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Church Collapse In Cincinnati

Archdiocese plans to close 70 percent of parishes as de-Christianization hits hard. Time for finder-friendly churches, and the Benedict Option
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The “New Evangelization” is a Vatican call from some years back to Catholics to re-dedicate themselves to evangelizing. From the Cincinnati newspaper’s report:

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati on Friday launched one of the most ambitious reorganizations in its 200-year history, potentially changing when and where almost a half-million Catholics attend Mass, school and other activities connected to their faith.

Known as Beacons of Light, the restructuring process will combine the archdiocese’s 208 parishes into 60 “families of parishes,” which will begin sharing priests and resources as early as next year.

“Beacons of Light” — gotta love the way the Archdiocese is trying to brand failure as hope. More from the story:

Nowhere has that point been made more clearly than in a 177-page report prepared earlier this year on the archdiocese’s population, finances and schools.

According to the report, Mass attendance in the archdiocese declined 22.5% between 2010 and 2019, Catholic school enrollment fell 14% over the same period, and the number of priests, which has been declining for decades, was projected to drop another 18% by 2031.

The report also found the archdiocese’s demographics continued to shift unfavorably. The Catholic population here is getting older – baptisms declined 19% in the past decade – and the Catholic share of the population fell from 14.2% to 11.9%.

Schnurr said he’s optimistic the archdiocese is turning things around. He said the seminary’s enrollment has doubled from 30 to 60 in the past decade and most parishes are on solid financial footing.

But the report concluded that much of the archdiocese today is built for a world that existed a century ago. To prepare for the next century, [Archbishop] Schnurr said, big changes are needed, even if they’re difficult.

“If we just want to stay in one place,” he said, “time will pass us.”

Read it all. I may be poking fun at the Archbishop for the branding, but I don’t doubt that he and other local church officials are dealing with a real crisis — the gravity of which ordinary Catholics don’t often appreciate. Twenty years ago, when I lived in New York City, I was talking with a local priest who told me that most of the city’s Catholics have no idea how radically things were going to change for them over the next thirty to forty years. He said that the shrinking numbers of priests and of practicing Catholics was going to compel the closure of many parishes. It’s not that the archdiocese wants to do this, but that there is not a pot of leprechaun gold under the main altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, so what choice do they have?

The disaffected Catholic traditionalist Steve Skojec commented on the Sammons tweet:

He’s right about that — and I say that as someone who broadly backs returning to tradition. Though not a Catholic, I strongly support the existence of Latin mass communities, but they are not the entire answer for the Church’s decline. The fact is, we live within a de-Christianizing culture, and it is not at all clear to me that there is a “killer app” that will turn this around for the Catholics or any other church. If people don’t want what you are selling, repackaging and rebranding it is not going to move the merchandise.

Why don’t people want what the Church offers? (And by “the Church,” I don’t mean the Catholic Church exclusively.) I don’t think it’s because people no longer need a sense of meaning, purpose, and community in their lives. My guess is that they don’t think they can get that at church. To be fair to us church folks: if people come to church thinking that it’s going to provide them with some kind of magic course of instruction that improves their lives without them having to do anything, they’re not going to find it. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. The sacristan in the opening scene of Tarkovsky’s great 1983 movie Nostalghia is right to tell the sophisticated Roman woman that if she wants something from God, she has to first kneel. “Casual onlookers” cannot hope to experience God.

There is great wisdom in that. In my college years and immediately after, I wanted all the blessings of religious faith, but was unwilling to make any sacrifices. It was only when I had my back to the wall, and surrendered my liberty to God, that my relationship with Him became real. Latin mass, guitar mass, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, or any one of the forms of Protestant worship — none of it will make a difference in your life unless you are offering yourself sacrificially to God. Take a look at this horrible op-ed from The New York Times, by a law professor who describes her divorce as an act of “radical self-love”. She writes:

There was no emotional or physical abuse in our home. There was no absence of love. I was in love with my husband when we got divorced. Part of me is in love with him still. I suspect that will always be the case. Even now, after everything, when he walks into the room my stomach drops the same way it does before the roller coaster comes down. I divorced my husband not because I didn’t love him. I divorced him because I loved myself more.

