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Christianity’s Decline in the Northeast

Map by Gallup

An Orthodox friend back East said he received this request in e-mail over the weekend:

I’m hoping you might be able to recommend an Orthodox parish in New York City whose priest holds the Church’s historic view of homosexuality and related issues. I’ve been attending an OCA parish for eight years and really can’t stomach any more the homilies about inclusiveness (which is code for a pro-LGBTQ) or post-liturgy rants, while parishioners are all still in the sanctuary, on the dangers of fundamentalistic Protestant converts. My priest has said to me privately that he has no problem with homosexual activity so long as it happens in a committed relationship. Most of the parishioners are Georgian or Russian or Romanian and have no discernible interest in this issue. They come to be with each other. Theology is not an issue, for them. The Americans are just fine with sodomy. One of the openly “gay” members is a reader and Sunday School teacher.

You can’t escape the culture war by going into a particular church. The best you can do is improve your odds of being within an institution where orthodoxy stands a better chance of prevailing.

This e-mail, plus the comments thread discussion here over the weekend about the dearth of priestly vocations in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, has me wondering what it is about the Northeastern United States that renders it now such fallow ground for Christianity. According to Gallup, the Northeastern US is the most irreligious of all American regions — a finding consistent with Pew’s research as well. The Pacific Northwest is on par in terms of irreligion, but Northeastern states top the chart.

Anecdotally, when we were planning to move from Dallas to Philly, a couple of Orthodox church friends who had lived in that part of the US told us not to be deceived: we were headed to the historic homeland of Orthodoxy in the US, but the Orthodoxy we would find there would not be the same kind of Orthodoxy we met in the South. Pennsylvania is not the Northeast, strictly speaking, but in our limited experience, we found this to be true (with one notable and glorious exception). Orthodoxy in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic is generally far more open to the priorities of the secular culture than in the South, I found. Our circle of friends were committed Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, but my general sense was the same I had when I lived in NYC for five years: that the region overall is cool to Christianity in a way that I have not seen anywhere else I’ve lived (except for South Florida).

Why should this be? A 2011 article in Catholic World Report examined possible reasons for the lack of priestly vocations in the Northeast, despite its high concentration of Catholics. Excerpt:

Amid the decline in Catholic population, the dioceses of the Northeast have a disproportionately difficult time attracting seminarians. The typical American diocese has one seminarian for every 14,300 Catholics; only five Northeastern dioceses have above-average success in attracting vocations. In 2008, the Diocese of Springfield (Massachusetts) was the United States’ 64th most vocation-rich diocese, followed by Paterson, New Jersey (69th), Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (77th), Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania (80th), and Newark (81st). Three other northeastern dioceses (Erie and Allentown, Pennsylvania and Ogdensburg, New York) are treading water, as it were, with ratios of seminarians to Catholics slightly below the national average. The other 24 dioceses of the Northeast are drowning.

“Among the reasons for the impeded discernment of vocations in this region is what I call a 21st-century, Northeastern, New England, aggressive, competitive, breakneck pace of life,” says Father Jim Mazzone, vocation director for the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts (ranked 143rd). “There exists a fierce drive to succeed, and this success is measured by wealth. Both the trajectory and the target are spiritually dangerous. They pierce the vital components of discernment: silence, stillness, prayer, and reflection.”

“Rhode Island is a very liberal and secular state; however, we are pleased that Christ continues to call men to the priesthood from our area,” says Father Michael Najim, vocation director of the Diocese of Providence (ranked 141st), which had 27 seminarians in 2003 and 21 in 2008; the number has since fallen to 19. “Most dioceses are facing challenges in the effort to help men answer the call to serve Christ and his Church. The quality and faithfulness of seminarians is far more important than the number of seminarians. We are blessed with 19 faithful men who are wholly committed to their vocation.”

Father Luke Sweeney, vocation director of the Archdiocese of New York (ranked 172nd), told CWR in 2007:

We live in the capital of the world, as Pope John Paul II said, and we are swimming upstream when it comes to promoting vocations in such a secular and materialistic culture and society. Commitment, a life of loving sacrifice, and doing things from the perspective of eternity rather than Wall Street cut against the air we breathe. New York is a tough nut to crack, even for such groups as the CFRs (Franciscan Friars of the Renewal) and the Sisters of Life who do well nationally and internationally, but not as well in New York City.

“These spiritual dangers, of course, are not exclusive challenges to the Northeast, but they have had a strong foothold for decades,” adds Father Mazzone. “I wrestled with them during my own high school years in the early 1980s. However, the opponent has grown to Goliath proportions. The Davids of today who faithfully discern their vocations slay with silence and stillness, while fervently praying to know God’s will. They may be fewer in number today, but I thank God that they still exist.”

Is it really the case that the Northeast is more “breakneck” and “competitive” than other regions of the country? Having lived in Dallas for six years, I doubt that. Dallas has a high level of religious engagement, but the culture is also highly competitive and materialistic, as much as anything I saw living in New York City. I think there’s something else going on. The CWR piece goes on to examine the most vocations-poor diocese in the Northeast: Rochester, New York, which was led from 1979 until 2012 by Bishop Matthew Clark, one of the most aggressive liberal prelates in the country. A Catholic friend of mine grew up in Rochester, and said Clark’s leadership desolated the place, spiritually.

Yet not all bishops in the Northeast were or are Clarks. In fact, the Archdiocese of New York was led for some time by Cardinal John O’Connor, one of the most charismatic and orthodox bishops in the country. Still, vocations declined. Why?

I don’t have a satisfactory answer, other than that people in the Northeast just don’t care about religion as much as people in other parts of the country do — but that is a truism that doesn’t get us very far.

Anybody have any ideas? Let’s make this a constructive discussion.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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