Vatican Document on Reorganization of U.S. Dioceses

An email we received from an alert reader this morning gave us the impetus to return to a topic from a few weeks ago, namely, the “Radical Reshuffle for the Boston Archdiocese.”  The article appeared in a publication called “Vatican Insider.”  (Boston Catholic Insider likes the name of the publication, “Vatican Insider,” A LOT! ).

Here are a few excerpts, and then we will recap how this all relates back to recent news from Boston.

The tsunami of child abuse cases has devastated the life of the American Church

The huge wave of child abuse scandals has dramatically altered the life of the American church. Not only from a moral point of view…But also, and above all, from an economic point of view.

The lawsuits brought forward demanding tens of billions of dollars in damages, which have enriched the victims of abuse from decades ago and the team of specialised lawyers in the field have forced several dioceses to seek judicial protection for bankruptcy.

There is great concern in the Vatican. Not just because the United States, historically, has always made large contributions to the Holy See’s budget, a budget which receives very little revenue and so is normally in the red without the contributions of the dioceses of the various donating countries throughout the world, among which the most important are the U.S., Germany and Italy. The Holy See, however, also fears that economic problems could lead to repercussions on religious life and even on maintaining the basic living conditions for priests, especially pensioners.

For this reason, the Congregation for the Clergy in agreement with other departments has prepared a specific document, which will be released after the summer, possibly in October,  that is specifically dedicated to the reorganization of American dioceses…It will provide guidelines on how the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, and each individual diocese must act to rebuild its presence in their area.

A “classic” negative example of the reorganisation linked to the economic problems is that of Cleveland, where the Holy See has decided to send an apostolic visit, or rather, an investigation to look into whether the decisions taken by the Bishop Ordinary Gerard Lennon were adequate.  He announced that 29 parishes will close and another 41 will be merged. The restructuring plan which will cut 52 parishes out of 224 is already in effect. Other cities in which word about closure has been heard are Camden, New Jersey, Allentown, Pennsylvania and New York City. The reasons that prompted the decision to close parishes in Cleveland have been the flow of population to outlying areas, the financial difficulties that have seen 42% of parish budgets finish in the red and the shortage of priests. Now this last point is questioned by the Vatican and the apostolic visit will serve to ascertain the facts. The Vatican has asked Lennon to stop his policy of savage cuts.  In Boston, amongst many other controversies, he closed 60 parishes. So far the Vatican has not had any luck.

The protests of the faithful against these cuts have been numerous and loud and have even reached the Vatican. This uprising inspired the creation of a document which is based precisely on the nature of participation at the grass roots level that the Church in the United States has, therefore giving an important role to the laity. The philosophy is that of making a distinction between parish and the church. A diocese in difficulty does well to reduce the number of parishes, but must maintain churches and chapels where they exist, perhaps entrusting the care to families of the faithful who are willing to look after them and keep them open. Then on Sundays it is easy to send a priest to celebrate Mass. This solution would take into account various factors, the first being the singular issue of distances, which in the United States are so large. Outright closure of places of worship often oblige the private faithful of the parish to take long journeys to participate in the holy Sunday service.

A second problem that the document will take into account is the sale of and management changes at Catholic hospitals. The first recommendation is to preserve an ethical perspective in the case of a change in management. If this is not possible, then one can sell, but must anyway favour organizations and institutions that are ethically sound. Finally – and this will not be in the document, and will probably be part of recommendations provided to the individual bishops, there is great concern about the consequences of the payment of damages for the abuses. Some dioceses, such as Boston, led by the Franciscan Cardinal O’Malley that have been particularly affected by the abuse phenomenon, are extremely generous. But they may run the risk of not being able to pay for pensions and healthcare assistance to elderly priests. The document will advise the creation of a guaranteed safety net for people such as these who are particularly vulnerable.


As the alert reader who passed this along to BCI noted, multiple issues that have attracted attention in Rome seem to have some origins in Boston or connection to the Boston archdiocese.

