The Seattle Archdiocese is on the verge of an epic, avoidable mistake. The archdiocese has undertaken a program called Partners in the Gospel with the goal of creating “parish families” carved out of existing parishes. The archdiocese notes a decline in attendance at Mass and participation in the sacraments, a shortage of priests and a reduction in donations. To address this, the archdiocese has sponsored “listening sessions” to explain its plans for the consolidation of parishes. While advertised as listening sessions, these sessions functioned more like rationalizations of the archdiocese’s predetermined ideas and don’t address the central question about the decline. What is the cause? What responsibility does Archbishop Paul Etienne have in this decline? What about his leadership has caused that decline? If the Mariners fail to make the playoffs, the general manager explains why. If Boeing misses a production deadline, the CEO explains why. The archbishop needs to explain why the decline is happening and what he plans to do to counteract it. Nowhere in the partners document does the archbishop address the reasons for the decline. However, it’s not difficult to diagnose the problem. The archbishop and much of the Catholic hierarchy are simply out of touch with and distrustful of the laity, making decisions based on an old, antiquated model of church governance: The laity should pray, pay and obey. This doesn’t cut it anymore. This blinkered attitude more than anything explains the decline in Mass attendance. To reverse the decline, the archdiocese needs to fully involve the laity in church and parish governance so that the church can engage with contemporary culture, giving people a reason to return to the pews and the sacraments. It should do so in the following ways: ∙ Instead of closing parishes, appoint lay pastoral coordinators to parishes without a priest. Former Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen (served 1975-1991) predicted the priest shortage long before the current archbishop arrived on the scene. Hunthausen trained lay pastoral coordinators to take over some of the parishes, thus easing the shortage of priests. This program has languished under Etienne; it needs to be revived and expanded. ∙ Require lay pastoral councils to govern all the parishes — no exceptions. Most priests are not qualified to do this, lacking the time, skills, experience and temperament. ∙ Include Catholic women in senior positions of genuine authority and influence in all aspects of Catholic ministry and life. This alone would make a huge difference in staffing, culture and engagement. Though the partnership plan doesn’t mention parish or school closures, it’s easy to see that coming. Local Catholics who have sunk time, treasure and energy into our parishes and schools don’t appreciate seeing that squandered, with communities disbanded and buildings sold off. It makes us question the hierarchy’s competence. There’s no guarantee the archdiocese’s plan will work; in fact, it likely will make things worse. My home parish, St. Anne, is a case in point. We used to have a very workable arrangement: a lay pastoral coordinator for operations, a priest to say Mass and a lay pastoral council to govern the vibrant, financially thriving community. Today, we have a priest who has disbanded the pastoral council and arrogated governance to himself and his staff. The predictable result: declining attendance and diminished revenue. This is a formula for failure, yet it seems to be the blueprint the archbishop has chosen for the Partners in the Gospel program and beyond. It’s a crisis that could be avoided if the archbishop would reverse course and engage the laity in the staffing and governance of parishes. If he and the rest of the American Catholic hierarchy fail to do this, they just might find the American Church consolidated back to Rome.
Nicholas O’Connell is founder of The Writer’s Workshop and member of the Catholic lay group Heal Our Church.