What’s Going to Happen to the Church (and the impact on everything else)

We’re Catholic. I mean Steve and I are not super Catholic, but we go to church on Sundays. Mostly. Sometimes. Others in my family are Uber-Catholics, especially that one family member who writes occasionally for Catholic think-magazines.

Still, I am sad for my more Catholic family members that this institution is digging its own grave. Their faith is pure, and they’ve been misused by the clergy.

I’m also sad for the communities that they’ve served. In his 80s, my dad volunteers nearly full time for a food pantry at his church that serves 800 families. The other volunteers are also in their 80s without any new recruits to hand out groceries or hand out turkeys at Thanksgiving. In another few years, will this group still exist? Who is going to help those people when those volunteer organizations die out?

Parochial schools are closing all over the country, except when they’ve been able to get their hands on vouchers that keep the doors open. Those schools have relatively low tuition and have served poor urban areas for years. Both my parents benefited from them. Can urban schools absorb new students?

I’m sickened by the stories that are coming out this week. Positively sickened. And I’m so, so sad that along with a diminished church, we’ll lose out on all the charity work and community building that Catholic parishioners have been quietly doing for ages.

31 thoughts on “What’s Going to Happen to the Church (and the impact on everything else)

  1. Well, as an apostate, I have been looking forward for some time to the demise to the catholic church—and I am very skeptical that this will significantly impact charity work.

    I completely acknowledge and praise the charity work that your father does. It is wonderful–however, in the big picture, local charity work similar to his food bank, are run by all manner of religious and non-religious.

    Also, a lot of the funding for Catholic charity work comes from taxpayer money, anyway.

    From the Jesuit “America” magazine:
    “A 2014 study conducted by Catholic Charities USA found that total income for their 177 member agencies was about $4.5 billion, with about $2.8 billion coming from government sources. This would include federal, state and local government support.”

    At the moment, catholic churches might be dispersing charitable services, but they are doing it with a lot of taxpayer money.


    1. That’s pretty much untrue, that secular organizations do a lot of charity work. The bulk of volunteer charity work is done by religiously-motivated individuals. And taxpayer money won’t create social cohesion or mediating institutions, just more state employees bowling alone.


      1. The bulk of charity in this country is indeed done by a secular organization—it’s called the government.

        Although a big chunk of taxpayer money is funneled through religious groups such as Catholic Charities, much more is spent on social programs to help those in need and it is spent by a government that *is* a mediating institution that creates social cohesion. (Look at programs such as the $70 billion/year SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, or Medicaid or TANF or Social Security or disaster relief or any other government run social program).

        Most money raised by churches goes to run the operations of the church itself—not charity.

        According to a 2017 article in “The Atlantic”: “Can Religious Charities Take the Place of the Welfare State?”:
        —“The vast majority of religious congregation budget [money] is spent on in-house expenses: clergy, building, materials,” said Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Some congregations have more outreach ministry and social services than others. But in almost all cases, it ends up being a small part of the budget, just because it costs so much to run a congregation.”


        –“The median amount congregations spent on social-service programs was $1,500. “Religious congregations do a lot,” said Mary Jo Bane, a professor at Harvard University. But “the scale of what they do is trivial compared to what the government does. Especially if you think about the big government programs like … food stamps and school lunches, or health services through Medicaid, what religious organizations do is teeny tiny.”


      2. My dad’s group doesn’t get any government money. They get their money from church donations and grants to private organizations, like the local water company.


      3. I you consider the Social Security Administration a “mediating institution” that promotes the formation of “social capital,” then you are defining those terms very differently from any social scientist that I know.


  2. If the Church survived the first John XXIII, it can survive this. It’s going to be a continuing problem, and it’s more of a problem because with electronic communication and memory, nothing is forgotten. It’s a vast enterprise controlled by relatively few people – kind of like Elon Musk and Tesla, and with a span of control like that, nobody could keep all the parts running in the right channels. There are many faithful who want to go to Mass, and many virtuous and kind people in the priesthood.

    It seems to me that one thing which would help is married priests – if you have a whole bunch of priests who really have no legitimate path to intimacy, some of them are going to find an illegitimate path.


