Another look at the “healthy dioceses” study

Another look at the “healthy dioceses” study

Other folks are starting to talk about the Crisis Magazine article on healthy dioceses, I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Among them are Amy Welborn, who along with some others, was asked to offer responses by the magazine.

I also agree with Russell Shaw’s response, in particular, on the weakness of the study.

Consider: Of the three criteria used in ranking sees, two (priestly morale and priestly vocations) concern clerics, while the third (“effective evangelization”) refers to newcomers to the Church. None reflects the situation of the great majority of Catholics—the longtime lay faithful. Casual readiness to disbelieve, as manifested by the moviegoer quoted above, is typical of an alienated, marginalized, and apparently large segment of this mass. But the laity doesn’t make it into the special report.

Shaw adds that perhaps the reason that so much data was left out of the study because so much of it isn’t available, by design or by accident. Some dioceses do a good job of transparency, some are moving in that direction, and others are as closed as always.

So what data sets would have given us a better picture of the health of dioceses. How about the rate of Mass attendance and sacramental participation? If it is low, what is the mindset of those who don’t go? If it is high, what do those who go know that those who don’t go don’t? Perhaps they should have also ranked dioceses based on the beliefs of Catholics, such as the percentage who know the doctrine of the Real Presence and transubstantiation, and other dogmatic beliefs. Where people have a high level of belief in line with the Church’s teachings, i.e. The Truth, what are those dioceses doing differently?

All about demographics?

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  • And the question no one wants to answer is once again not answered:  We know how many come into the Church, but how many leave?

    Also, how are they counting membership?

    And finally, how many priests leave the priesthood?  This is the big no-no topic.  It’s very hush-hush when one leaves.

  • I agree.  I didn’t find it particularly useful either. 

    If I were going to add a category, I’d like to know what percentage of practicing Catholics are cradle Catholics and what percent are converts.

    Regarding Mass attendance, I don’t think there is a way to get accurate information.  Merely asking people who know they should be at church every weekend isn’t guaranteed to elicit an admission that they are not there.

    Contributions probably speaks most accurately of the health of parishes.  At the Cleveland Diocesan website there is a link to some statistics that includes a comparison of economic factors from 2005 and 2006.  It seems that parishioner contributions are up slightly in 2006.  To me that says that the laity has largely cast the sexual abuse scandal into the history bin.  It makes me wonder if the bishop could do anything that would cause the laity to withhold contributions.

  • Ah yes, that’s correct, Domenico.  But does it itemize them?  New ones are ordained, but some leave the priesthood; existing priests enter the diocese, existing priests exit the diocese.

    Thanks for the correction—I do remember seeing the change column when I went through the report.  A little careful accounting could help if one wanted to figure it out for their own diocese because some other information is available sometimes if one searches a bit.

  • Carrie: In Boston they have an annual census. For each of the four weeks of October, each parish is supposed to count the number of people at every Mass on each Saturday-Sunday. That’s not a bad metric.

  • An annual census, such as you describe, only counts Catholics that are there—it doesn’t count the Catholics that are not there, nor why they are not there.  This is a metric that needs counting.

  • There is an annual census in Chicago and, I believe also on the weekends in October.  The ushers use a small hand counter and count the number of people attending each Saturday evening -Sunday mass. They can match that against parish registrations for a fairly accurate assessment.

  • An annual census, such as you describe, only counts Catholics that are there—it doesn’t count the Catholics that are not there, nor why they are not there.  This is a metric that needs counting.

    No, it’s not perfect, but it’s a start. More complete numbers involving the metrics you bring up would require quite a bit more work and resources.

  • They do that in two different dioceses in Michigan, also. At a few parishes in one diocese, church bulletin items practically cajoled people into making sure they attended at least those four Sundays in October.

    I think all dioceses do it. In Michigan, how much each parish is accessed for the annual diocesan appeal is partially dependent on the counts. Do they make them public? Well …

  • If the numbers show growth, I bet they’d appear on the diocesan websites.  If they show decline…?

    The Crisis study commentary indicates that small dioceses are healthier than large ones.  At the same time we are moving toward megachurches due to lack of priests.  If small is better, I wonder how this is going to shake out?

  • While the Crisis study was a very good effort, any such study is going to find a lot of critics who invariably point to the secrecy of the Church is the main obstacle to accurate evaluations. Too many bishops and dioceses have a lot to hide, which only hurts the Church.

    As it stands, it’s next to impossible to rate dioceses in any meaningful way, and one would need an army of people to do a thorough job.

    In the Crisis study, several dioceses in the South, where the percentage of Catholics is in single digits, came out way ahead. How can one compare a Kentucky diocese with, say Chicago, Boston, Detroit, or any large city?  There are way, way too many variables.

    In general, the ordinary sets the tone. Several bad bishops in a row can devastate a diocese. Sometimes one terrible ordinary can ruin a diocese.

    I have long thought that the most meaningful way to judge the competence of a bishop is to:
    1) See how he is spending the money of his diocese;
    2) See what kinds of people he hires in the chancery;
    3) See how he was treats faithful priests.

    Not much else really matters, particularly words.

    Some bishops are like their polital counterparts in the secular world, where image is everything: What they say and do are very different.

    Unfortunately, I think Boston is the only diocese that has a policy of making the books open, and that was made only recently.  It should not surprise anyone that Cardinal O’Malley has seen a huge upsurge in interest in the priesthood, as noted by Dom only a few days ago. Young men can trust a guy like that.

    There an old adage spoken in 12-step programs where addicts try to get straight: “You are as sick as your secrets.”  The Catholic Church has too many secrets.

  • I would hazard the the smaller diocese have larger churches, since they tend to be more rural.

    You will also find that in the rural areas of the country, Catholics tend to be less affluent, less prevalent as a % of the population, and rely upon their parish for much of their social life.

    When we lived in the the Reformed Western Michigan area (Dutch/Christian/Protestant,etc.. take your choice), we had one church for our town of 15,000.  It was packed, vibrant, and alive!  I remember coffee and donuts after every Mass on Sunday, with the priests circulating around the room. 

    As Archie and Edith sang:  “Those were the days!”

  • The “health” rating makes me nervous in that there ARE populous, POPULAR parishes that may be less healthy than we assume in terms of the faith they profess or the norms to which they conform. On the one hand, you can’t minister to people who are not present, but on the other hand, what does their presence MEAN to them?
    This distinction was brought home to me during my last catechism class. I was challenged to test the knowledge of my students. They are happy, willing, church-going children. They put what they learn into practice, clearly. BUT I found, to my dismay, that because I had failed to exercise their retention, they have remembered very little of what they were taught. (I had the same class last year, so when NO 4th Grader could give a reasonable response to the simple question of WHEN we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, I FLUNKED all over the place!)
    Remembering this, I can’t help but wonder if there are ADULTS in our parish (because all our kids have parents) who wouldn’t know the answers to similar basic questions! Maybe dioceses should send out questionnaires?

  • Joe, I’m in Michigan and I have never seen that situation here.  People run into Mass and run out as soon as Mass is over, not to return until the next Sunday.  Most nights, there are NO activities, so people do other things. 

    Western and northern Michigan, particularly, are places where the Church isn’t really all that strong socially.  We don’t tend to have all the opportunities for fellowship (or whatever you want to call it) that the Churches out east have.