The State of the Catholic Church in America, Diocese by Diocese

This analysis began with the question, “Does the bishop matter?” It arrives at an interesting pair of conclusions. The first is that there is no problem ailing the Catholic Church in America that is not being ad-dressed successfully in some place, and typically in multiple places. Second, there is a cadre of bishops, invisible to the national media, largely unknown outside their dioceses, absent from Washington political circles, who are truly unsung heroes of the Church, presiding over vibrant com-munities, building the Church, and effectively proclaiming the Faith men such as Bishop Joseph Kurtz of Knoxville, Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, and Bishop Daniel Conlon of Steubenville, to name just a few.

So to the original question: Does the bishop matter? To be sure, among the local Catholic laity, the bishop has a certain celebrity; his visits to our parishes are occasions. Faithful Catholics monitor the comings and goings of the episcopate with more than passing interest. But does a particular bishop really affect, for better or ill, the health of the Church in his see?

The first consideration in answering this question is whether variations in the vitality of the American dioceses can be detected, such that some dioceses can be said to be unusually robust and others unusually anemic. Absent such variations, there is nothing to attribute to the bishop. After all, the Church in America as a whole is beset by macro trends, such as the emergence of a now-dominant (and hos-tile) secular culture. All dioceses swim, as it were, in the same sea. Our question is whether some are better swimmers than others.

But if, on the other hand, differentiations among dioceses are observable, then a judgment can be rendered as to the extent to which those differentiations are attributable to the bishop. How we judge the health of the dioceses depends in part on available data, and in part on how we view the role of the bishop, the successor to the apostles. In keeping with the thoughts of the third chapter of Lumen Gentium, we expect the bishop first of all to tend to the well-being of his priests. He must also guard the stability of the Church by taking personal responsibility for providing a growing population of priests through vocations. We expect the bishop to evangelize the area encompassed by his see, to be a steadfast teacher of the Faith and a holy shepherd to his flock, after the image and example of the Good Shepherd.

This characterization suggests three criteria of evaluation: the morale of the presbyterate, the number of vocations, and effective evangelization. As for data, each Latin rite diocese in the United States (of which there are 176, excluding Puerto Rico and territories) annually submits a wealth of information to the Official Catholic Directory, published by P. J. Kenedy and Sons. Not only are these data considerably more extensive than those reported by the Vatican via the Annuario Pontificio, it is voluntary (that is, not ordained by Church authority), and so it is quite remark-able that every diocese in the country participates.

The Official Catholic Directory reports, for example, that the total number of persons claimed as adherents by the dioceses was 65,996,019 at the end of 2005, a 19 percent increase from ten years earlier’. During this same ten-year period, the American population grew by 13 percent (and the Hispanic population by 57 percent); i.e., the population of U.S. Catholics is growing at a higher rate than the U.S. population as a whole. American dioceses collectively claimed as adherents 22 percent of the population of the United States, consistent with the results of national surveys of public opinion, which generally peg self-identified Catholics in a range of 22 percent to 24 percent of the general public. It is interesting that our dioceses claim as Catholics persons who have not recently (if ever) set foot in church. In surveys, inactive Catholics—unlike most denominations—continue to self-identify as Catholics long after they have stopped attending Mass. We would not expect these inactive Catholics to be on the radar screens of the dioceses, yet apparently they are.

The dioceses collectively reported 911,935 infant baptisms for 2005, representing 22 percent of persons born in the past year. This figure belies the belief that the Catholic Church is expanding through a higher rate of birth. The American dioceses received 149,306 adults into the Church, up 6 percent from ten years earlier—which was just one-fifth of 1 percent of the total number of adherents, not a dramatic source of growth.

As the body of the faithful was growing over the past decade, the national presbyterate was declining. At the end of 1995, there were 22,070 active diocesan priests in service of the Church; by the end of 2005, this number was 18,102, an 18 percent decrease. Of course, one cause of the decline was the retirement of the presbyterate and a low rate of ordination. Ten years ago, the vocations crisis had already struck so that in 1995, 398 diocesan ordinations occurred, versus 335 in 2005. While that represents a 15 percent de-cline in the number of ordinations overall, ordinations as a percentage of the active presbyterate—in other words, the replacement rate—actually rose slightly from 1995 to 2005. Still, at a 2 percent rate of ordination (the 2005 figure), diocesan priests would have to serve an average of 50 years to maintain our current population of priests. In 1995, 45 dioceses reported no ordinations, and four reported ten or more. In 2005, 48 dioceses had no ordinations, and three had ten or more.