… But deep inside, I knew that trying to force myself to subordinate my ambitions and always put our children first would have been impossible without lopping off a vital part of myself.

If you show up at church with that attitude, you will be immune to grace. Trust me on this — I have been that person! Even today, I am more of that person than I should be, and I struggle to surrender. This is what it means to be a Christian. The author of that piece, Lara Bazelon, wants control. She is an epitome of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) culture. WEIRD culture has evolved to the point where it is incompatible with authentic Christianity — so naturally the faith is in demise. Christianity tells you that your life is not your own. That there is a sacred order undergirding the cosmos — and you are not at the center of it. That you have free will, but that there is a right way to live and a wrong way to live, and that you will be held responsible for your choices. That the greatest good is to lay down your life for others. That worldly achievement is all empty vanity if you lose your soul.

On my Substack newsletter this week, I wrote about Harvard anthropologist Joe Henrich and his book about WEIRD psychology. I said:

Henrich writes that what sets WEIRD people (like us) apart from others around the world is that we are highly individualistic. We are not as willing to conform with authority figures when it conflicts with our own beliefs and preferences. “We see ourselves as unique beings, not as nodes in a social network that stretches out through space and back in time,” he writes. “When acting, we prefer a sense of control and the feeling of making our own choices.”

Now, think about how that affects our spirituality. What does “the communion of the saints” mean to people who are culturally and even neurologically primed to diminish the meaning of community? You can see why the idea of authoritative tradition is a dog that increasingly won’t hunt in the West. You can also see why surrendering to something greater than ourselves goes very much against the grain of our psychology.

Lara Bazelon’s way of thinking makes sense in a totally WEIRD world. The way of thinking of a faithful Catholic woman like Federica Sermarini, who died this week of cancer (read her husband Marco’s amazing eulogy), is totally foreign to WEIRDness. Federica and her family, and her Catholic community, were and are blazing with joy and happiness. It’s because they don’t put their personal happiness first. This is the paradox of Christian living: those who wish to save their own lives will lose them, and those who surrender their own lives will find them.

What does this have to do with the decline of American churches today? For one, it means that the cultural psychology of Americans has changed so that a church that wants to appeal to the average American is going to have to water down the faith to an unrecognizable form. In fact, this has already happened; this is what the whole Moralistic Therapeutic Deism phenomenon is about. Therefore, churches that offer a thicker, more robust account of Christianity can expect to struggle to attract the faithful, at least in the short run. People want a quick fix. People want to be told that they can have whatever they want without having to surrender a thing. This is a lie.

Churches that are more faithful to the Gospel, though, and to traditional disciplines, will be more resilient over time, I believe. First, it’s because they are living in truth. Second, it’s because the kind of disciples these congregations produce will have what the fallen-away world realizes it actually wants. Once again, I offer to you what Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, predicted in 1969:

The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves. To put this more positively: The future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality. Unselfishness, which makes men free, is attained only through the patience of small daily acts of self-denial. By this daily passion, which alone reveals to a man in how many ways he is enslaved by his own ego, by this daily passion and by it alone, a man’s eyes are slowly opened. He sees only to the extent that he has lived and suffered. If today we are scarcely able any longer to become aware of God, that is because we find it so easy to evade ourselves, to flee from the depths of our being by means of the narcotic of some pleasure or other. Thus our own interior depths remain closed to us. If it is true that a man can see only with his heart, then how blind we are!

How does all this affect the problem we are examining? It means that the big talk of those who prophesy a Church without God and without faith is all empty chatter. We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers. It is utterly superfluous. Therefore, it will destroy itself. What will remain is the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church that believes in the God who has become man and promises us life beyond death. The kind of priest who is no more than a social worker can be replaced by the psychotherapist and other specialists; but the priest who is no specialist, who does not stand on the [sidelines], watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal of man, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear, such a priest will certainly be needed in the future.

