Downsizing and the Catholic Church

By Richard W. Garnett
USA Today [United States]
July 16, 2006

In and around our nation's big cities, hundreds of Catholic parishes, schools and hospitals are consolidating and closing. Many of these institutions have long provided the foundation — as well as provided for the faith — of urban neighborhoods and immigrant communities.

In Manhattan's East Village, for example, St. Brigid's, which was closed in 2001, was built to be the spiritual home and social haven for refugees from the Irish potato famine more than 150 years ago. When plans to tear down the church were announced, preservationist groups sued Cardinal Edward Egan to block the demolition. Last month, an appeals court correctly dismissed the case.

At first glance, lawsuits like this are understandable. On reflection, though, we should see that such moves are misguided. Litigation comes easy to Americans, and we are used to righting perceived wrongs through the courts. However, because of our constitutional commitment to religious freedom, some hard decisions are just none of judges' business.

Stories about these closings and the emotional, often angry, reactions to them are becoming a newspaper staple. Last month, Saint Michael the Archangel, which has long served Polish-Americans in Boston, joined the more than 60 area parishes slated to be shut. As the Boston Globe reported, the final Mass was emotional and marked by prayer and protest. "This was a home away from home," said one young woman, an immigrant from Poland. In 2005, the last Catholic hospital in Brooklyn, St. Mary's, shut its doors after 123 years of service.

More recently, the Archdiocese of New York announced a dramatic reorganization plan that could result in the closing of more than 30 parishes and a dozen schools. In fact, more than 170 parochial schools nationwide were closed or consolidated during the past year, and more than 1,600 in the past two decades, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Behind the trend

Why is this happening? Certainly demographic changes, the movement of Catholics to growing suburbs, and changing attitudes of Catholics — clergy and lay people alike — about the importance of Catholic education are part of the story. So are declining numbers of priests and religious sisters (although the number of Catholics in America continues to grow), development pressures and increasing costs, the financial challenges associated with the aftermath of the clergy-sex-abuse scandal, and old-fashioned mismanagement.

Well, so what? We might well sympathize with those for whom the closing of a parish is painful because of family memories or ethnic traditions, or those who must now find a new school. And maybe we regret the loss of a few older, attractive buildings. In the end, though, why shouldn't the reaction of outsiders simply be, "Oh well, that's life"?

Why should we care?

For starters, urban Catholic schools and their teachers do heroic work in providing education, hope, safety, opportunity and values to vulnerable and marginalized children of all religions, ethnicities and backgrounds. Similarly, Catholic hospitals have long cared for underserved and disadvantaged people in both urban and rural areas, and helped to fill glaring gaps in the availability of health care. It is too easy to take for granted these and similar contributions to the common good. We should remember that, as these institutions fold, the burdens on and challenges to public ones will increase.

We might also care about the closings for slightly more abstract but no less important reasons. In a nutshell: It is important to a free society that non-government institutions thrive. Such institutions enrich and diversify what we call "civil society." They are like bridges and buffers that mediate between the individual and the state. They are the necessary infrastructure for communities and relationships in which loyalties and values are formed and passed on and where persons develop and flourish.

Catholics and non-Catholics alike can appreciate the crucial role that these increasingly vulnerable "mediating associations" play in the lives of our cities. Harvard University Professor Robert Putnam and others have emphasized the importance of "social capital," both to the health of political communities and to the development of engaged citizens. In America's cities, it has long been true that neighborhood churches and schools have provided and nurtured this social capital by serving as places where connections and bonds of trust are formed and strengthened. As Joel Kotkin writes in his recent book, The City: A Global History, healthy cities are and must be "sacred, safe and busy." If he is right, Catholic parishes, schools and hospitals help make America's cities great.

Now, because these parishes and schools are so important to so many of us, it is not surprising that some — like the friends of St. Brigid's in New York — have asked lawmakers and the courts to step in. Last year in Massachusetts, state Sen. Marian Walsh and others, invoking the need for "transparency" and "sunlight," called for government officials to investigate, supervise and second-guess religious authorities' difficult parish-closing decisions. And, in June, some disappointed Catholics in Toledo, Ohio, asked a court to override the local bishop and church law by undoing the closure of St. James parish.

A church's right

But if religious freedom — one aspect of which is the institutional separation of church and state — means anything, it means that a secular court may not review the merits of the church's decisions, no matter how painful they might be to parishioners, students and teachers. It is not the government's job to referee intra-church disputes or tell churches with limited resources how best to carry out their religious missions.

Again, though, religious institutions such as parishes, schools and hospitals contribute to and are needed by our communities. Is there anything the government and the public can do to protect and invest in our "social capital?" Perhaps. Our Constitution, of course, does not permit the government to run, sponsor or fund churches. That said, legislators and citizens should take care not to add needlessly to their regulatory and other burdens by requiring Catholic hospitals to provide "emergency contraception," or authorizing lawsuits against religious schools relating to the hiring and firing of teachers and ministers, or by misusing zoning and land-use laws. And urban Catholic schools' many contributions to the public good provide yet another, entirely secular, reason to embrace school-choice programs.

To be sure, no one, and no church, is above the law. In our law and traditions, though, it is clear that there are some religious decisions and choices to which the secular law does not, and may not, speak. What's more, the civic value of these institutions would be compromised and undermined even by well-meaning government interference with their autonomy.

Richard W. Garnett is the Lilly Endowment Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame.


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