Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Church closures are a sad, increasingly predictable fact of life in some U.S. dioceses, and that is not news to Peggy Noonan, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a parishioner at the Church of St. Thomas More on Manhattan's tony Upper East Side.
But Noonan ruffled feathers in the local chancery when she argued in a Dec. 26 column that Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York had no good reason for floating a proposal to shutter the church she attends. With its standing-room only liturgies, successful school, array of programs, legacy of fostering vocations, community outreach and solid finances, she argued, the Church of St. Thomas More should be celebrated, not closed.
So why might her parish's days be numbered? Noonan offered two reasons: The cardinal wanted to raise cash by selling off the property, and the optics were better if he closed a parish located in an affluent neighborhood.
"The archdiocese is defensive about closing churches in poor areas. What better way to comfort themselves, and avoid bad press, than closing one in an affluent area?" wrote Noonan.
"The cardinal himself told one parishioner he sees it as a matter of fairness. 'I can’t just close poor parishes,' the parishioner quoted him as saying. The parishioner responded, 'Poor people are not helped because rich people are hurt.'”
I had not heard the "fairness" argument before, when dealing with the subject of church closures, though it made sense that a chancery would give a break to parishes in low-income areas.
I contacted Joe Zwilling, the archdiocese's spokesman, to get some clarity. In particular, I asked him to explain the cardinal's suggestion that it was "unjust" to close poor parishes." (Indeed, "poor" is not a precise term as the archdiocese has shuttered insolvent parishes in wealthy neighborhoods.)
"The archdiocese has consistently said that parish mergers are not being based on parish finances, which are only one criterion, among many, that we have asked our parishes, our parish clusters, the advisory group, the priest council, to consider when they made their proposal to the Cardinal," Zwilling told me.
"To have expected the archdiocese to only involve parishes that were struggling financially would have been unjust."
As for the Church of St.Thomas More, Zwilling emphasized that no decision had been reached about its future. "Cardinal Dolan has, as part of the Making All Things New process, asked 14 of the clusters to consider a proposal and give him feedback. We announced that we were going to do this on Nov. 2, when we also announced the decisions that had been made. The proposed merger of St. Thomas More with [Jesuit] St. Ignatius Loyola was one of those proposals. We have asked the clusters to get back to us with their response by March 1."
I asked Zwilling about another statement attributed to him in Noonan's column. She said he told her that in "two decades" the clergy shortage would hit more parishes, and so the cardinal needed to take preemptive action now.
Noonan rejected this explanation as overly cautious, and even counterproductive; "in a church founded on miracles, we’ll pray for vocations. More to the point, as one active friend of the archdiocese said to me, "In what way does closing a vital parish create more priests? Please share the logic.'”
But Zwilling told me it was reasonable to plan for "a time that we would not be able to staff all of our parishes."
He also referred me to a column written by New York Auxiliary Bishop John O'Hara, who is directing the archdiocese's Making All Things New initiative, which is developing plans for future closures and mergers. In his Jan. 4 column in the New York Post, Bishop O'Hara offered a rebuttal of Noonan's arguments, accusing her of spreading "misinformation and half truths."
Noonan "imagines that this proposal is nothing more than an attack on the rich and a move against 'excellence' (which begs the question, in Noonan's mind is 'excellence' only to be found among the well-to-do?) and an attempt to cash in on real estate," stated Bishop O'Hara.
I don't think Noonan intended to equate affluence with excellence. In fact, while St. Thomas More is located in a pricey area of Manhattan. My friend, George Sim Johnston, who has served as its parish finance chairman and attends daily Mass there, tells me that the church attracts a diverse mix of Catholics who iive and work in the area. Johnston said he shared Noonan's concerns.
Bishop O'Hara also did not effectively address one interesting question posed in Noonan's column: Are strong parish churches — those with packed Sunday Masses and well-regarded programs — being penalized because they happen to be a posh neighborhood and the optics are bad?
Noonan does not prove her point, though I suspect that her column will lead the archdiocse, if it needed such encouragement, to proceed with caution.
As for the suggestion that future clergy shortages justify a policy of preemptive closings of successful parishes ... well, that argument has yet to be supported. In fact, the unintended impact of such a policy would be to foster mediocrity rather than reward excellence.
One more point worth considering: Some dioceses have a stronger record on vocations than New York's. Maybe it is time to consider other reasons for the shortage in New York, beginning with a thorough review of the Catholic identity of the parochial school system and CCD programs.