Let us go a step farther. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly it will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Along-side this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize the sacraments as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain — to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

There you have it. This is why I believe that Benedict Option communities will be the most important ones for carrying the faith forward through this dark night of apostasy and persecution now upon us. They are purpose-driven, sacrificial communities dedicated to living counterculturally, preferring nothing to the search for God. These communities won’t all look alike, but they will share the understanding that to live as a follower of Jesus Christ in this Babylonian exile makes extraordinary demands — and they will be willing to live by those demands.

It is the only way. Father Cassian Folsom, the founding prior of the Norcia monastery, told me that only Christian families and communities who live like this — he brought up the Tipi Loschi, Federica Sermarini’s community — will make it through the trials to come.

To go back to Steve Skojec’s question: “What would work?” I don’t think anybody has a clear, detailed answer. We are going to have to experiment. Benedict XVI called on Christians in the post-Christian parts of our world to be “creative minorities.” The people of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati have been living off the fruits of the last era of Christendom. Now times have changed. The future Benedict XVI saw it all coming, and illuminated the hopeful path forward. One of the most important truths about this new era is that the church, according to Ratzinger, “will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.” This is true, and not just in the sense of we are all going to have to show up more often to church functions. What he’s saying is that we cannot count on Christian culture to support our way of life. We are going to have to be active, not passive, just along for the ride.

You can do this in a Latin mass community. You can do this in a Novus Ordo community. You can do this in a variety of church communities. But what you can’t do is expect it all to be handed to you.

What’s happening to the Catholics of the Cincinnati archdiocese is going to happen to Christians everywhere in America, sooner or later. We had better be ready. I think once again of the German Catholic man who came up to me after a Benedict Option event in Rome three years ago. He told me that he and his Catholic friends believe that the institutional Catholic Church in Germany is going to collapse at some point soon, because of a lack of faith among the people. He told me that he and his friends — all of them married with big families — have been planning for how to keep the life of the Church going under these circumstances. That man has hope, but his hope is not that somehow, a miracle will happen, and everything will be restored. Rather, his is the kind of hope that teaches him to live sacrificially now, so that his children and grandchildren will have a Christian future. And that is why they are doing a version of the Benedict Option.

What the Catholics of the Cincinnati archdiocese have been doing doesn’t work anymore. That is obvious. They are going to have to do something different. And again, what’s true for them is true for all of us. But what?

One more thing. Father Andrew Stephen Damick, an Orthodox priest, posted this to his Facebook page (I don’t have Facebook; an Orthodox catechumen friend sent it to me):

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick 
September 29 at 1:50 PM  ·


I recently asked in a couple of Orthodox clergy groups on Facebook about whether they have seen what I have seen and heard about anecdotally — an unusual number of inquirers and catechumens showing up to the parish within the past year.

Of the 31 who responded so far, 28 said yes, while 3 said no.  The “yes” responses don’t seem to have any particular commonality among them — geographically, jurisdictionally, etc.

A number said that they noticed that the newcomers skew younger.  Several said it’s more than they’ve ever had — in some cases, double.  In the case of the parish where I continue to serve as an attached priest, it’s almost more than all 11 years of my own pastorate combined.

I am not aware of any major new Orthodox outreach initiative happening during this past year that could account for this — clergy, lay, official, unofficial, etc.  Certainly one initiative, person or another might be the avenue by which someone became aware of the Orthodox faith, but there isn’t any new thing that has happened within the past year that would suddenly account for this kind of thing happening all over.

The only obvious “cause” that comes to mind is the pandemic, though we can only speculate as to exactly how that has affected people such that some subset decide to show up to the Orthodox Church for the first time.  I also don’t know if other Christian groups are seeing this same effect, nor do I know if this is happening outside the Anglophone world.
Whatever the cause, it seems clear that God is bringing people to Himself right now in greater numbers, at least in the circles I am aware of.

We have a responsibility to pray for these people, to encourage them in their repentance by our own repentance, to show them what it means to be like Jesus Christ, to love them with kindness and self-sacrifice, and to show them that the Church is their true home.  People coming in won’t be better off if they don’t get planted firmly in the garden and grow to be like Christ.

