Catholics in the urban Northeast are getting used to the headlines.
Parishioners in East Harlem have decided to conduct a vigil in a beloved old sanctuary because church leaders plan to lock the doors -- forever. The Archdiocese of New York recently said it would close or merge 21 churches in order to gather more people in fewer pews to be served by a declining number of priests.
A parishioner at Our Lady Queen of Angels told the New York Times: "People have been baptized here and married here, received first communion here. ... When they close the church, we are going to stay inside."
This is one image of American Catholic life today.
However, it's only part of a bigger picture, said Steven Wagner of QEV Analytics in Washington, D.C. While parishes are closing in regions long known as Catholic strongholds, more missions are opening in regions where the Catholic flock is small -- but vital.
For every Boston, there is a Knoxville, Tenn. For every Philadelphia, there is a Savannah, Ga.
"The church is closing parishes in the Northeast, but Catholics are building them in the South and the Southwest," said Wagner. "We know that a lot of that is driven by immigration and population trends. ? So if you really want to know where Catholicism is alive and where it's struggling, you can't just look at membership statistics. You have to ask other questions."
That's what Wagner and co-writer Father Rodger Hunter-Hall have tried to do in a study entitled "The State of the Catholic Church in America, Diocese by Diocese," conducted for the conservative Crisis magazine. Using statistics from the Official Catholic Directory they ranked the 176 Latin Rite dioceses in three crucial areas. Their goal was to study the role played by local bishops between 1995 and 2005.
In an attempt to gauge clergy morale, they determined if the number of active priests in a diocese was rising or falling. Five dioceses stayed the same, 29 experienced growth and 141 suffered deceases.
Then Wagner and Hunter-Hall counted the number of priests being ordained, using a scale that did not discriminate against small dioceses. On the negative end of the scale, 48 dioceses had zero ordinations in 2005 -- including large Sunbelt dioceses in Dallas and Houston.
"All kinds of factors can affect morale and the number of ordinations," said Hunter-Hall, who teaches at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. "But these statistics at least provide insights into whether a bishop is attracting new priests and whether or not he has created a climate that makes men want to serve in his diocese."
To gauge the effectiveness of evangelism efforts, they charted the number of adult converts in each diocese. Once again, Wagner and Hunter-Hall stressed that Catholicism is experiencing rapid growth in some regions due to immigration and, as always, many people enter the church through intermarriage.
However, that kind of growth "isn't the same thing as people making decisions to convert because of the faith itself," said Hunter-Hall. "If you see converts streaming into the church, that almost always tells you something about the spiritual climate in a diocese. That usually has something to do with the bishop."
Finally, the researchers combined these three factors and determined which dioceses that they thought had improved and declined the most during the past decade. The top 20 list was dominated by small dioceses -- including a stunning number in the Bible Belt. The sharpest declines were in the Northeast, especially New England.
Thus, Wagner and Hunter-Hall noted: "The church is ... most healthy in that region that is traditionally the least hospitable to it, and is least healthy in that region where it has the longest history, and in which are found the greatest concentration of Catholics (as a percentage of the population) and the largest number of Catholics."
Size is not always a virtue and, it seems, the first may become the last. Small dioceses -- especially in "missionary" regions -- consistently attracted more converts and more new priests.
"It sounds strange, but if you're a Catholic and you want to go where the action is you need to go to places like Alexandria (La.) Tyler (Texas) and Biloxi (Miss.)," said Wagner. "Catholics all over America are facing unique challenges. It seems that some people are handling them better than others."