In the face of declining ordinations, some dioceses are resorting to the importation of extern priests, resulting in 29 dioceses that experienced an increase in the number of active priests from 1995 to 2005, either because of the success of their extern strategy or because of unusual success in attracting vocations, or both. And the phrase “attracting vocations” is today particularly apt. Whereas once it would have been exceedingly rare for a young man to enter the priesthood outside of the diocese in which he grew up, today diocese-shopping is more common. We have reports of seminarians selecting their diocese based on a scan of Web sites. The persona of the bishop is therefore all the more important in attracting vocations, both from without and from within.

Criteria of Diocesan Health

The change in the total number of adherents in a diocese was not taken as a measure of the health of a diocese, as this dynamic has more to do with the population migrations of our increasingly mobile society and is therefore well beyond the competence of a bishop to affect. Sixty-eight dioceses (39 percent) lost adherents between 1995 and 2005, while 59 dioceses (34 percent) experienced moderate growth and 49 dioceses (28 percent) saw dramatic growth. Predictably, half of the dioceses reporting a declining number of adherents are in the states of the Industrial Midwest (from Pennsylvania to Minnesota), but population erosion is also prevalent in the Northeast. On the other hand, half of the dioceses in Pacific Coast states and nearly half in the South are growing dramatically (20 percent—plus in the ten-year period). There is significant correlation between a diocese’s growth rate and other indicators of vitality, but we suspect this correlation has more to do with the regional effect, on which more will be said later. Within each of these categories of growth (negative, moderate, and dramatic), there are both very vibrant and anemic dioceses—indicating that, while growing dioceses tend to be vibrant, a growing population of adherents does not in and of itself ensure a vibrant diocese.

Returning to those functions proper to a bishop, priestly morale is not available to us directly as quantitative data. But as a surrogate datum, we know whether the number of active priests in a diocese is increasing or decreasing. To be sure, priestly retirements are mostly—but not totally—be-yond the influence of the bishop. But in addition to attracting extern priests to the diocese, the bishop can contribute to a climate in which priests remain eager to serve beyond the earliest opportunity for retirement. In the words of a longtime observer, “The experience of the Church is that the influence of the bishop over his priests is very real.”

Then, of course, the number of ordinations in each diocese can be examined, and for reasons discussed above, bishops are ever more influential over vocations; as one put it, “Increasingly men are seeking out congenial bishops and seminaries.” Finally, the number of adult receptions into the Church is an excellent measure of the local church’s investment in and success at evangelization activities.

Take a look at these three measures in turn.

Changes in Active Presbyterate, 1995-2005 Twenty-nine dioceses (16 percent) experienced an increase in the number of active priests between 1995 and 20052 (see table on page 15). The most outstanding diocese by this measure is Tyler, Texas (see sidebar on page 14), which experienced a 128 percent increase in active priests (from 25 to 57). Brownsville, Texas, was second with a 64 percent increase.

Five dioceses saw no change in the number of active priests between 1995 and 2005, leaving 141 dioceses with a declining number of active priests. The decline was most pronounced in Camden, New Jersey (down 43 percent); Amarillo, Texas (down 42 percent); Albany, New York (down 41 percent); and Rochester, New York (down 40 percent). We rank by the percentage change in the presbyter- ate so as not to discriminate against larger dioceses.

Ordinations, 2005

Rather than looking at the total number of priests ordained in 2005, we rank dioceses by the number of ordained priests as a percentage of the total active presbyterate (see table on page 15). This eliminates discrimination against smaller dioceses. The leading diocese by this measure is Las Cruces, New Mexico, which in 2005 ordained 14 percent of its presbyterate (three new priests out of 21 total). At the other end of the spectrum, 48 dioceses saw no ordinations, the largest of which is Galveston—Houston, Texas, with 1.5 million adherents. The top-ranked dioceses by the actual number of ordinations are Chicago (17); St. Paul—Minneapolis (15); and Newark, New Jersey (12).

Adults Received into the Church

Of course the baptism of infants is an important measure of the Church’s evangelical activities, but a better measure, more reflective of the efforts of the local church to engage the community, is the number of adults received by the Church into full communion (see table on page 16). Again, to prevent putting smaller dioceses at a disadvantage, we examined receptions as a percentage of adherents. The most successful diocese—Kansas City—St. Joseph in Missouri—reportedly experienced a 3.2 percent reception rate, followed by neighboring Springfield—Cape Girardeau (1.3 percent) and Helena, Montana (1.1 percent). The lowest reception rate was 0.05 percent, experienced by the dioceses of Fall River, Massachusetts, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Leaders in terms of aggregate number of adult receptions were Phoenix (5,644); Brownsville, Texas (5,015); and Los Angeles (4,375).

