Behind the New York Church Closings

Father Rutler discusses spiritual realities in light of decision to shutter 55 churches.

Behind the New York Church Closings

Pam Morris

Catholics in dozens of parishes in New York City and several other counties that make up the Archdiocese of New York learned the sad news that the church where they have been worshiping will be closing. 

As part of a major reorganization, Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced the results of a study aimed at saving badly-needed funds and shifting churches and priests to areas outside the city where the Catholic population is growing.

One well-known midtown Manhattan parish that was spared the axe is Holy Innocents, a traditionally built church that has attracted a large group of traditional Catholics in recent years. It is the only Catholic church in New York City that offers a daily Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite, also known as the Tridentine Mass.

Father George Rutler is administrator of both Holy Innocents and the West Side Church of St. Michael, which also was passed over by the reorganization plan. Father Rutler, author of Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943, and other works, spoke with Aleteia Monday about spiritual issues in the background of the archdiocesan reorganization.

Obviously, church/parish closings/mergers are not a new phenomenon, but in your view, what are some of the factors that lead to situations like this?

Among the factors is a decline in Catholic life. One statistic I was given recently is the Catholic population of New York City is just about the same as it was 70 years ago. There’s not a decline in Catholic population; there’s a decline in Catholic life, and there are all kinds of reasons for that.

I think there’s a great deal of dishonesty and denial on the part of some people who engaged in the fantasy that we were entering a new springtime of the faith. The aggiornamento of Vatican II was supposed to bring in tons more people; it did just the opposite. So long as people refuse to admit there were mistakes made a generation ago — in catechesis, liturgy, addressing the real problems of secularism — they’re never going to make any real reform.

We’ve also had a lot of white flight from the city out to the suburbs, and in the northern counties there is a need for new parishes. At the same time, down here, we do have…redundant parishes. Another reason for these closures is that the churches were organized very much for ethnic purposes rather than evangelical purposes. There was a cultural assumption that the Church was a home for immigrants, and that they would belong to parishes not just for the faith but also for, legitimately, social reasons, for community, schools and the like. So in Manhattan we have an old German parish, an Italian parish, [etc.], and they’re in close proximity with each other. And, and that’s no longer needed.

The primary fact is that most Catholics aren’t practicing the faith. Mass attendance in New York is about 12%. You’ve had about a 50% drop since the Second Vatican Council. Nobody will address that. They’ll acknowledge the fact, but they will not address the fact that there were some serious mistakes made in the last generation.

It would make a good study on why New York City, which is so culturally vibrant — sort of tormented and perverse in many ways, but vibrant— has such spiritual lethargy.

The other factor, of course, is the priest shortage. It’s a curiosity that here we are in New York City, the heart of the universe — I say that as a New Yorker — and we have such a low number of priestly vocations. In my last parish, where I was for 12 years, I had nine fellows go on to the seminary.  When some clerics ask "How is it done?" I tell them, and some don’t want to hear it. I think it’s significant now that more young men are going into religious orders rather than the diocesan priesthood. Of course they are distinct kinds of ministries but I think some of them go into religious orders who might have gone into the secular priesthood, because the local scene often seems banal. The religious orders often are more challenging.