  3. I’m not Catholic, so I do not have the emotional ties to the church.

    Right now, the Catholic Church is entering a phase in which few parents want to entrust their children to them, at least in our area. The most recent news follows a well-known pattern. I agree with dave s. that married priests, and, dare I say it, ordaining women, would help. This article was written 15 years ago: https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/462/article/fewer-and-fewer

    Our not-Catholic Church would be in deep trouble if it restricted priests to unmarried, celibate men. I have attended services with wonderful female priests. The Catholic Church has ordained some married, Episcopalian priests: https://www.uscatholic.org/church/2012/06/how-i-met-your-father-married-episcopalians-becoming-catholic-priests

    Any idea on how that has turned out?


    1. Mostly well, occasionally very poorly.


      “According to the probable cause affidavit, Reese’s superiors at Holy Rosary knew before the assault occurred that he reportedly provided alcohol to minors, got intoxicated with minors, and shared white supremacist material with young people.”

      Now, that’s a new one!

      He had been married 25 years and had 7 children.

      If you pay attention to national sex scandals (not just Catholic ones) you’ll notice that wedding rings don’t keep guys out of trouble.


  4. It’s interesting that Catholic schools are struggling in New Jersey. Here in Louisville they seem to be doing great. All of the high schools have become elite prep schools with little to no clergy teaching there anymore. My alma mater was a blue collar school that ran $2,500/year in 1993. I paid my tuition bagging groceries at the supermarket. Now there are no clergy left and the tuition is $13,000/ year. Maybe the survival strategy needs to be to leverage the good reputation of Catholic schools while de-emphasizing some of the ties to the faith.


  5. A friend of mine’s dad is a Catholic priest. After the parents split, the hierarchy (or whoever judges these things) decided that the dad had been too far along in seminary to have properly chosen marriage, so it was annulled and he continued on his path to ordination.

    I don’t really keep up with the friend, so I don’t know if father Father Youngs has retired by now, but he was a parish priest, and it worked out fine.


  6. The problem would be that, as I understand, Catholic priests aren’t paid enough to support a family. Nor are their living quarters generally suitable for raising families.


    1. Well, y81, that and divine revelation…. The living quarters and the wages are a hardware problem, and you can buy a lot of hardware with a couple hundred million in settlements not awarded. The inability to form intimate and loving family relations out in the sunshine is a software problem, and I think it’s gonna continue forever unless we figure a way to enable them to have it.

      That, and I think I have been ignoring the secularization of the society. There just aren’t that many people who really believe in God these days. This really kicks the crap out of real vocations, and then you are left with the guys who like smells and bells and little boys and vestments. I don’t think this is going to get better, for the Church.


      1. Dave.s., “There just aren’t that many people who really believe in God these days.”


        Only the majority??

        (This may be a measure of your social circle.)


        If you combine the categories “Believe in God absolutely certain” with “Believe in God fairly certain,” the following denominations reach over 90%:

        Catholic (91%)
        Evangelical Protestant (98%)
        Mainline Protestant (91%)
        Historically Black Protestant (98%)
        Jehovah’s Witness (98%) (Also, no separate clergy)
        Mormon (97%)
        Muslim (96%)
        Orthodox Christian (90)

        I suspect the trend to smaller families has increased the reluctance of families to allow their sons to become priests, as that could mean the end of the family line. If you have 4 sons, if two become priests, you still have two chances for grandchildren. If you have 1 son, if he becomes a priest, that means no grandchildren.


      2. Our (non-Catholic) church has 5000 weekly attenders in Manhattan, and I’m pretty sure that most of them believe in God. If you care to read the academic literature (you could start with membership in the Society for Scientific Study of Religion, which will give you some introduction to the leading lights in the field), you will learn that the secularization hypothesis is hotly debated among those who actually study the issue.


    2. And yet other denominations manage to make it work.

      And priests are paid enough to support a family, especially if one assumes the spouse would be able to work.


      A study conducted by Georgetown University and released in 2017, indicated the mean average salary for priests is $45.593 per year, including taxable income. Priests must report taxable income, such as salary bonuses and allowances for living expenses, which can equal 20 percent of earned salary.