Summary Rating of Dioceses

If these three measures imperfectly reflect the vitality of the dioceses, they are a pretty good start. The change in the size of the priesthood and the effort invested in increasing vocations and adult receptions do say something fundamental about the state of the dioceses. Some dioceses excel in one area and not others; the most healthy dioceses excel in all three.

In order to arrive at a composite rating, each diocese was ordered by each of these three measures, and the ranks were added together. The lower the score, the better the rank; the best possible score, therefore, is a three, meaning the diocese ranked first in the nation on all three measures. The higher the score, the worse the relative condition of the diocese (see tables on pages 17 and 23-26).

Like most products of statistical analysis, this rating scheme has its defects. It is, at best, an approximation of the reality we seek to represent. We are constrained by available data. By using an ordinal ranking, we lose potentially important differences in the arithmetic distance between dioceses. The difference between the number one—rated diocese and the tenth or 20th is probably not too material. But perhaps the biggest defect is that each of these measures is relative. We can say which diocese had the greatest success at, say, converting vocations into ordinations, but we cannot say whether that result is, objectively, an excellent outcome. “Best” gets defined here by what was accomplished, not by what might have been accomplished.

That is the main defect; the main controversy inherent in a ranking scheme such as this is that it is based on qualitative data. The criticisms are that these statistics do not capture the health of a diocese, that there are qualitative considerations invisible to statistical analysis, and—most disturbing of all—that growth (more priests, more conversions, more parishes) should not be used to gauge diocesan health. There are those who think the Catholic laity needs to become acclimated to the new realities affecting the Church (acclimated, for example, to the supposed inevitability of not seeing a priest every Sunday). For someone of such an accommodationist inclination, this analysis will be deemed anachronistic.

Change in Diocesan Rankings

Even more interesting than the overall ranking of dioceses for 2005 is the change in ranking experienced between 1995 and 2005. Large shifts, either up or down, over that ten-year period say something profound about the condition of the diocese. In order to detect such change, we ranked each diocese for 1995, using the same data, but for the 1985-1995 period. The dioceses with the most dramatic improvements and deteriorations can be seen on the table on page 18.

What’s Wrong with New England?

Several characteristics of the dioceses strongly correlate with their ranking. One is the size of the diocese in terms of the number of adherents. Another is the region in which the diocese is located.

Among the 27 dioceses in the Northeast—stretching from Maryland, the cradle of American Catholicism, into New England—the average rating is 136, three times higher than the region with the best average rating, the South (where there are 30 dioceses with an average rating of 49). The other regions, the Rocky Mountain West/Agricultural Midwest (43 dioceses, average ranking of 67), the Pacific Coast (21 dioceses, average ranking of 86), and the Indus-trial Midwest (55 dioceses, average ranking of 104) span the middle.

So the Church is, by this measure, most healthy in that region that is traditionally the least hospitable to it, and is least healthy in that region where it has the longest history, and in which are found both the greatest concentration of Catholics (as a percent of the population) and the largest number of Catholics (19,851,345, according to diocesan reports, versus 16,857,896 in the Industrial Midwest, where other surveys suggest a plurality of Catholics live).

Perhaps contrary to the expectation of some, the Northeast is not experiencing a declining Catholic population—no region is (although in the Industrial Midwest, the Catholic population is static, with a 1995-2005 aggregate growth rate of 0.2 percent). Yet New England has the greatest decline in the number of priests over the recent ten-year period, the lowest rate of ordination (as a percentage of the number of priests in the region), and the lowest rate of adult reception (as a percentage of adherents).

Is there a cultural explanation for this malaise? One astute observer of Catholic affairs attributes it to a multi- generational pursuit of social legitimacy by the Church hierarchy. Seeking admission to the Brahmin clubhouse has led, in part, to a muting of the Catholic identity, ac-cording to this view—It’s the Kennedy family phenomenon writ large.”

This may indeed be a factor, but the Church in New England may also be a victim of its historical success, measured by the penetration of the population of that region. The Church in New England has not had the same impetus to evangelization, since as it looks around, more or less everyone it sees is already Catholic. Of course, today every

Church operates in a predominately secular environment, so that evangelization ought everywhere to be an urgent priority, but some churches are slower than others to recognize this development. Globally, Pope John Paul II was really the first pope to understand his role in evangelizing a secular world.