  • Extremely generous child abuse settlements
  • Drastic parish closings
  • Ethical issues around the sale of the Catholic hospital
  • Ability to pay for pensions and maintain basic living conditions and healthcare for elderly priests

Though the child abuse claims and initial plans for parish closings preceded the arrival of Cardinal O’Malley in Boston, for better or for worse, the manner in which he has dealt with all of the above is certainly something that Cardinal Sean and his team “own.”  We hope the Congregation for the Clergy is well-informed–in particular, about the $25 million buyout clause in the Caritas deal which we discussed multiple times last year. Last July in our blog post, “Trust” we shared how Cerberus/Steward can abandon the Catholic identity of the hospitals if it is “burdensome” to them and start performing abortions at Caritas hospitals for a donation of $25 million to a charity chosen by Cardinal O’Malley.

BCI thinks the final document will be very valuable, as many dioceses are wrestling with these issues. What do you think of how the Boston archdiocese has handled the areas cited in the article?

16 Responses to Vatican Document on Reorganization of U.S. Dioceses

  1. Liam says:

    This bit from the rumor mill (and the Vatican rumor mill is vast and unreliable, even from “sound” and “reliable” sources) sounds in its current form somewhat, well, silly from the typical American context, both in terms of civil law and area size of parishes. The USA is not Italy.

  2. Liam says:

    More likely, the Vatican is realizing that, to the extent it is seen as exercising control over individual bishops and dioceses, it will be increasingly liable to be viewed as liable for their actions and omissions. (Power and accountability – including liability – are fairly correlated in the law of the Anglosphere, particularly in situations of closed ownership, as it were.)

    This might help to explain those who want more Vatican involvement in local affairs are finding getting action from Rome an exercise in frustration….

    And this trend will only deepen.

    Because of this, in a couple of generations time, we may well see a transformation in the way bishops are selected (the current system only dates back effectively to the 1830s, btw; it’s not Tradition, that is to say)

    • A Priest says:


      As early as 325, at the Council of Nicaea the authority to approve of bishops has been in the hands of bishops, specifically the Metropolitan archbishop of a diocese that was sufferagen to that particular archdiocese. Throughout history there have been times when Kings claimed a right to approve bishops or even appoint them but this has always been a bone of contention with the Popes. Over the course of time the process has evolved to where it is now and yes, the laity have a say, though most might not know that. It’s not put to election, and would we really want that in this day in age when politicians are proving themselves untrustworthy. The last thing you’d want to do is have elections where “popular” priests who hold views contrary to Church teaching would be elected bishops…I can see it now…disaster. Anyway the current process was codified in the 1917 Code of Canon Law and amended and changed slightly through Vatican II. It’s to simplistic to say, “the current system has only been around since 1830”, without really looking at the history.

      • Liam says:

        I was not referring to popular election (except perhaps by acclamation, which is traditional), so much a presbyteral or synodal election.

        Rome also cooperated freely (without contention) in selection by sovereign for a few centuries before it became a bone of contention. But selection by presbyterate, cathedral chapter or synod was not subject to that contention.

        Transferring sees was a serious canonical violation for centuries, viewed as a form of serial monogamy, as it were.

        The current system really dates from the Belgian settlement in the 1830s and the gradual separation of church and state around the world. It’s had its merits, but it has serious flaws, and most people labor under the misimpression that (1) its far older than it actually is, and (2) that it would require a change in doctrine to change it.

        The Pope needs to confirm a bishop is in communion. The Pope does not need to select the bishop. It would be better for Rome to insulate itself more from that process, to better claim a lack of control…and liability….. Rome is learning that it can’t claim absolute control and then *credibly* claim an utter lack of control at the same time according to its preferences.

  3. bitsnbytes says:

    There may be some places where the closure of churches has obliged the faithful of the parish to travel long distances for Sunday Mass, but I doubt that this is the case in our archdiocese. Are there any locations where people have to travel more than even 10 miles to reach a church?

    • A Priest says:

      This is a great point…we need to get away from the mindset of having a church on every corner

    • Catholic Gal says:

      Very good point. Take St Frances Cabrini in Scituate, for example. A vigil has been going on there, but really, for what? St Mary’s is just a couple miles away in town, and St Anthony’s is about 5 or 6 miles in the other direction, in Cohasset. It’s not a great burden to go to either of those two parishes. It seems to me there is a very narrow, parochial mindset that loses sight of the universal Church in favor of a little bit of personal turf.