      According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for clergy is $45,740. Median income is the midpoint, meaning the top half of wage earners made more, and the bottom half made less. BLS lumps Catholic priests with other denominations of clergy who have higher earning power. For example, the GU study indicated that male Episcopalian priests earn $75,355 including taxable income.

      The real median personal income in the US is $31,099, according to the St. Louis Fed.

      It would be an enormous cultural shift for the church to allow priests to marry and have families. However, if the supply of young, reliable, nurturing men willing to become priests is drying up, there are not many solutions to the problem, especially given how devastating each abuse scandal is to the church’s reputation.


      1. Cranberry said,

        “The real median personal income in the US is $31,099, according to the St. Louis Fed.”

        Not for people who have that level of education, especially considering that there’s little room for upward movement in salary.

        “In the United States, priests must have a four-year university degree in philosophy plus an additional four to five years of graduate-level seminary formation in theology with a focus on Biblical research. A Master of Divinity is the most common degree.”


        So, 8-9 years of education after high school.

        There are married Catholic priests in the US: a) former Protestant clergy and b) Eastern Catholics (they have the same tradition of married parish priests as the Eastern Orthodox). I’m not in principle opposed to more married Catholic clergy–but it’s a different discussion from abuse, and there are a lot of practical issues.

        Let’s be honest–none of us parents of multiple children would be thrilled if the breadwinner in our household was making $45k, and none of us would be thrilled if one of our kids was a $45k breadwinner with multiple children. It’s just not a fun economic place in the modern US unless there were going to be a lot of subsidies in the form of housing, healthcare, school, etc. (Basically, what US military families get at the same economic level.) Also, bear in mind that married parents typically have much higher income in the US than the median income or median household income would suggest.


        Another problem is that US bishops move priests around a fair bit, and that would be unacceptable to many families (as well as unkind).

        Also, assuming a breadwinner wife is not very realistic in a world where 4-6 kid families are common. It is possible (I have seen it done), but it means that the priest dad will be essentially a SAHD. There are both large benefits (better understanding of family issues) and large potential problems with that (diminished availability).

        It’s not a nice thing to say, but it’s not very smart to put a $40k a year guy with a wife and 3+ kids in charge of a parish with over a million dollar yearly budget (which is not at all uncommon). That’s a heck of a lot of temptation. As a smart guy once said, “A married man with a family will do anything for money.” Poverty is just as much of an occasion of sin as celibacy is.


      2. AmyP,

        Not for people who have that level of education, especially considering that there’s little room for upward movement in salary.

        8-9 years of education in the humanities is only worth what employers are willing to pay for it. Do you have records of many employers willing to pay more for theologians?

        Many people with a comparable level of education are eking out a living as adjunct faculty (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/11/adjunct-faculty_n_4255139.html). A priest’s salary of $45,000 a year compares favorably to an adjunct’s $20,000, especially as the position is more secure.

        Another problem is that US bishops move priests around a fair bit, and that would be unacceptable to many families (as well as unkind).

        We have friends who work for IBM, a.k.a. I’ve Been Moved. “Unacceptable” is not a luxury most families can afford.

        As a smart guy once said, “A married man with a family will do anything for money.” Poverty is just as much of an occasion of sin as celibacy is.

        And yet social science research indicates that married men are far, far less likely to commit crimes.

        It’s really not a smart thing for any institution to give one person (married or not) total control over a budget without oversight. Reading the newspaper, it seems that the people stealing from parishes and schools tend to be the business managers, not the priests.

        You could try to find celibate, unmarried business managers, but, really, good luck. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t recommend trying to staff any job with officially celibate people, as it’s such an uncommon lifestyle choice.


  7. I believe that for many people — Laura’s dad seems one of them, religion has been a path to personal service, and though my form of service will never be personal, I do admire those who offer themselves to help those in need. I believe that government programs feed people, that poverty needs to addressed broadly and systematically by society, that education should be funded and provided by the state. But I think that humans need human connection and that some churches and church people have provided that. I guess that’s what they call “pastoral”?

    As an atheist who would be happy to see the authoritarian value of the church die, I can be a bit sorry to see the pastoral diminish, but won’t support the authoritarianism to save the community building. I don’t have anything invested in the Catholic Church, but since I read the New York Times I do have a winner I’d tip the scales for in the authoritarian v pastoral battle I see in the church.


