Local Catholic Statistics

Last time, we talked about statistics.
This time.....more statistics!

The most interesting, I think, are those that show how very Catholic Western Massachusetts remains, even though we all know that church attendance has slumped.  Put it this way: in Berkshire County, 500 out of every 1,000 people you meet will be Catholic.  That is so far ahead of every other denomination, it's not even funny.

I think it explains why, in a so-called "secularist"  and liberal, if not free-thinking environment, the articles in the Berkshire Eagle that address Catholic issues are so well-followed.  It is clear that many of the movers and shakers of the community - the lawyers, judges, police, politicians, ceo's, and so on, are Catholic in cultural upbringing and outlook, if not in regular attendance.

Let's look at this "shadow" constituency of Catholics in a different way.  Supposing that the 70% who do NOT go to mass on a regular basis are a potential market, and supposing that Bishop McDonnell wants to win them over, and yet is only getting about 30% of his constituents into the pews on a weekly basis, would it not follow that he should cultivate those faithful 30%, and build on that, to attract the others?

What future could there be for an organization that, for whatever reason, continues to lose the minority of faithful who remain?  And yet, the church-closing policy of the corporate office on Elliot St. seems to be accomplishing that very thing, if we can believe the candid comments as quoted in area newspapers from rank-and-file Catholics who are angered, saddened and disgusted with the Pastoral Planning process.  I have talked elsewhere about my objections to the program so I won't beat a dead horse.  The remainder of this post will consist of earlier writing in a slightly different direction.

The Mullin Report came out in March of 2007 and the critique that is excerpted below came out around Oct. 15 or so. Full critique is here.  One of the reasons I wrote it was that I felt we were not getting the full picture about statistics.  For example, Msgr. Bonzagni said that population in Mass. was declining, overall.  I checked.  It's not. An editoral said that the region's population was decreasing.  I checked.  It's not.

These little examples could be expanded, and were, in the critique.  Since March of 2007 the Mullin Report (and perhaps my criticism) has taken on added weight, if for no other reason than that the diocese decided at some point in 2007 that they would no longer issue the useful Annual Report that had been the norm in recent years.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that the Annual Report told the whole story, by any means.  But at  the very least, it did show how much money was being spent on lawyers for the abuse settlements, and it included much useful information.  Suddenly, once the annual reports stopped coming, this information vanished.

More to the point, I had subsequently studied the 8.5 million dollar settlement of the diocese, the one that had closed down 105 cases against the diocese for sex abuse (46 in 2004, and 59 in 2008).  One of the results of the study was a handy chart showing the financial costs of the settlement, including lawyer's fees - not an exhaustive list by any means, but fairly comprehensive.  Would you believe that the whole reason for this hue and cry about the missing FY's is that I simply wanted to update that list? But, if you have no data, you can't do any updating, that's the way it works.

At any rate, without further ado, here is a slimmed-down version of my critique of the Mullin Report, published around Oct. 15, 2007.

excerpts from: Critique of the Mullin Report

There is considerable alienation in our Church. Many laity are physically alienated - over two-thirds decline to attend weekly mass. Many attendees are burdened by a spiritual alienation toward the clergy. This alienation is tempered by respect for our spiritual leaders. Nevertheless, I see it expressed by passivity, coolness and skepticism, all signs of a real "turning away". I believe that many clergy are also alienated. Except for Sunday homilies, one rarely hears any original, independent thought from the "lower clergy", even when critical issues within the Church cry out for thoughtful comments.

Number one, let's admit that there is mounting debt in the diocese, and at the same time, a surfeit of parish assets. The clergy has been dropping broad hints about this for years, but nowhere was it stated more plainly than by Msgr. Bonzagni, in the 2006 annual report: "...our ancestors...have left us vast resources in the form of buildings and properties...how to best utilize all that we have...is the charge of the Office of Pastoral Planning..."(1)  I decided to look into these resources. In my corner of the world (Berkshire County), the diocese owns over 53 million dollars worth of property, a number that makes any subsequent reference to 7 or 8 million seem almost paltry. (2)

And note that this 53 million represents the assessed value for non-profit use. Almost certainly, a reappraisal of the property for commercial use would show a much higher figure. But while there are millions of dollars worth of property in the diocese, this does not mean that it can be converted to cash at will, and this has to do with the nature of the Church. Most property does not belong to the diocese, but rather to the parishes of the diocese, as part of their long-term stable patrimony. It can only be altered with the permission of the parishioners.
Nor is this the only issue. Leveraging the current debt of the diocese by transferring parish property to cash does not address the underlying causes of the debt. The Mullin Report is said to be one tool among many in the pastoral planning toolkit. Yet the Bishop also editorialized, on March 2, that "......the study points out the reality of where we are today...". I find that this overstates the case. On the contrary, the Mullin Report is mainly a select compilation of data that the diocese has known for some time.

