The Problem of Powerless Parishes

The typical Catholic parish does little to lead souls to heaven. It is powerless to protect against the temptations of this world. Putting your trust in it risks your children's salvation.

I know a Catholic family who, by any historical standard, has done everything right. They are devoted parents, take their faith seriously, and regularly receive the Sacraments. They catechize their kids, are very involved at their parish, and help the needy in their community. Yet all of their children, upon reaching adulthood, stopped practicing the faith. 

Why is this? I would argue it’s because the typical Catholic parish is losing its power to save. 

Before I explain, let me be clear about something. As all parents know, raising children isn’t a science. There’s no sure-fire way to ensure that your kids will remain practicing Catholics after they leave the nest. The best parents can have children who fall away, and even the worst families can produce saints. Free will and our fallen natures and all that. 

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At the same time, in general, practicing parents will normally produce practicing children. This has been a truism historically. Yet too often today that isn’t the case. Catholic parents who do everything the way it was done 100 years ago—attend Mass, teach their kids the faith, get involved in the local parish—have far less likelihood of success than their grandparents did.

The tragic reality is that the typical Catholic parish—the pillar of Catholic life—does little to lead souls to heaven. It is powerless to protect against the temptations of this world. If you put your trust in it, as Catholic parents have for generations, you risk your child’s salvation.

To understand this, one must recognize the relationship between the objective and the subjective aspects of salvation. First there are the objective means: the Sacraments, hearing God’s Word in the Scriptures, and learning the Catechism are examples of means which are always available to the souls that desire them. No one is denying that Catholic parishes make these objective means available to its members (assuming it has valid Sacraments, of course). 

But salvation is an interplay between God’s grace and our response to it, between objective means and subjective means. In order to receive these graces, we must be open to them; we must want to receive them. God does not force Himself on anyone.

This means, in general, that a person must be interested in receiving these objective means; he must desire to live the life God calls him to. Without this interest and desire, no amount of objective means will benefit the soul. They are seeds planted in rocky soil.

And this is where the typical Catholic parish falls far short. Catholic life today is so insipid, so divorced from supernatural realities, that most young people find it wholly uninteresting. Although faithful Catholics know there is supernatural power behind even the most bland sacramental celebrations, those who are not fully formed in the faith don’t usually recognize this. They see the blandness with their own eyes, and their eyes of faith are not developed enough to see the supernatural power underneath.

Thus the young man who sees parish life as an exercise in effeminacy and counts the days until he is on his own and can stop attending. Or the young woman who wants more than just platitudes and feel-good religion—who wants to give up her life for a cause—and so she leaves Catholicism for a robust evangelical Protestant church or for political activism. 

Bluntly put, Catholic parishes too often today not only don’t support, but actively undermine, the actual practice of full-throated Catholicism. While offering the Sacraments in one hand, they give reasons not to accept them in the other. While Catholics might complain that people should understand the objective reality better, this is essentially blaming the victims. Someone who has only experienced typical Catholic parish life sees little to inspire them and few reasons to embrace the Faith. It is a wholly unattractive religion.

In my mind, the biggest scandal in the Church today isn’t Fr. James Martin or the latest thing Pope Francis said; it’s the weak state of our parishes. These institutions are the touchpoints of Catholic life for most Catholics, and so they are what will draw Catholics closer to Christ, or, more commonly today, turn them away from the Lord. In my mind, the biggest scandal in the Church today isn’t Fr. James Martin or the latest thing Pope Francis said; it’s the weak state of our parishes. Tweet This

What’s particularly tragic about this situation is that strong Catholic parishes are more needed today than ever before. A century ago, when most of the culture pointed people toward a moral life and perhaps even Christ, a weaker parish wasn’t necessarily a soul-killer. Today, however, when the entire culture pushes souls away from Christ, a weak parish is like a Little Leaguer facing a Major League pitcher. It’s hopelessly overmatched.

There’s no easy solution to this problem, either. A heretical priest like Fr. James Martin can be silenced (please God!), but a parish with systemic weaknesses will take at least a generation to reform. Fortunately many of the young men being ordained in recent years seem to be serious about making this happen, but a parent with young children now might not be able to wait. This is why so many Catholic parents are driving long distances—even moving—to attend parishes that are truly robust, with reverent liturgies, bold preaching, and strong catechesis. It’s also why TLM parishes have grown so dramatically in recent years. 

Many Catholics lament “parish shopping,” but when souls are at stake, bureaucratic niceties like parish boundaries take a back seat to higher priorities. A parent’s primary goal is the salvation of his children, and no Church leader can force parents to attend parishes that they know could be harmful to their children’s salvation. Parish shopping might be less than ideal, but it’s far better than risking your child’s eternal destiny. 

Long term, it will take bishops, priests, and the laity working together to make all Catholic parishes such that they lead people to, rather than away from, Christ and His Church. Until then, parents must prioritize finding a parish that does the former rather than the latter.


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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