  8. The Catholic Church has repeatedly protected child rapists as a matter of institutional policy. In Europe, in the U.S. in South America. Over and over, the Catholic Church, as a matter of POLICY, protects child rapists. It protects the murder of children, the torture of women (see Ireland). Over and over.

    It can’t be saved.

    Burn it down.


    1. Tulip, yours is a kind of remarkable comment. I don’t see you taking seriously the idea that some people believe in God and that the Catholic Church is divinely ordained. You are responding to the church as a secular institution only.
      For people who are believing Catholics, the idea of extirpating the Church from – what, putting it out of existence?
      I am myself an atheist, but it seems to me that the idea that the Church should be put out of existence is an affront to its believers. It should find a way to fix itself, and I am rooting for it to do so.


      1. When was the Catholic church not a source of oppression? The church has always been part of the secular world and has always behaved badly. I find it remarkable you think there is something to be saved and that you, an atheist, put people’s belief in a sky God above child rape, and the torture of so many over the centuries, and continuing to this day. This isn’t something that happened in one place, or at just one point in history. It happened all over the world, it continues to happen.

        It continues to be policy to protect child rapists. I say continues to be policy because they clearly never did anything about those who commit these crimes. The church decided not to fix itself. So, yes, I want it destroyed.


      2. Well, Tulip, you are on dangerous ground in saying you want to destroy someone else’s church. I really don’t think this is a good path to go down. There are secular crimes by individuals, they should be exposed and sanctioned. But some kind of group guilt for all clerics and parishioners who stick with their faith? Lidice, dead ahead! By coincidence, there is a piece in the Review section of today’s WSJ, by I guy who agrees with nearly everything I have been thinking and who says it much better: A Crisis – But Not Of Faith by George Weigel. I recommend it to you.


      3. You think it’s just a few bad actors. I don’t. It’s policy (going back to the middle ages – many church state clashes were over who had the right to try clergy) to protect clergy from the consequences of their crimes. The attitude that we should defend people’s rights to their beliefs and desire to keep their church seems unique to the Catholic church. There were no such editorials – rightly- regarding the FLDS in Texas.


      4. Tulip said,

        “The attitude that we should defend people’s rights to their beliefs and desire to keep their church seems unique to the Catholic church.”

        There’s a big distinction between FLDS and Catholics in that there’s no on-the-books Catholic teaching authorizing sexual abuse–in fact, quite the contrary.


    2. Also an atheist who thinks belief in the supernatural doesn’t make sense in the modern world and thus doesn’t, in the end, see a reason for personal belief. And though I do believe that some good has been done, especially in a world in which government was not playing the role of providing succor to the dispossessed, I don’t feel like I can effectively weigh that good against the authoritarian values that result in the abuse. So I can live with the Catholic church disappearing. However, what we seem to be seeing now is a factional battle between those who support the authoritarian values of the church and those who support the good it might be able to do to ease human suffering. In that battle, I want the second group to win, even if the win of the first might end the church more quickly. It’s too big a risk to take. The Catholic church becoming more powerful as an authoritarian institution that weighs in against the advances that women, gay, and other vulnerable people are making in the secular world potentially to the degree that the imams play in countries like Afghanistan is a scary thought.


      1. blueasterstudio,

        “However, what we seem to be seeing now is a factional battle between those who support the authoritarian values of the church and those who support the good it might be able to do to ease human suffering. In that battle, I want the second group to win, even if the win of the first might end the church more quickly.”

        That’s basically backwards (or inside out).

        If you follow recent news coverage, what you actually see is a lot of “Let’s stop talking about abuse–let’s talk about social justice!”

        I give you Cardinal Cupich of Chicago:


        “”The Pope has a bigger agenda,” Cardinal Cupich said. “He’s got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.””

        There’s a major misunderstanding in the media about what the fault lines are today. Media outlets like the NYT have been playing it as good-progressive-pope-being-persecuted-by-evil-conservatives (because that’s the story they want), whereas that’s not what it’s about. On the one hand, you have the long-standing liberal Catholic/conservative Catholic clashes (and that is still a thing), but something that you also see is a growing division between pro-coverup/pro-business as usual Catholics (predominantly people in high office and their near associates) and anti-coverup Catholics (predominantly lay people and a fair number of priests)–this crosses ideological lines.

