Benedict’s Warning and Consolation: Changing Demographics Mean Closing Churches

Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are reeling at the news that 103 of its 203 parishes—more than 50%– will close or consolidate before 2020.

The Archdiocese of Detroit, where I live, has embarked on an ambitious program called “Together in Faith” which will result in the closing, merging or clustering of many of its parishes—especially those in the central city, where a changing demographic means that pews are near empty on Sunday mornings.

These are hard times for the Catholic Church in America!  Officials in Milwaukee cite three principal factors which will necessitate widespread belt-tightening and reduction in the total number  of parishes:

  1. Priest retirements will exceed ordinations, resulting in a projected 40 percent reduction in the number of priests serving in parish ministry.
  2. The costs of operating parishes and funding ministries are escalating rapidly, and parishes can gain economies of scale by collaborating with other parishes.
  3. The mission of the Church can be carried out more effectively by combining efforts and sharing resources.

But lest we throw up our hands, fearing that the Catholic Church’s influence is waning in America, I thought I’d cite Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI).  In his 2009 book Faith and the Future, he first offers an ominous warning:

“The church 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. As the number of her adherents diminishes…she will lose many of her social privileges…. As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….

It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek…. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution—when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain….

So then, should we be discouraged?  Pope Benedict doesn’t think so:

…But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

- Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), from his book Faith and the Future

  • Paul Young

    In AD 534 there was a council of bishops in Northern Africa. 220 bishops were in attendance. Today, you would be hard pressed to find 220 parishes in the same region.

    Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church, but He did not promise that any particular part of the Church would survive. It’s sad to realize how badly we have failed.

  • Brian A. Cook

    Small correction–the book was written in the late 1960s.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      You are correct, Brian. The 2009 date was apparently the publication date for a later edition. Thanks!

  • Christian

    It’s a different world here in South Carolina: growing churches, new parishes, new vocations, new converts. My parish has about 50 inquirers this year in RCIA , produced two new priests in the last 7 years, with one more to be ordained this summer, and another in 2015. The Diocese has an effective and energetic vocations program, a discernment house, and 11 seminarians.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      Wow, Christian, that’s great! What parish are you at? (It’s not St. Mary’s in Greenville, is it? That’s where we are this week.)

      • Christian

        Why…yes it is!

  • William Blaul

    With respect, the statement, “… Changing Lives Together … will result in the closing, merging or clustering of many of its parishes—especially those in the central city” is completely erroneous and inaccurate. Indeed, Changing Lives Together is about strengthening parishes by generating the resources needed to fulfill their parish-developed pastoral plans. It is disappointing to withness the faithful being confused and misinformed on such an important effort. To date, more than 36,000 parishioner households throughout southeast Michigan have committed more than $52 million to strengthen their parishes through Changing Lives Together, and dozens of parishes are now putting those funds to work in ministries, facility repairs, upgrades and other programs. Learn more by visiting and follow Changing Lives Together on Facebook and Twitter.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      Dear William, you are correct– and you have caught my typo. My husband and I are happy to support the “Changing Lives Together” program in the Archdiocese. I’ve edited my post to name the correct program, “Together In Faith.” Under that program, Archbishop Vigneron leads an effort to reduce parishes in order to achieve necessary cost savings. He writes: “The life of the Church here in the Archdiocese of Detroit cannot simply continue without significant changes. Faith and prudence demand that we act now to ensure that we will be able to do God’s work effectively in the years to come…. The changes we need to make will surely involve moments of personal loss as some parishes are reconfigured into new worship communities, but we move forward always with the hope that God will raise us up and raise up for us new resources to do his work.”

  • Eugene LeBoeuf

    Diocese of Lafayette LA: Bishop Jarrell ordained 26 permanent deacons.

  • V

    They did a massive consolidation in Gary in 2007. Ironically they closed the National Shrine of St. Jude. (Who is, among other things, my patron) Not sure how I feel about that. There is another closed parish called St John Cantius which we are hoping might attract the attentions of the impressively expanding Canons Regular, who have St John Cantius in Chicago. I mean, it has a new roof on it. Considering the labors they currently are going through to fix up the parent parish, I would think that would make it a real bargain. Especially seeing as how it will be a while before it needs to be done again. :)