It is unmistakable that many of the most vibrant dioceses in the country are confronting adversity. This fact has emerged from conversations with dioceses in the South, the Southwest, and the Pacific Coast. This is most especially true in the South, where the Catholic Church has never been the largest denomination. “We are outnumbered, we are young, we are building churches, we are growing, there is an enthusiasm for evangelization among the laity,” reported a priest in the number one—ranked Diocese of Knoxville. Catholic dioceses seem to be most successful when they are self-consciously the pilgrim Church on earth.

Of course, it matters how one responds to adversity. There are less-than-healthy dioceses in the South. There is nothing automatic about the success of dioceses there. And it is not merely the fact of growth that creates vitality; the fastest-growing diocese in the country over the past ten- year period, Dallas, also fell 111 places during the same ten- year period, and is now ranked 131 out of 176. In order to be successful in a situation of adversity, the bishop and the diocese have to be willing to wrestle with that adversity.

Size Impedes Success

The size of the diocese, measured by the number of adherents in 2006, is also significantly—and negatively—related to vibrancy. Fifty-one of the dioceses (29 percent) have 100,000 adherents or fewer. These dioceses have an average ranking of 62 (again, on a scale of 1 to 176). Thirty-seven dioceses have more than 500,000 adherents; the average ranking of these dioceses is 115—a ranking twice as high as the average of the smallest dioceses. In other words, there is a clear inverse linear relationship between the size of the diocese and the health of the diocese: As size increases, vitality deteriorates.

This is an old story. Among institutions, bigger is generally not better. The larger the student body in a high school, to take one example, the greater the extent of problems such as drug use, student-on-student violence, and poor academic performance. The quality of institutional performance is of-ten a function of the will of the top administrator to achieve success, and the assertion of that will becomes ever more difficult as the institution expands. In general, the division of large dioceses into smaller ones is beneficial.

But Does the Bishop Matter?

The final question, however, is how much influence a bishop has on diocesan ranking. The clear answer: a great deal. After having systematically examined a number of external factors that might account for the vitality of a diocese, the bottom line remains that variations in the ranking of the dioceses cannot be definitively accounted for by region, size, or population change. Neighboring dioceses can and do have substantially different ratings. And most compelling, the ranking of the dioceses do change—sometimes dramatically—from one decade to the next. Absent other explanations, the number-one factor that accounts for this variation is the quality of the diocesan leadership.

Michael Kelly, a quintessentially Catholic journalistic voice silenced in Iraq, once argued, “Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina one of the great founding untruths of the intellectual age: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ This is exactly, entirely wrong.” We could have the same debate about dioceses. In terms of how successful bishops go about the tasks of nurturing priestly morale and spirituality, of attracting vocations, and of evangelizing the community, each successful diocese is different, responding to the particularities of its environment aggressively and confidently. The bishops’ conference could serve a very useful role by chronicling and promulgating the best practices devised by the dioceses to meet these and other challenges faced by the Church in America—for truly there is no challenge that is not being met somewhere.

On the other hand, perhaps Tolstoy was correct: There are striking commonalities among the most successful stewards of the American dioceses. In seeking to understand why successful dioceses succeed, we spoke with diocesan officials in a sample of top-rated dioceses. This is the picture that emerges from those conversations.

The most striking similarity is that successful bishops attribute their success to the Holy Spirit. The motto of the number one—ranked diocese in the country—Knoxville, Tennessee—is “Hope in the Lord.” This motto captures the prevailing attitude among bishops of the most vibrant dioceses.

Successful bishops are joyful. They evince an enthusiasm for the Faith and for the Church. They are unabashedly confident in what the Faith offers and teaches, they are not apologetic for being Catholic.

Successful bishops assume personal responsibility for the outcomes that are their priorities. They are personally involved in leading men to discern a vocation. (Significant for the future of women religious, the bishop is not institutionally responsible for promoting female vocations.) They are personally involved in promoting the morale of their priests. And they are investing themselves in programs of evangelization.

In critiquing a diocese, priests often cited the willing-ness (or unwillingness) of the bishop and his curia to be open to reassessing the success or failure of pastoral initiatives. This is especially true of vocations. Most priests can cite the influence of one or several priests who initiated a process within them to begin considering a call to the priesthood. In contrast, there are men who declare that they never considered the priesthood because they were never invited to consider it.