        Something that I only realized this summer is the extent to which the traditional liberal/conservative Catholic clashes give cover to abusers, because they’ve always been able to claim (whatever their ideological bent) that attacks on them are just political.

        Megan McArdle has written a lot of smart things lately about the need for liberal/conservative unity on abuse, and the possibility of non-ideological non-hot button solutions.

        Another thing that I’ve realized lately is that a lot of proposed solutions to abuse are just stalling techniques. You propose a solution, knowing that it’s unworkable/politically unpalatable with the people whose cooperation you would need, and then you’re quite safe from any actual reform. Whereas in reality, there are a lot of non-ideological steps that could be taken. I think we already have very good child protection in US Catholic parishes right now (some very good things did come out of 2002), but I would like to see something like Title IX for seminaries, as well as firming up mandatory retirement for bishops at 75 (at least for democratic, developed countries). Currently, bishops are required to submit their retirement at 75, but the pope is able to refuse their retirement:


        I realize that in repressive societies (like China), it’s important that bishops be allowed to serve past 75, but that isn’t the case in the US or countries with functioning democracies.

        One of the reasons I think that retirement at 75 is an excellent idea is that (at least in the US) there’s a strong generational aspect to prevalence of abuse. Different cohorts have had different levels of abuse accusations.


  9. This came across my twitter feed the other day, highlighted by an Irish friend.

    “What’s ur fave story of the church being cunts. Mine is the priest at my gran’s funeral changing the song she picked bc he didn’t like it”

    He illustrated with a couple more from his family.

    “Also my grandad on his deathbed told me he doesn’t want the church to have anything to do with his funeral. I asked why and he said ‘they told me in school I’d burn in Hell for eating sausages on a Sunday. Bunch of pricks'”

    And then people picked it up and ran with it. The stories told ranged from garden variety dickery through petty abuse of power up through rape and murder, perpetrated by people who claimed their institution was divinely ordained and answerable to no one. (Adam came back with a link to donate to an organization that supports abuse survivors: oneinfour.ie/donate )

    “My mom was born with only one hand so in school instead of getting 10 whips on each hand she used to get 20 whips on the one hand she had. Also casually has commented about being groped by priests and her mother telling her to shhh”

    “A nun once beat me up a corridor in school I was so scared I wet myself but she kept going, I slipped on my own wee …the humiliation stayed with me”

    “I got changed in the same room & served at mass as a child alongside a priest who was moved to our parish after he molested young boys, 3 of which committed suicide”

    “When my grandmother gave birth to a stillborn full term little boy the parish priest refused to arrange a funeral because he hadn’t been christened and was therefore ‘in limbo’ the thought of her child not being in heaven haunted her for years. … Her family had to dig the grave themselves in a family members plot. He didn’t even have a headstone for years after. She still gets upset talking about it”

    “My mother saw a nun force a girl in her junior infants class who wet herself down on her knees to smell the puddle of urine like she was a dog that wasn’t housebroken yet” [I gather that “junior infants” is an Irish term for pre-school of some sort.]

    “My nanny used to physically tremble whenever she was in the company of the clergy but especially nuns. We found out as we got older that her family were orphaned and they were split up and sent to orphanages. Her silent terror said everything”

    “It’s not my story but a friend of mine had a priest tell him to his and his children’s faces that they the Children were going to hell. His children were less than 10 years old”

    “Don’t even get me started on the nuns my Dad and uncles had in boarding school. Uncle is dyslexic, ofc in the 60s no idea what that is – thought he was acting stupid, hung him up on the back of a door by his blazer collar. Then one day they’d had enough, so they stripped him (1) … Dressed him in a potato sack with arm and leg-holes cut out, drove him out a mile or so from the school and left him on the side of the road. He was like 9? Found by the local priest, who took him to get new clothes, bought him dinner and returned him. … He’s ok! He has 2 degrees, doesn’t let his dsylexia bother him thankfully 🙂 ”

    There’s close to a thousand replies.


