THE ROMAN Catholic Archdiocese currently is considering closing six Baltimore City parishes. These parishes were all once thriving communities. Now, however, they face declining numbers of parishioners and falling collections. At the same time, the costs of maintaining the church buildings escalate at a rapid pace.
Various proposals for amalgamating parishes and clergy have been reported. There even seem to be initiatives to maintain some of the social programs that operate out of these parishes. From demographic, institutional and bureaucratic perspectives, one can hardly argue against closing these parishes.
On the one hand, even an impractical theologian like me recognizes that keeping these buildings open seems foolhardy in light of the cost of renovating and maintaining them.
On the other hand, the closing of parishes, as opposed to moving them somewhere else in their neighborhoods, is a serious theological matter.
It is especially serious when we are talking about parishes in the inner city where the Catholic church's presence diminishes almost daily. Unfortunately, it does not appear that theological considerations have played enough of a role in reflection over the fate of these six parishes.
We all know why inner-city parishes are struggling (and the Catholic church is not the only Christian denomination facing these problems): Flight to the suburbs spurred by a fear of crime (especially random violence), high taxes and ineffective schools are all reasons, as is racism, but it is never named. Most of those left behind don't choose to stay; they can't leave.
They represent the most physically, economically and socially vulnerable in our society. While these people are essential to the life of a church, they are not the types of people who can, by themselves, keep a parish vibrant and viable. Hence closure seems to be the only option.
Alternatively, Christians must know that the primary mission of the church is to be a body of people who testify in word, deed and worship to the good news of Jesus Christ. The church is to manifest the life of God's kingdom, particularly in places that others have abandoned.
The local church is the best way Christians have of making their good news known, heard and felt. These are just some of the more theological reasons why the church must not abandon the city.
I am sure that all of those involved in making decisions about the future of these parishes know these things, too.
They may simply feel that the institutional reasons for closing these parishes outweigh the theological necessity of maintaining the church's presence in the city.
It is not the case, however, that we must either opt for a calculated bureaucratic decision that threatens the church's mission or an idealistic, theologically correct decision that simply ignores the hard facts of life. I would like to propose another option.
First, no decision should be made about closing these parishes for the next two years. If the buildings must be closed, so be it. The parishes should remain open.
The church must then devote itself to finding 1,200 people now worshiping in suburban parishes who will spend the next two years in a program of prayer, study and reflection alongside of the members of the six threatened parishes.
During this time they will gradually form partnerships with a particular inner-city parish. They will need to see what life is like in these places; they will need to listen to the people already there in order to find out how they see themselves, their needs and their hopes. Most importantly, they will need to form and nurture the friendships that make the common life of the church possible.
Over this time, they will gradually be integrated into the six parishes in question, 200 new people per parish.
Can the church undertake something this bold? Can it be done in ways that are not arrogant and domineering? Is the church capable of raising up people for such a task?
At various times in the past the answer to all of these questions has been yes. What the answer might be today remains to be seen.
But unless the church asks itself these questions, unless the church embarks on a bold mission to re-make God's presence in Baltimore, these parishes, and many others, will simply disappear under a demographic tidal wave.
Stephen Fowl teaches theology at Loyola College in Maryland.