Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century


By Charles E. Zech, Mary L. Gautier, Mark M. Gray, Jonathon L. Wiggins and Thomas P. Gaunt, SJ
Published by Oxford University Press, 176 pages, $24.95

A number of demographic forces have been reshaping the Catholic landscape for decades, causing concern in some places, offering opportunity in others, and changing the church in ways that couldn’t be decreed by synods or ecumenical councils.

News about those forces has been delivered with some regularity by social scientists, mostly those working at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). They’ve appeared as little dots of information that, over years, would become larger, obscuring a popular image of the church that has persisted well beyond its expiration date.

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century gathers those dots in one place, begins to connect them and provides a timely, if skeletal, outline of a new image of parish life. The five authors of this study have been gathering data on church matters for years. Charles Zech is director of the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics at Villanova University. Jesuit Fr. Thomas Gaunt is executive director of CARA. Mary Gautier is editor of The CARA Report. Mark Gray is director of CARA Catholic Polls, and Jonathon Wiggins is director of CARA Parish Surveys.

On one level, the takeaway from the research is an easy calculation. The image that the pre-millennial generation grew up with — the parochial structure of parish, elementary school, convent full of habit-wearing sisters and rectory with several priests — no longer applies. In the foreword, theologian Marti Jewell, who oversaw the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project that contributed significant data to this text, recalled the iconic, if highly romanticized, image of Catholicism represented by the 1945 movie “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” That reality, long in decline, now can be consigned to historical memory once and for all.

In the same vein, the infrastructure that supported that arrangement — the numbers of priests and women religious who ran the institution (the latter for a pittance) and provided immigrants an entry point for cultural assimilation — is increasingly understood in the passing of time as an aberration. The number of priests and nuns during that period lies outside the norm of historical patterns of religious vocations.

“Today’s pastoral leaders,” writes Jewell, “are being asked to reimagine who does ministry, what leadership looks like, and where and what a parish is.”

This book provides a solid foundation on which to begin the re-imagining. Demographics may not always be destiny, but in the case of the Catholic church in the United States, shifts in population and immigration have certainly worked to shape a new reality. And while the social scientists have occasionally been looked upon as dissonant players in a heavenly orchestral suite, they have more than earned their credibility over the past 50 years as among the first to understand trends large and small affecting the Catholic community.

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century uses, as a basis for comparison, an earlier series of reports “from the groundbreaking Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life,” conducted during the 1980s, some 20 years after the Second Vatican Council set church reform in motion.

That study, which resulted in a host of books, reports and articles, began to sniff out the changes afoot:

  • Increasing role of laity in parish decision-making;
  • Changes in liturgy and worship inspired by the council;
  • Increasing diversity, especially due to growth of Hispanic members;
  • Decrease in parochial schools;
  • The migration of Catholics out of inner cities and from the Northeast and Upper Midwest to the West and Southwest.

The more recent studies drill deeper into questions and trends that either were in infancy or didn’t exist when the Notre Dame Study was executed.

When Catholics moved out of the Northeast and Upper Midwest, they didn’t take their priests and institutions with them. Even with the exodus of priests during the post-Vatican II era, there remained an imbalance. Regions were left with diocesan and parish facilities that were increasingly expensive to maintain at a time when the source of their revenue had migrated to places that even today are straining to satisfy demand.

At the same time, and despite the amply reported membership losses the church has experienced, the Catholic population continues to grow in real numbers and remains steady, at about 25 percent, as a portion of the U.S. population.

As in the past, the growth is due to a continuous influx of immigrants. Today, they aren’t white Europeans; they are mostly Hispanic but also include significant numbers of Catholics from Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands.

This text should be required reading for bishops, priests and people who daily confront the demographic shifts — bringing new languages and cultures and enormous changes in pastoral responsibilities — that have occurred and will continue to change the church. The data alone is essential to understanding where things might be headed.

But as significant, if not as apparent, is the value the text has in taking the ideological heat out of discussions that, for some, often contain as subtext: How do we reconstruct, or return to, the church we knew and loved? Or whom do we blame for the “diminishment” we experience, for the fewer priests, fewer nuns, closed or merged parishes and schools?

Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century might incline toward an answer that says the church is not so much in a state of diminishment as it is in a state of change. That is not to disregard concern for the numbers of young people not attaching as intently as their parents have to the church; nor is it to disregard concern for preserving the eucharistic community as the number of priests continues to dwindle.

Imagining, then, might take a form that seeks answers in the trends suggesting that Catholic communities may be sustainable, just not in the forms that became dominant during a period when the number of vowed religious and priests went through the roof. Facing reality means recognizing that although the U.S. has more priests per capita than most of the rest of the world, “the number of priests has been declining and the number of Catholics per priests has been increasing.” The pattern that began in the 1960s “has continued unabated.”

