While it is no secret that Mass attendance has generally declined since the mid-1960s nationwide — not unlike attendance for other mainline Christian denominations — we saw last year in our own diocese a leveling off of that trend. [my emphasis]I wrote at the time that His Excellency seemed misinformed, as his own Pastoral Planning people were reporting a 2008 Average October Attendance number that was almost 4% lower than the 2007 AOA, and that 2008 number meant that DOR had lost 25% of its weekend Mass-attending Catholics in a mere 8 years. (Also see here.)
The Catholic Courier has now confirmed my reporting. In an online article appearing Monday, the Courier's Mike Latona wrote,
Yet declines also are evident in more concrete statistics: In addition to a 25-percent decrease in Sunday-Mass attendance across the Rochester Diocese from 2000-08, the number of recorded baptisms and marriages each fell off by approximately 50 percent between 1994 and 2007.Latona makes an attempt at softening the impact of this decline by citing somewhat similar statistics from neighboring dioceses.
But he proves too much - far too much! - when he cites Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) research showing that "the Catholic population of New York state decreased by 7 percent between 1990 and 2008."
A 7% drop in the Catholic population over 18 years works out to an average loss of 0.40% per year. DOR's Mass attendance, however, has been falling at an average rate of 3.58% per year. In other words, we have been losing Mass attendees 9 times faster than Catholics have been leaving the state.
And so it would seem that the "demographic shift," so long a favorite rationalization for decline among DOR officials, simply cannot carry anywhere near the level of blame that these apologists would like to heap upon it.
Something else is obviously going on. The question now is: What?
"Does the bishop matter?"Two years ago InsideCatholic.com released its 32-page Diocesan Report 2007. [Note: This report has disappeared from the website; fortunately, the Wayback Machine has preserved a copy here.] The opening paragraph reads,
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 addressed 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 communities, 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.The report goes on to assign a ranking to each of the 176 Latin Rite dioceses in the United States, excluding Puerto Rico and territories. This ranking is based on 3 criteria: the morale of the presbyterate, the number of vocations, and effective evangelization. (See the report for an explanation of how these areas were rated.)
In overall ranking DOR finished 174 out of 176. Among the 28 dioceses of similar size (i.e., +/- 25% of DOR's Catholic population), we finished dead last.
The report concludes,
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.
A bit of advice to DORIt is time to quit blaming our decline ("collapse" might be a better word) on "demographic shifts," "generational shifts" and any other factors outside of our control. As Inside Catholic reports, there is no problem ailing us "that is not being addressed successfully in some place, and typically in multiple places."
It's time to do a little of what business people call benchmarking: Identifying best practices and emulating them.
And if that means abandoning "progressive Catholicism" and returning to orthodoxy, then so be it.