Parish Closures: New Scholarship and Important Questions

As I mentioned in my previous post/shameless use of this blog for research assistance, I am in the final stages of finishing my dissertation on Catholic school closures. I have always struggled with the temptation to spend days reading wonderful existing scholarship instead of doing the much harder work of putting words on the page.  Recently, I decided that it would actually be negligent for someone with my research interests not to read John Seitz’ (relatively) new book on parish closures No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns (Harvard University Press, 2011). I couldn’t put it down as I got swept up into the ethnographic account of the many faithful Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston who took over and held constant year(s) long vigils at their parishes rather than see them close.


The book will be of interest to anyone who themselves has experienced a parish closure or who will face one in the coming years. It also touched on several more global or cosmic issues that I think are important for scholars of Catholicism to continue to think about and for parish leaders to reflect on as well. Among these are: the complicated nature of “Catholic sacrifice”, lingering ethnic tensions, the choice many continue to make between reforming or leaving the church, and the ways the sexual abuse crisis in the church has far reaching consequences that extend beyond the headlines. A blog post is not a forum where all of these issues can be explored in depth but I’ll touch on them as they relate to the subject of No Closure.

In the Archdiocesan discourse about parish closures, one sentiment that was expressed in the case explored in the book was “your ancestors did not put themselves first, and neither should you”. For a previous generation, Catholic sacrifice meant financing the building of churches and schools with financial contributions scrounged up from meager earnings and in many cases contribution of physical labor for construction. It would appear that some church leaders are now calling on a new generation of Catholics to sacrifice “selfish” ties to specific schools and parishes that need to die in order to strengthen a more cohesive and manageable core of institutions. Is it hopelessly nostalgic for individuals to expect to save a parish or school that is in the red? Or, are their efforts to mobilize around these issues a sacrifice in and of itself? For example, many of those who participated in the vigils lost friends who accepted the closure and moved to new church homes and some referred to them as VIGIL-antes.

Perhaps because it is something that is a major theme of the historical literature I have been reading of late, I was struck by the account of lingering ethnic tensions. Although I think it is widely acknowledged that there were historical tensions between a hierarchy that was overwhelmingly Irish and Irish-American, in the present era I think we assume that the newer and more relevant cultural cleavage in the US is between “Euro” origin Catholics and Hispanic origin Catholics. Certainly, it is no longer taboo for an Irish-American to marry an Italian Catholic. But, for the Italian Americans in Seitz’ study, there was a definite sense that they were being targeted by O’Reagan, Lennon, O’Malley, Boles, and Coyne and at risk of losing one of their few remaining historic national parishes. I would be curious to hear from readers about whether they see lingering ethnic tensions in their own parishes?

One thing is clear from Seitz’ account of those who maintained the vigil, they were not seeking “freedom” from the church. Rather, as Seitz writes, “they sought unity with the church alongside local control of their finances and their religious lives”.  One of the reasons for parishioner scrutiny over financial issues was the widespread perception that the Archdiocese would use funds generated from the closing and consolidating of parishes to fund settlements to the victims of sexual abuse. During the period that the churches in Seitz’ study were being occupied the Archdiocese was just coming out of one of its darkest periods in terms of the acknowledgement of abuse.  Although the Archdiocese insisted that no funds from closures would be used to settle claims, it was noted that the archdiocese borrowed significant sums from the Knights of Columbus to cover shortfalls that had resulted from decreased giving after the scandals. The concern was the shutdown funds in the central funds used to repay these loans would amount to an indirect subsidization. I don’t think there is a single Catholic that hasn’t been deeply disturbed by living through, witnessing, or hearing about sexual abuse and efforts to cover it up in the church.  However, for many faithful Catholics there is a tendency to try to move on and focus on the many other good priests and the good things about the church. I wonder if the result is that we are not talking enough about how these horrible events are shaping the future of every day ministry all over the country. Have I missed a scholarly account of how dioceses are handling the threat of bankruptcy? Have financial challenges linked to this crisis lead to parish or school closures in your home dioceses (either directly or indirectly?)

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