It also requires recognizing that the decline in the number of women religious and priests “has opened the door for the laity to carry out the promises of Vatican II. Few parishes could operate today without the professional laity filling roles such as director of religious education, youth minister, music minister, pastoral associate, business manager, and myriad other ministry roles that were once held by clergy, vowed religious, or volunteers.” CARA estimates parishes today are served by around 40,000 lay ecclesial ministers, an increase of more than 80 percent since 1990.

Those numbers, reflecting lay commitment to maintaining Catholic communities, would fly in the face of the analysis that concludes the church is in decline. In addition to theological and pastoral implications, the growth in the number of lay church professionals has financial implications because lay professionals need a living wage. That is a problem particularly, as one segment of the book details, in a church whose members lag well behind their Protestant counterparts in the giving department.

One of the big puzzle pieces for the future involves what place 18,000 permanent deacons will have in the church. The deacons constitute another layer of all-male clergy, most of them married, with 40 percent of parishes served by at least one.

This book, far from dissonant, contains the basic score that we all have to master before any improvising can occur. Send your bishop a copy. Make sure the pastor has one. Use it to start a discussion group with parishioners.

The questions that flow from this work regarding the shape of the future, how pastoral planning proceeds, the place of laity, especially women, within the future church, are many and sometimes quite challenging. The future church will occur, of course, if for no other reason than that millions of Catholics will remain Catholic. Their determination is evident.

The question for all of us is whether the church will continue to confront the future by lurching from crisis to crisis, from one financial difficulty to another, trying to patch things together on the run. Or will we engage a more deliberate planning, one that capitalizes on consultative models already functioning in some places, to cut a clearer path to the future?

Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. NCR’s book reviews can be found at]

This story appeared in the Feb 10-23, 2017 print issue under the headline: Reshaping the Catholic landscape.
The “distinguishing mark” of the “prophetic witness,” she writes in one essay, “involves discerning and responding to … ‘the signs of the times.'” 
The future of religious life and the plight of young adult Catholic women
Lately there has been a lot of talk about the future of religious life in the pages of NCR.

In August, Monica Clark reported from the annual meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Facing the challenges of aging sisters and smaller numbers of vocations, the entire conference was dedicated to contemplating what God was calling forth from these communities.

“We sense that something new is emerging,” said St. Joseph Sr. Carol Zinn, a member of LCWR’s executive committee, “but we certainly don’t yet know what it will look like.”

Later that month, Tom Roberts entered the conversation to offer a correction to the idea, widely held by many conservative Catholics, that traditional religious communities are experiencing a robust increase in vocations.

The conservative orders, Roberts demonstrated, account for only 5 percent of women religious in the United States. Last year, the highest number of professions among any community was nine. Neither the conservative orders nor the communities affiliated with LCWR have a retention rate higher than 50 percent prior to the profession of final vows.

“In the end,” Roberts concluded, “all of this may be panning for gold on opposite sides of a creek going dry.”

NCR blogger Mary Ann McGivern, a Sister of Loretto, responded to Roberts by offering her own experience of living in a Catholic Worker House for three decades.

It’s a “vibrant young community,” she writes, that devotes itself to “praying together, holding discussions to clarify thought, publishing journals, and doing the corporal works of mercy.”

“It’s not a matter of which religious style will win out,” McGivern states, “but whether we trust in the Spirit of God acting in each of us.”

And perhaps no one has contributed more to this topic in the NCR than Sandra Schneiders. In the last two years, she has published numerous essays on religious life as a “prophetic life form.” The “distinguishing mark” of the “prophetic witness,” she writes in one essay, “involves discerning and responding to … ‘the signs of the times.'”

As Heidi Schlumpf wrote in her coverage of Schneiders’ recent address at St. Mary’s College, the sister and scholar projected that “women’s ministerial life has a future in this time and beyond.”

Unlike many women religious in this country, Schneiders isn’t as distressed about the dwindling numbers of vocations.

“No Congregation ‘needs’ more members than are actually called to it by God,” she asserted in a 2010 NCR essay. “The purpose of the life is not to perpetuate particular Congregations nor to staff Church institutions; it is to live intensely the witness to the Gospel to which the Congregation is called and for as long as it is called.”

As fruitful as this ongoing NCR conversation has been, what I find lacking from the discussion is the same element that goes missing every time the topic of declining priestly vocations arises, too. What about all of the young adults, many of whom hold degrees in theology and ministry, who are currently doing the traditional work of the church?

