were 58,632 priests for a Catholic population of 45.6 million. In 2007, the number of priests decreased by 29.3 percent to 41,499 while the Catholic population increased by 141.23 percent to 64.4 million.

Less and less men join the priestly vocation. From 1965 to 2007, priestly ordinations steadily declined – 994 to 456 – by 54.13 percent or more than half. Just as dismal are the numbers of graduate-level seminarians – 8,325 in 1965 to 3,274 in 2007, a decline of 60.67 percent.

It should be asked: With 41,499 priests against 18,634 parishes, there are more than two priests to one parish. How could there be a shortage? Good questions with ready answers. Shifting geographic distribution of Catholics due to immigration and loss of faith has led to imbalance of the distribution of priests in the parishes.

Catholic congregations in the southern and western states are increasing fast because of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Those in northeastern United States are experiencing population loss.

For instance, in the Northeast U.S., as reported by The New York Times:

n The bishop of Camden, New Jersey, announced plans to close or merge nearly half of the parishes in his diocese.

n Catholics in New Orleans, Boston, New York, Toledo, Ohio and nearly three dozen other dioceses are mourning the loss of parishes and parochial schools they grew up in.

In general, according to The New York Times, “Hundreds of parishes are being closed and consolidated, and the reasons are usually intertwined with other big challenges facing the church” — a shortage of priests, fallout from the sexual abuse scandal, insufficient funds to maintain aging churches, demographic changes and sometimes not enough people attending Mass to justify keeping parishes open.”

Schools

Here’s a report from washingtonpost.com: “About 1,267 Catholic schools have closed since 2000 and enrolment nationwide has dropped by 382,125 students, or 14 percent, according to the National Catholic Education Association. The problem is most apparent in inner cities, in schools … with large concentrations of minorities whose parents often struggle to pay tuition rather than send them to failing public schools.”

Here’s how Sister Dale McDonald, NCEA director of public policy and education research, puts the problem: “We lost the kids. They can’t afford it (the tuition). And then as the school gets smaller, you have to raise the tuition to pay the costs and it’s a vicious circle” – meaning, more students are lost because they can’t afford the high tuition.

Many of the schools operate on subsidies from the diocese. An example is St. Monica School in Miami, Florida. For a decade now, it has been operating on a deficit. Enrolment decreased from 368 in 2004 to 196 today. To keep it open, the Archdiocese of Miami has given it more than $2.7 million in subsidies over the past seven years. It will close in June.

How serious is the problem? According to McDonald, in the 1960s, there were 12,893 Catholic schools with about 5.25 million students. Today, the numbers are: 7,378 schools, down 42.53 percent; 2.27 million students, down 56.76 percent. Decline in enrolment is accelerating; more schools will close.

Some dioceses, partnering with the government, convert some of their schools into publicly funded charter schools. However, they sacrifice the teaching of the Catholic faith – doing away with prayers and religion subjects.

Sex Abuse

Sex abuse by the clergy, a scandal that surfaced in Boston Archdiocese in 2002 and since then has rocked the U.S. Catholic Church, is the crisis that has alienated thousands of the faithful and deprived many parishes and schools of subsidies, contributing to the causes of closures.

How serious is the crisis? “The scandal affected nearly every diocese in America, revealed more than 5,000 abusive priests and more than 13,000 victims and has cost the church more than $2 billion in settlement and legal fees. It has also cost the church trust and respect ….” (The New York Times, April 18, 2008).

The Pope told reporters: “It is a great suffering for the church in the United States, for the church in general and for me personally that this could happen. … [I]t is difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give love of God to these children. We are deeply ashamed, and we will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future.” (washingtonpost.com, April 15, 2008).

There is no sign of complete healing. In his homily at an open-field Mass in Washington, D.C, with 50,000 in attendance, the Pope repeated: “No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. It is important that those who have suffered be given pastoral attention.” (The New York Times, April 18, 2008).

The Pope met privately with “five or six” victims, “offering them encouragement and hope”. But the meeting, symbolic and the first ever by a pope, failed to satisfy all. Only three reacted positively, speaking on CNN. Those not invited – many saying they had left the Church — were very critical. They are asking the Pope and the Church to do more than words of sorrow, regret and promises of action.

Question

Is there any possibility that the crisis happening in the parishes and schools in the U.S. will happen in the Philippines? I can only ask. But the question can be a teaser to those who have the answer and the power to prevent it from happening.

The Philippine Church is also experiencing a decreasing number of young men entering the priesthood. However, increase in the church population comes only from children born to Catholic families. There are no Catholic immigrants like the Latinos in the United States.

In the Philippines, the Catholic schools, like other private schools, are preferred by parents, especially the well-to-do, despite the tuition-free public schools. They have guaranteed source of support.

This is a general observation: In the 1950s and 1960s, parishes and schools in the Empire Province of Cotabato were largely subsidized with funds from the United States. Obviously, that is no longer the case today.

One big difference: Philippine dioceses are not hounded by sex abuse lawsuits.

[Trivia: The Philippines is the third largest Roman Catholic nation in the world (70,146,000) in 2007) after Brazil (139.24 million today) and Mexico (91.67 million in 2006). The U.S. with 64.4 million in 2007 is the fourth largest.]

("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You can reach him at [email protected])

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