The Editor’s View: The Health of the Catholic Church in America

When CRISIS commissioned the study that makes up the bulk of this issue, we had two goals in mind. First, we wanted to find a way— if possible—to quantify diocesan health. This is a controversial aim, and for good reason. How, after all, do you measure the health of the local Church, and how do you express your findings numerically? We opted for three criteria. While they’re neither perfect nor all-encompassing, we do think they serve as a good first step. See if you agree.

Our second priority was to find a way to carry out this study apart from ideology. We’ve had our fill of opinion polls with comically biased questions and studies that avoided the kinds of conclusions that would make the researchers (or their sponsors) nervous. The fact is, it’s very easy to dismiss an ideological study. That’s why we settled on three criteria—ordinations, the overall change in active priests, and adult conversions—that everyone agrees are positive signs of health. Obviously, there are other indicators as well, but since we needed a manageable set of data, we settled on these.

Not surprisingly, there were surprises. A number of smaller dioceses long in the background moved to the fore, while several prominent archdioceses appear to be moving in the opposite direction. While we’ve known this in a general way, we can now anchor our impressions to the objective data.

But that’s just the beginning. The diocesan study raises a number of intriguing questions that we’ll be addressing in CRISIS this year. For example, one of the clear lessons from the data is the advantage the small diocese has over the large. So what can we do about it? In an upcoming issue, we’ll look more closely at the practical concerns involved in splitting up some of the major archdioceses, whose size has become pastorally unwieldy. There are proven advantages to be had, as the study confirms, but some dangers as well.

And what about the ecclesial col-lapse of the “Catholic” Northeast? There are plenty of demographic factors at work here, and many of them fall outside the reach of even the most gifted chancery. That does not mean, however, that the region is beyond help. In fact, the bishops of New England would do well to have a look at their upstart southern counterparts. The fact is, an enthusiastic prelate who makes it his mission to promote and defend faithful Catholicism will see great returns. It’s happening in the Bible Belt; it could happen in the Northeast as well.

All told, the study sets an interesting stage as we process through the early years of the 21st century. What effect will Hispanic immigration have on the Catholic Church in the United States? Will the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on the immigrant community affect what kinds of Catholics these new citizens become? And just as intriguing: Which of the up-and-coming young bishops of the higher-rated dioceses will become the next Chaput, George, or Bruskewitz? The next five years will give us a pretty good idea of the trajectory we can expect to see for the next generation.

A final point: Read through the study and the analysis and let me know what you think. Every good study needs a critique of its methodology and findings—that’s why it was important to include constructively critical appraisals as well, like those of David Carlin and Amy Welborn (pages 34 and 37). This project will continue in some form every year, and we want to make absolutely sure that it improves with each iteration. So do not hesitate to drop me a note or e-mail with your comments and suggestions.


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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