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Catholic Churches in Chicago area facing challenges

Updated: April 15, 2013 11:03AM



Even with the excitement marking a newly elected pope beginning his work at the Vatican, the Catholic Church in the greater Chicago area remains an institution facing a series of serious challenges.

Nationwide, one out of every 10 Americans is a former Catholic, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

And according to a poll taken last week, 53 percent of American Catholics believe the leadership of the church is out of touch with its membership.

In the Chicago area, Roman Catholics are still the largest religious denomination, with 2.3 million of nearly 6 million people, living in Cook and Lake counties, the area covered by the Chicago Archdiocese. By comparison, Catholics in the nearby Joliet and Gary, Ind. archdioceses number approximately 658,000 and 186,000, respectively.

In the Chicago Archdiocese, there are 276,000 fewer Catholics than there were in 1980, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. This decline occurred despite overall population growth in the area of more than 200,000, along with a large influx of mostly Catholic Hispanics during the same period. Similar data was unavailable for Joliet and Gary.

Robert McClory, a retired Northwestern University journalism professor who blogs for the National Catholic Reporter and a former priest, attributes the decline to disenchantment with church policies on contraception, homosexuality and other issues.

“A significant number of Catholics have bailed out of the church to go elsewhere or nowhere,” McClory said. “People say responsible contraception is not a sin at all, and Rome says, ‘Yes it is.’ That kind of dictatorship to people today is unintelligible.”

But other local Catholics say the rules are the rules, and the church draws strength from those traditions.

“The Catholic Church isn’t a democracy where we can just pick and choose what we want,” said Mary Anne Hackett, the president and CEO of the conservative group Catholic Citizens of Illinois. “There is a body of doctrines and teachings, and I believe if you’re going to call yourself a Catholic, then you ought to obey those teachings and doctrines.”

Hackett acknowledges that people may be leaving the church because they disagree with its stands on certain issues, but adds that Pope Benedict was willing to make that sacrifice. “He said the church may have to be smaller but more faithful to the teachings of the church.”

At the University of St. Francis in Joliet, school President Dr. Michael Vinciguerra and Sr. Dolores Zemont, president of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Francis, were positive about the church’s future under a new leader.

“I would say there’s great optimism,” said Vinciguerra, adding that there is “hope for reformation” without the core faith being altered.

A lot of people “have been in a wait-and-see mode,” Zemont said. “Some have been very discouraged over a variety of things in the church.”

Though she admitted to knowing little of the new pope’s background, that fact that he has chosen the name Francis, after the “reformer” St. Francis of Assisi, “is very, very telling. And so I’m hoping that he can really reach out to all areas of the church and put things back together.”

There is a lot to reassemble. In Chicago alone, the number of priests serving in the Chicago Archdiocese has declined to 588, down by more than one third since 1985. One hundred parishes have closed since 1975, and 182 elementary schools closed during the same period according to archdiocese numbers.

Money is starting to be a serious problem in the archdiocese. For the past five years, the take from the collection basket has dropped every year. For the past four years the archdiocese, which has an annual budget of around $1 billion, has run an annual deficit of more than $30 million, a trend the Cardinal Francis George called “unsustainable.”

By comparison, the Archdiocese of Joliet has been running a surplus for the past three years — $1.4 million in 2012, $3 million in 2011 and just north of $3.4 million in 2010 — on a vastly smaller budget of $45.6 million. While there are 292 priests in the Joliet archdiocese, a spokesman couldn’t say whether that number represented an increase or decline from previous years.

Just before Pope Benedict XVI resigned, Chicago’s Cardinal George announced layoffs among archdiocese administrators, the closure of five schools and cuts in money for needy parishes.



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