Finally, successful bishops are unwilling to acquiesce to decline. They are intent on doing their part to help the Church flourish.

This is not to say that bishops in non-vibrant dioceses do not have these qualities. We certainly do not suggest that any bishop lacks confidence in the Holy Spirit. And there are dioceses of which lay observers say the bishop is doing all the right things, but in which the results are nonetheless disappointing. There are poorly rated dioceses in which lay members contend that the faith community is doing quite well, while the data tell another story.

It may strike one as superficial, but diocesan-sponsored Web sites provide significant insight into the personality of the dioceses. Good signs: easy access to substantive information for persons considering becoming Catholic, returning to the Faith, or considering a vocation. Bad signs: prominently featuring on the home page references to clergy abuse or helpful guides to making an on-line donation.

Dioceses at the top of the ranking consistently make use of their diocesan Web sites to focus on vocations. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, for example, features letters from the archbishop and the vocations director to those who are interested in the priesthood, materials to answer initial questions, an in-depth introduction to the archdiocese and its history, and profiles of seminarians in the archdiocese that introduce the range of young men who studied for Santa Fe. The archdiocese provides detailed information about how to pursue one’s interest in studying for the priesthood and introduces the seminaries to where its priests are trained—and even provides a selection of prayers for those making an initial discernment.

Conversely, dioceses that ranked at the bottom are making less use of this particular means of outreach. The Diocese of Honolulu, for example, does not make vocation information on the Web site available to the unregistered public, and the Diocese of Houma—Thibodaux has no vocation site at all.

The Diocese of San Jose, California, and others in the top ranking give particular prominence to the sanctity of marriage and family-life issues, among many other topics related to the Church’s teachings on doctrinal matters. The Internet is one of the means at the disposal of a diocese to communicate to the faithful. If St. Paul had had access to 21st-century technology, one can only imagine how it would have spurred his evangelization.

At times, however, the message conveyed on diocesan Web sites can be less positive. The words that are framed and centered on the home page of the Diocese of Pittsburgh read, To renew what is broken,” followed by a toll-free number to report sexual abuse; while the words across the top of the Web site of the Diocese of Dallas are invitations to report sexual abuse, to contribute online to the Catholic Community Appeal, or to make a donation of $50 to the cathedral renovation fund. Perhaps the issue is whether a diocese thinks of the Internet as an intranet for the faithful or a window on the Faith for a vast secular audience.

Moving Forward

That there should be such significant variation in the vitality of the American Church from diocese to diocese sends us, the Church—leaders and laity alike—several rather pro-found messages. The first is that the health of the Church in America is ours to affect. While a thorough confidence in the Holy Spirit is a sine qua non, as unusually successful bishops so evidently recognize, there is also a role for human will in achieving God’s plan for the Church. The Church has been slow to come to terms with changes in the societal environment of the United States in which it functions, most especially the emergence of a dominant culture that is thoroughly secular. Many—too many—in positions of authority have perceived their jobs as simply to manage the decline, having become dispirited over the adversity that this new cultural environment poses. But the Church is slowly, incrementally, coming to perceive the current reality with greater clarity. And the Church is decidedly, as one bishop put it, “moving beyond the post-conciliar silliness,” that dreadful period of confusion following Vatican II when all manner of “innovation” was attempted to make the Church “relevant.”

The best evidence for this optimistic appraisal is the existence of flourishing dioceses led by energetic, enthusiastic, and holy shepherds. The tough question now con-fronting the American episcopate and the Vatican curia is whether the Church is willing to recognize the characteristics common to successful bishops of the United States, and to systematically elevate priests with an appropriate profile. The history has been uneven: The fact that some dioceses are robust reveals, by comparison, that many are not. But all persons who wish the Church in America well can rejoice in the fact that we are blessed to have extraordinary and effective (if unsung) leaders in numerous places across the country. Truly, there is no challenge the Church faces that cannot be confronted.


  • Rev. Rodger Hunter Hall and Steve Wagner

    Rev. Rodger Hunter Hall, Assistant Professor of Theology at Christendom College's graduate school, is a priest of the Archdiocese of LAquila in the Abruzzi region of Italy, and a librarian specializing in religion and philosophy at the Library of Congress. He is a former editor of Crisis Magazine and a contributor to its online successor, Inside Catholic. At the time this article was published, Steve Wagner was president of QEV Analytics, a public opinion research firm in Washington, D.C.

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