The world seems to be going insane around us (and in us!), and some people are even acting insane in the name of Jesus Christ, filled with hatred and mockery for fellow Christians based on all kinds of transient issues and grievances, so it is even more incumbent upon Christians to repent and be like Christ, to show ourselves to be the children of God.
Are our hearts and parishes ready to receive the people God is sending us?  I know that I’ve got some work to do myself.

(NB:  I am not making any statements here about overall growth (net or otherwise), the retention of converts or those raised in the Church, how long what is being observed anecdotally might last, etc.  This post is about seeing an unusual uptick over the past year in inquirers and catechumens, not anything else.)

We have seen this in our little mission parish in Baton Rouge too: more and more young people coming. They all say some version of what my catechumen friend said when he sent me this:

The influx is happening exactly because nothing new or major has happened in the Church and not just the past year but for the last 2,000 years.

My friend is a fallen-away Catholic who has found in Orthodoxy the stability that he did not find in contemporary Catholicism. I do not proselytize on this blog, so please don’t read me here as telling you to become Orthodox (though I do wish you would)! What I am saying, though, is that there is a lesson in this for all Christian churches. The Tipi Loschi, the Catholic community I profiled in The Benedict Option, are not a Latin mass community. They all attend local parishes. But they are rooted deeply in the traditions of the Catholic Church, and take their kids on pilgrimages. They see Catholic Christianity — all of it, not just the Church since 1965 — as something to be celebrated and lived. When you are with those folks, you really do see and feel the joy of the Gospel. For them, it’s because the faith is not part of their lives; the faith is their lives.

It’s like that in Orthodoxy too. Though you certainly have lackluster, worldly Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox faith is more than anything else a rooted way of life. Orthodoxy isn’t going to change itself to suit your preferences. It’s not a seeker-friendly church; it’s a finder-friendly church — and that’s what people who are eager to be more serious about their faith lives are responding to. They are responding to a church that proclaims a Way worth sacrificing for.

I wonder if that, generally speaking, is the answer for all churches in this post-Christian era: become a finder-friendly church. I’m curious to hear from you readers in different Christian traditions (and even in non-Christian traditions) what you think a finder-friendly congregation would be like. Please answer in the comments — and identify your faith tradition.

UPDATE: A Catholic priest e-mails:

We’ve corresponded before, and I’ve been following the blog for a while now, enthusiastically. In addition to offering my praise for the blog and recent books, I also wanted to mention something that came to mind while reading your article on the coming consolidation of parishes in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. As you mention, the New Evangelization has been a focus in the church for a while now. But it’s often difficult for church leaders to define what it is in theological or pastoral terms. The general agreement seems to be that it’s important, but then it usually devolves into a description of the speaker’s interests or priorities: liturgical embellishment and correction; renewed catechesis; a more welcoming atmosphere and so forth. Not all are bad suggestions and they’re each important.

Something struck me the other day, though, while reading Frederic van der Meer’s Augustine the Bishop. Augustine’s approach to evangelizing the (dwindling) pagan population of Hippo Regius also involves a fairly bold attack on their idolatry. Put simply, for Augustine and for many of his brother bishops, the denunciation of the idols of the surrounding society was a major component of their whole evangelizing program. For them to truly accept Christ, they would have to leave that other world behind. And I don’t know that that’s always made as clear today.

You know far better than most how far the modern world has gone in its pursuit of idols. A recent book by Eugene McCarraher, the Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity further emphasizes that point. Any attempts at consolidating churches, proclaiming Christ in the culture, or even establishing the kind of communities in which the BenOp you describe could fall on rocky soil if the idols of the surrounding culture aren’t named as such and firmly rejected.

Another reader writes (I’ve slightly edited to protect his privacy):

I attend a Greek Orthodox church because I married a woman of Greek heritage. When you talk about the Orthodox church not changing, I don’t recognize the Greek orthodox church in America. It is VERY politically left wing, particularly on racial issues. I’m sure you have seen the Twitter account of the head of the church in America


And you probably saw him ban any priests from giving people religious exemptions from vaccine mandates.

