Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Churches Should Get Down to Business

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Churches Should Get Down to Business

Article excerpt

As we came out of a Sunday mass at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago four years ago, we saw placards in front of us. "Bernardin has betrayed us." "Give us back our parishes." The people waiting outside were bitter at Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's plan to close down their city parishes.

The slimming down of the church had become conspicuous in Chicago and was causing pain to those affected. The cardinal had announced a $15 million deficit for the archdiocese the previous fall. But anyone who knew the U.S. Catholic Church's worsening financial situation had seen this kind of scenario coming for a long time.

As painful as this process may have been to the protesting parishioners, however, the church suffers even greater damage when the slimming down causes no pain. Pain is a warning signal that some weakness must be tackled. Faced with a huge and growing deficit, a bishop may slash the religious-education or liturgy staffs.

Parishioners who have seldom experienced what such staffs can do hardly notice the difference. Even parishioners who react more strongly may soon get used to the reduced service. When the pain signal is no longer felt, Christ's church settles down to the comfortable life of less challenging activities.

Is the Catholic Church in the U.S. doomed to a decreasing vitality? Do we have to watch powerlessly as essential services are scaled down? If so, the effects will not only be felt in our personal spiritual lives but also in the church's ability to offer the gospel to this country.

Four years ago, when I began to have interviews around the country about the future developments of the U.S. church, my answers to those two questions would have been more pessimistic than they are now. I knew the financial statistics. They tell us that, although Catholics earn much more than Protestants, they give to their church less than half of what Protestants give to theirs.

Father Andrew Greeley told me that the gap had widened further since he and Bishop William McManus had made the facts widely available in their book Catholic Contributions: Sociology and Policy (Thomas More Press, 1987). And another nationally acclaimed expert on Catholic parishes told me that he believed the Catholic contribution would decline still further because the older generation is carrying the main financial burden.

Were there grounds for hoping that the descending spiral could soon be halted? For a long time I could not see any. What made this failure more poignant to me was the strong evidence that America needs a vigorous Catholic Church, perhaps more than at any other time in U.S. history.

Today the authority of government is being reduced by much of the media, and Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to remember that we find our true individuality only through our commitments to service and community.

In these circumstances, a huge, well-organized body such as the U.S. Catholic Church (comprising more than a quarter of the population) could offer a unique practical witness to such truths about humanity.

We already have the basis of such a church, in the great numbers of committed and theologically literate laypeople. But as the essential services are progressively slimmed down, there is less chance of building on or even of preserving that basis.

Recently I have been wondering whether we haven't a remedy in our hands. In its periods of greatest vitality the church has been good at borrowing creatively from secular institutions. In most parishes there are plenty of parishioners who know how business management skills could help them tackle problems of that kind. What is stopping us from asking them to help us?

If we do, one of the first questions they might ask us to consider is: "In what circumstances might people give you money?" McManus, in his half of Catholic Contributions: Sociology and Policy, gives part of the answer. The Protestants give more than twice as much to their churches because they are deeply involved in their congregation's budget. …

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