Indeed, understanding the reality of where we are today in the diocese, though a worthy goal, seems unattainable for the laity at the present time, especially in terms of money. There's a Temporalities Secretariat which manages the assets of the diocese, but it's not clear how the Cemetery Corporation, Foundation, and investments relate to the big picture, nor how parishioner contributions affect the whole. Nor do we know how well the diocesan framework (corporation sole) is working, and whether the administration of the diocese could stand improving, and if so, where. There needs to be much more detail published so that parishioners can see how they can and must contribute, where their contributions fit in, and what their dollars are used for.(3)

For example, annual reports are made, but these show operating budgets and not net worth. What significance do operating budgets have to net worth? What significance does net worth have to pastoral planning? What significance does parish income have to diocesan planning? How does pastoral planning differ from financial planning? Granted, these are difficult questions, but attempting to answer them may provide the framework for dialogue that the Bishop has called for.

Figures from annual reports suggest (but do not establish) that the Springfield Diocese has been in a financial freefall for several years. Total amounts owed to the diocese by parishes and institutions, for example, rose from 7.5 million in 2004 to 7.8 million in 2005, and then to 8.9 million in 2006(4).
Parish debt to the diocese, the major component of the above figures, is high, about 6.6 million presently. The Mullin Report contains a crushing amount of evidence to drive the point home, but the reasons for the shortfall are not addressed. Nor are they addressed elsewhere. In seeking information I found this lone paragraph from a past annual report on the diocesan web site:
"...there has also been an increased effort to obtain from parishes reimbursement of their portion of insurance premiums and school assessments related to parish and school personnel. The necessity to cover the parish share of these costs has contributed to diocesan deficits in recent years. These non-payments, in many instances, reflect a general over-all decline in many parishes' financial health, as they also face increased expenses with little growth in their collections...".(5)

I believe that for the Mullin Report to begin to be useful, several diocesan statements need to be reconciled. First, the above statement that parish collections have been decreasing. Second, the statements in the Mullin Report which describe the financial health of 9 out of the 10 geographic areas of the diocese: "...in general, financial indicators suggest that parishes in this region are not in financial difficulty...". How can this contradiction be explained?

Nor is this the only contradiction to be found.
According to the premises in the Mullin introduction, the report is designed to support the institutional mission of the diocese (6).  But, the individual parishes are being studied - not the diocese. Nor is this institutional mission defined, and how it relates to the mission of the parishes. The premises assume that dwindling numbers of priests must result in dwindling number of parishes(7). This premise places the availability of priests above the canonical right of the parishes to exist.(8) It also slights the principle of subsidiarity.(9)

Why are fewer parishes held to be inevitable, when we've known for so many years that the population of priests was dropping, and when there are thousands of lay people who could be authorized to take on non-sacramental functions of priests? Recommendations for whether a parish should be suppressed, merged or left alone are guided by a set of indicators, and these indicators are explained. But, we're not told why these particular indicators were chosen, nor the weight given them, nor why they were given this weight. In other words, there is no methodology. Without knowing what relative values were assigned to the indicators, and why, the conclusions become clouded.

In annual reports, in order to make the case for changes, the Bishop has stated that there've been negative changes - to society, the region, the job market, and availability of resources - which have weakened the diocese.(10) A Catholic Observer editorial deplored the loss in population: "... our diocesan family has become significantly smaller in the last 30 years because our region has itself become smaller... "(11) Elsewhere, Msgr. Bonzagni explains: "... The state is undergoing a net decrease in population...".(12) Introducing the Mullin Report, McDonnell said: "...we sought the expertise of the Economic Development Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, to provide as much raw data as possible for all of us together to study..."(13)

However, many of these statements are either misleading or debatable.

The county populations of the diocese aren't getting smaller, and those of Massachusetts aren't decreasing. All ten-year periods since 1940, save one, have shown growth in the diocese. All five-year periods for the Commonwealth are projected to show growth until 2030(14).
The raw data for the Mullin Report was provided by the diocese, not the University of Massachusetts. Figures for baptisms and funerals, weekly mass attendance, parishioner contributions, amount of parish debt, and numbers of priests can only be found in the diocesan chancery. Other data, population projections for example, are readily available at no cost from public agencies.

The contradictions above bring the premises of the Mullin Report into question. The report also lacks transparency. For example, we need to know how the study of the parishes relates to the institutional needs of the diocese, since this is the reason for the report, yet this explanation is nowhere to be found. The fact that so much emphasis has been placed on vague "societal changes", and on the roll-out of the report, and on parish debt, is very troubling. It begs the question - Why now? For example, within living memory parish debt has been as low as 4 million and as high as 14 million. Why then is the Bishop preparing to shut parishes at this time?

Absent any better explanations, the pastoral planning effort, of which the Mullin Report is part, seems to consist largely of encouraging or enforcing the dissolution of parishes in order to alienate their assets for the benefit of the diocese.
There are other reasons for this supposition. According to the CFO for the diocese, Mr. William LaBroad, parishes are prone to need extra money from the diocese because of mandated insurance and the like, but don't contribute extra money because any excess in weekly collections is retained by the parish(15). And, if a parish becomes merged, its property and assets belong to the new parish, not the diocese. This means that the diocese can never profit from the assets of parishes as long as they remain parishes.