Every year, hundreds of young Catholic women graduate from universities, graduate programs in religion, divinity schools and seminaries. Many of them go on to be theologians, chaplains, nonprofit leaders, advocates, activists and social workers doing outreach with the homeless, the incarcerated and victims of domestic violence.

Their work is not only high-risk, it is often emotionally demanding and spiritually draining. If they are very lucky, they work in a supportive environment under a supervisor who is stable, competent and compassionate.

Unlike males who seek the priesthood, the institutional church does not support their education or their profession — even though they, too, spend their lives studying and serving the church.

Unlike women religious, they do not experience some of the securities that come with religious life. They have to find employment on their own, pay their rent, maintain a household on their own and, in some cases, provide their own medical insurance. If they lose their jobs, there is no safety net to carry them through until they find work again.

Perhaps most challenging of all, these young women do not enjoy the sustenance that comes with a life of prayer, contemplation and community. Young women are as in need of this support as any of the sisters engaged in similar work.

The number of young adult Catholic women who find themselves in this predicament is not small. And, I believe, they are most certainly called by God in a way very similar to women religious.

The difference is that these young women grew up in a culture that, in some significant ways, is radically different from society in which the majority of sisters in the United States were raised.

The bulk of the sisters ministering in the United States today entered their communities during or before the 1960s. They were raised in a social climate that did not discuss sexuality openly and in a church that demanded they bury their sexual feelings. Thankfully, most women religious in the past few decades have moved beyond these repressed beginnings. Nowadays, sisters are among our culture’s strongest advocates for sexual and gender justice.

Today’s young adult women came of age in a culture that speaks much more freely about sexuality and in a society where gender roles have loosened up significantly. The notion that being in a loving, committed relationship might somehow compromise their capacity to serve God fully is foreign to most of them.

More importantly, they were raised in a post-communal culture. Most did not grow up surrounded by extended family or in a traditional parish or neighborhood. For them, a partner or a spouse provides an important part of their identity and their support network. The need for a partner, therefore, is stronger and more crucial to their emotional stability and spiritual health than it was for previous generations.

Yet, sadly, their desire for marriage cuts off any possibility for consecrated religious life — even though, like women religious, these young Catholic women long to live out the witness of the Gospel. They share the same hunger for community, charism and contemplation.

Many will argue that young women can easily join the thriving lay associates and companions programs offered by many religious communities. But associates, it seems to me, have a slightly different purpose in religious life. They immerse themselves in the charism of a community and then they bring that spirit into their professional and personal lives.

I suspect that there are many women, and I count myself among them, who desire more. Rather than taking the community’s spirit into the world, they wish to dwell fully in the community. They want to live among the suffering or in the retreat house. They want to make a home within their ministries. They want to make a life commitment not simply to a profession, but to a mission.

Last summer, I had the extraordinary opportunity to study several communities of women religious who ran shelters for homeless mothers. The sisters who ran these homes were aging and were small in number. Many of them lived in the shelter with their guests. Most of them had several nonreligious staff members who served as case managers and social workers.

But as dedicated and skilled as the support staff was, I got the distinct sense that most did not quite grasp the deeper mission of the place. Their devotion to their work was not grounded in Catholic social justice tradition or sacramental theology. Watching the differences between sisters and the clinical staff, I felt like I was looking at a charism of the brink of extinction.

But does it have to end this way?

There are hundreds of young adult women who want to answer God’s call and who can, both theologically and pastorally, sustain the spirit and mission of these religious communities. And I believe they can do this and be partnered or married. In some cases, my own included, I believe that being in a committed relationship would actually enhance the fruitfulness of some women’s vocations to religious life.

For decades, Catholic Worker Houses have found creative ways to accommodate couples. More recently, the multitude of groups that are emerging out of the “new monasticism” movement are also incorporating couples, some of them even same-sex partners, into their communities.

Many of these “new monastics” are actually Protestants who are finding profound meaning and purpose in this ancient Catholic concept. Catholic women have the extraordinary benefit of already being deeply rooted in the tradition. All they need is for a religious community to open its doors to them.

Most of us would agree that something new is emerging, but we are not quite sure what it is. I would invite women religious to expand their contemplation to include the voices of young adult women who share a deep understanding of their calling and charism. Even though they may not be ready or willing to profess vows, these young women may hold significant insight into how this prophetic life form might continue to give life to future generations.

Although we won’t find all of the answers to the mysterious future of religious life, by giving young women a voice, the sisters will be actually provide a much-needed ministry to a different kind of marginalized community. The most overlooked group in the Catholic Church may well be young adult Catholic women who, regardless of the depth of their commitment to the Gospel and to the work of justice, are excluded from nearly every form of life-commitment to ministry.

Together we may be able to attune one another’s prophetic vision and guide one another in reading the signs of the times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s