  10. I know a lot of good people who work in church and religiously-affiliated charities. They are doing important work and a lot of them are wonderful people. But the idea the poor/needy can’t possibly be taken care of without religious charities (because non-religious people don’t really care that much about the poor, or whatever) is incorrect. Religious involvement in social service provision and poverty relief is something that developed out of a certain set of historical and political factors – among them the complicated relationship between Protestants and Roman Catholics in this country. The role of the African American churches in social service provision also has its own complex history.

    One of my favorite anecdotes about this comes from a book I read back in grad school (where some of my research was on faith-based organizations involved in social service provision). Here’s a quote:

    “Charity became a primary emblem of Catholic identity in American culture and the chief means by which the church established a public voice. Small wonder then that in the midst of the New Deal debates over social security, a Catholic bishop rose to the floor to mark the territory. “The poor belong to us,” Bishop Aloisius Muench defiantly reminded his colleagues. “We will not let them be taken from us!””
    (from Dorothy Brown and Elizabeth McKeown, The Poor Belong to Us, http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674004016 )


  11. There was a funny bit on twitter (which I’m not going to link because it’ll pop up with very bad language) from Rogue Works Progress Administration where he says, “After the last few days on Catholic Twitter, regular Twitter feels like you are a shell shocked Marine who has spent weeks clearing bunkers w a flamethrower and facing Banzai charges — and then you rotate out and see rear echelon mother[BLEEP] playing cards”

    Catholic twitter has been intense the last couple weeks, but it’s also been very enlightening, and it’s actually been rather cheering to see how many people of good will there are out there. Some more thoughts:

    –The lure of the hobbyhorse. Some bad thing is discovered, and (surprise!) the solution turns to be the thing the person has wanted for the past 20+ years, be it married priests, female priests, Latin Mass, clericalism, no gay priests, whatever. The hobbyhorse is almost never something that you could get enough support for and it’s always a bank shot or Rube Goldberg type solution where there isn’t any obvious relationship between the inputs and the outputs. It’s never something so simple as a) identify bad people b) speak up about bad people and c) make sure they don’t continue to have authority over others.
    –The Catholic Church (at least in the US) is probably now one of the better US institutions with regard to prevention of abuse to minors. People complained about it initially, but there are now very good procedures in place with regard to background-checking volunteers, child protective guidelines, and also training volunteers to recognize signs of abuse. From online discussions (even before the current issues), I’d say we have a very alert and informed laity.
    –That said, people are realizing that there were some major loopholes in the national policy–namely that while it addressed the problem of bad priests, it didn’t address the problem of bad bishops, and also it did not address the problem of sexual harassment of seminarians (McCarrick’s primary MO and apparently a huge problem). There’s also the question of how things are internationally. Those are major issues.
    –The sexual harassment of seminarians is tricky because it’s typically not a crime, even though it may be a) evil and b) a civil offense.
    –People have been asking–is Ronan Farrow busy?
    — I’d been reading a lot lately about abusive Protestant communities. (While the ones I’ve been reading about are conservative, I have to note that Jim Jones was a) way liberal b) authoritarian and c) sexually abusive to cult members and d) killed 900+ people in Guyana.) Anyway, I’m in a small private conservative forum that is interested in the problem of how to develop community, and one of the ideas I’ve been developing recently is the way that abuse (and I’m not just talking about sexual abuse) is parasitic on community, extended family, friendship, trust, and just social capital in general. All of those things (which are good things!) create opportunities for misconduct. Two secular examples:



    –We have the uncomfortable paradox that the golden age of community engagement and social capital celebrated in Bowling Alone was also a golden age for predators, and that at the same time, our own disengaged, lonely, sad society (seriously–check out the stats on kid psychological well-being) is a heck of a lot better at protecting kids from predators.


  12. With respect, AMy P, we will not know if this is a golden age for protecting kids until they’re 30 years old. Any profession that enables adults to have close, unsupervised contact with children will always be attractive to predators.

    I’ve been watching the media coverage of past abuse in independent schools in the Northeast. It seems to me that school culture can make a huge difference; some old, proud, schools have had to admit that they did not follow mandatory reporting laws. The head’s decisions on matters seem to have been decisive; and nobody talked, until the victims got old enough to decide they would not abide by the settlements their parents signed. (The Boston Globe has continued to do a super job covering this.)


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