The Mullin Report is full of information, and that's all to the good. It may yet overcome a puzzling start and help open the way to dialogue. However, as it is presently being used in the context of pastoral planning, it is a rather slippery tool. Its contents can be used to close a parish just as easily as they can be used to keep one open. Indeed, this has already happened.(16) Surely the people who commissioned the report intended it to be more than a sort of Swiss Army Knife of pastoral planning. Parishioners may well come to the conclusion that a suppression is a valid and helpful decision. But, it should be their decision.

Whether future parish closings are merely encouraged, or forced, the result will be the same - the diocese stands to profit financially. However, without better explanations to allow us a more complete understanding of diocesan aims, this alienation of parish property is likely to come at a high cost - the further alienation of lay Catholics, and the increased alienation of the clergy from the objective world in which lay Catholics live. In the opinion of this Catholic, it is a price too high to pay.

-- the end --

1 In the Annual Report of the diocese (2006), pg. 5. The report is located online... 
2 see: www.masslive.com/news/church/index_wide.ssf?church_property.html, last visited 9/5/07.
3 For example, on the diocesan web site (www.diospringfield.org) there is a single page of financial information to cover all of 2004 and 2005...
4 Page 11 of the Annual Report of the diocese (2006).
5 Diocesan financial report for July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2004.
6 in the Introduction to Mullin Report; "...the final set of indicators selected for the analysis were chosen based on the indicators ability to support the institutional mission of the Diocese...".
7 The introduction lists "...anticipated decline in the number of active priests to minister to parishes..." as one of the chief factors in choosing indicators.
8 The premises of the Mullin Report slight the fact that there is nothing in canon law which prevents the laity from becoming administrators of parishes, officiating at liturgies, and fulfilling other ministries. Indeed, to the Bishop's credit, there are already some parishes in the diocese that have lay administrators; but this option could be widened considerably. Many experts in clergy/laity relations see no reason why a respectful and liturgically correct prayer service, including distribution of the Eucharist, could not substitute for the weekly mass in priest-poor areas of the diocese.
9 Canon law supports the principle of subsidiarity, whereby smaller and less powerful units of the faithful are favored over larger units. It was in defense of this principle that Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Clergy, wrote a letter reprimanding American bishops for their incorrect application of canon 123 (suppression) to parishes. He wrote:
"...only with great difficulty, can one say that a parish becomes extinct. A parish is extinguished by the law itself only if no Catholic community any longer exists in its territory, or if no pastoral activity has taken place for a hundred years (can.120#1)". (see article ' Vatican: Suppressed Parish's Assets Must Go To Receiving Church, Not Diocese", online at: www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=20738&page=1).
10 On page 2 of the diocesan Annual Report (2006). "...there is no question that the resources are less than what they once were and that simultaneously needs are growing. People in the Church, like all people, are impacted by changes in society and by changes in the community. There is no question we have seen changes in the job market here in Western Massachusetts. There is no question there have been changes in the availability of resources. Those have had their effect on our ability to respond as fully as we might like to the needs of people here in the four counties..."
11 The unsigned editorial appeared in the issue of 3/2/07, pg.8.
12 In the Annual Report of the diocese (2006), pg. 5. The report is located online...
13 on page 2 of the Supplement on Pastoral Planning, March 2, 2007 Catholic Observer. This supplement is located online...
14 The U.S. Census reported these totals for the four counties that comprise the diocese, at ten year intervals:
for 1940, 576,294;
for 1950, 641,278;
for 1960, 729,581;
for 1970, 791,643;
for 1980, 791,258;
for 1990, 812,322;
for 2000, 814,967.
In 2006 there were estimated to be 817,291 people in the diocese (U.S. Census, at http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/25/25003.html), and 820,000 are projected in the diocese by 2010, see pg. P16 of the Catholic Observer of 03/02/07 (Mullin Report).
For the ten year periods, see - Massachusetts - Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990, Compiled and edited by Richard L. Forstall, Population Division, US Bureau of the Census, Washington, DC 20233, at http://www.census.gov/population/cencounts/ma190090.txt, last viewed 5/19/07.
U.S. Census projections show that the population in the state in the period 2000 - 2030 is expected to grow from 6,340,097 to 7,012,009; see especially http://www.census.gov/population/projections/SummaryTabA1.pdf, which shows steady growth of the Massachusetts population over every five year period from 2000 to 2030.
See also www.berkshireplanning.org for interesting pdf files about Berkshire County population trends.
15 LaBroad, "...Parishes in the diocese of Springfield do not forward excess revenues over operating expenses to the diocese: they are maintained by the parish. Parishes are canonical entities which are expected to be self-supporting through the financial contributions of parishioners ...when parishes cannot pay the cost of insurance, pension, school and other costs, they begin to spend their savings, if they have any. Often the diocese is forced to pay for some parish costs from its own savings thus creating significant debt on the part of the parishes to the diocese..."
16 compare the articles on St. Ann's opening and closing in the Catholic Observer, June 22, pg. 4, and August 24, pg. 3.