But have you also seen the Greek orthodox church’s YouTube account where they praise BLM and recite every evil Woke buzzword?


This is my problem. The idea of Orthodoxy is so great and actually my church here locally is not woke. But I know the institution of the Greek church in America is completely rotten. The only thing they haven’t caved on is the LGBTQ agenda.

Am I overreacting? Do I need to just switch to a ROCOR church? Hope we get a new patriarch? I grew up in the United Methodist Church which barely exists anymore.

I know very little about the Greek Orthodox church, so I don’t know how to answer the reader’s questions. I’m told that it’s generally the case that Slavic and Arabic churches are more conservative than Greek ones. Then again, I think it was a fairly ecumenical group of Orthodox from across jurisdictions who tried to get me cancelled from the Schmemann Lecture at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. The Greeks counterprogrammed it too. But again, I don’t really know. I have made it my business to stay out of Church politics.

UPDATE.2: Reader Father Martin Fox comments:

Cincinnati is my home; this is my diocese, and I’m right in the middle of this.

First, the article linked is, unfortunately muddled. In church law, “parish” denotes a legal entity; but to nearly everyone else, “parish” denotes a place and a church. So for almost everyone, “closing” parishes means closing church buildings. That’s not what this is about. Clearer terminology would be combining administration.

Not all priests are cut out to be pastors. Newly minted priests need and want seasoning; and some good, holy priests are just not cut out for it. So this proposal aims for stability; 60 pastors, overseeing all the parishes — and eventually, they will be consolidated as legal entities, but whether individual churches stay open will be up to the local folks. In lots of places, there aren’t many “local folks” to pay for the upkeep; but in my neck of the woods, there are plenty, and they will gladly do whatever it takes to keep their ancestral churches open and in mint condition.

Second, while it’s obviously true that Christianity is facing deep challenges in “the West,” it’s not universally bleak in all places. In the rural parts of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, family life is strong and so is faith. We’re affected by the same trends; I see it, even if others don’t, and I’ve talked about it in my parish. But if you visited these communities, you’ll see churches that are generally full on Sunday and on holy days. A lot of people here try very hard to keep God in the center of their families and their lives. There are a lot of minivans in the parking lot, because we have a good number of families with four, five and more children.

What caused these problems? There are lots of causes; but realize, we’re seeing the working out of forces unleashed long ago. Modernism for more than a century; the exaltation of choice as a supreme value in the American founding; the Enlightenment; the Protestant Reformation, all before we talk about things like the shocks of the ’60s and Vatican II and the decisions made in the wake of it, and not to be omitted, the moral failings of bishops and priests, most heinously in abuse of minors. But I want to be clear that if all you do is talk about the last two or three — which is usually what people focus on — you are kidding yourself.

What is the cure? Conversion. I don’t even have a guess about how God in his providence intends to manage things for the coming years. At some point, the task of bringing the Gospel to all the world will be judged complete by God, and presumably, he will ring down the curtain. We were told, long ago, to expect crises like this; is this the beginning of the end? Could be, but only God knows.

As far as this reorganization project: the concrete plans were only announced yesterday. Hereabouts, people seem to be reacting as you might expect, but not with extreme emotions and I think we’re going to get through this. I’m actually relieved to have something concrete to deal with now. And I believe that, despite all the obvious negatives, there are some real positives. Folks do need to wake up and rethink and grab the wheel, as it were, and not leave auto-pilot on, as it comes to their personal faith and the corporate practice of it. Recognizing and appreciating more that we’re part of a larger Church is important. This is a good time to jettison things that aren’t really working and trying some new things. This plan will, on balance, help priests to have more comraderie and more understanding of their tasks from their parishioners. In the past, when priests were asked to take on two or three parishes, the unstated expectation was that he absorb most of the change, keeping things, as much as possible, as if the parishes were still independent, which of course is almost always what each individual parish wanted and liked. So if he had to triple his meetings, and practice intricate diplomacy between the parishes, well too bad. That didn’t work for anyone.



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