  4. Objective Observer says:

    La Stampa is not exactly l’Osservatore Romano. Think New York Post. So how does it serve La Stampa’s point of view to run this piece? And how much of it is innuendo stitched to some facts? Is it sort of a catchall of issues in the United States, loosely fitted together?

    The translation, provided by La Stampa, makes the point a bit difficult to grasp… “This uprising inspired the creation of a document which is based precisely on the nature of participation at the grass roots level that the Church in the United States has, therefore giving an important role to the laity.” Try diagramming that one, Sister Mary Elizabeth!

    Is it bad that lay people are involved? Or better? Is the document from the Vatican, and does it argue that there are plenty of priests? Or that the laity should run parishes? Or are the healthcare union members unhappy? Has the blogger been reading U.S. newspapers and trying to find something the Vatican is doing and link them? Hard to tell from this blog.

    Rome tends to receive a lot of complaints and act on very few — they listen to a fairly small number of people, and none of those would be lay people, unless they are armed with subpoenas or a lot of money. And the glacial pace with which they move allows them to change course almost imperceptibly.

    One thing is certain, reading the La Stampa blog makes one more grateful than ever for BCI’s clear writing and use of documentation!

  5. Ray Neary says:

    Are we witnessing a delayed reaction to the Cerberus/Steward swindle now that “multiple issues” have come to the attention of the Vatican? And how long will it take them in Rome to realize that the much publicized “financially struggling” Caritas Christi chain of Archdiocesan hospitals has yet to release its financial data for fiscal 2010? Yes, this is the accounting year which ended on Sept. 30, 2010.

  6. A. J. Constantino says:

    I am going to leave a very unpopular reply!

    In my opinion, the closing of a church has nothing to do with “authority” – it has everything to do with support and attendance at Mass!

    I am tired of the blame game! We have no one to blame but ourselves!

    I am often times mystified when people say: “I do not go to Mass because of Father XYZ .” or “I have not been to mass, Since Vatican II”,

    My question is what does that have to do with anything? Going to church has everything to do with the Eucharist and the gospel! Nothing to do with personality EVERYTHING to do with the True prescence of Christ!

    The pews are most often empty due to our being lazy or the me – my – mine generation!

    The sad reality is we also need to support the Parish church with cold hard cash! I know times are tough! I recently had my pay cut by 50% but the needs of my parish church continue. you need to give up that second cup of Starbucks – eat out one less time a month – SACRIFICE for the Word of God to be proclaimed!

    We need to accept responsibility for the up keep of the buildings, the staff salaries, the heat, the lights, the insurance! Do not look to 66 Brooks Drive – we need to look within ourselves.

    Do I feel for the people whose Parish church has been closed? YES! I also know that many Priests and the faithful have had open arms to receive those who have been ‘displaced”.

    Would i have made the same choices in closings? In some cases i know of NO! I look at revere, where i live; the choice to close st. John in the Point of Pines section was not the best – the distance to Saint Anthony’s is far! But the closing of Saint Theresa was simple common sense.

    Parents need to encourage vocations to the Priesthood! Do not let the sins of individual men be confused with the honor of Priesthood!

    Let’s stop the blame game and accept responsibility for the health of the Church!

    • A Priest says:

      AJ, it is quite possible that you have never been more correct on anything ever than you are with this post…brilliant…I’ve been saying the same thing for about 10 years…thank you for affirming what I believed to be true all along. You the man!

    • Carolyn says:


      From one whose own parish closed, you could not be more correct. Church buildings went up without a thought for how to maintain them; parishioners wandered away for “greener” pastures (whether that meant moving to the ‘burbs or playing golf on Sunday morning); and the $1 people put into the collection in 1975 was still $1 in 1995. Pulling together with another parish has been a much better solution than watching our parish get smaller by the year.

      Totally in agreement about vocations as well. We as parents must be the ones who introduce our kids to those living the vowed life the way it’s meant to be lived. And there are plenty of great priests to help us do just that.

      Thanks for making perfect sense.

  7. Catholic Gal says:

    Some parts of the article strike me as a little odd. For example, they could have at least gotten Bishop Richard Gerard Lennon’s name right. The part about the Vatican wanting to investigate the concern over the number of priests made me laugh. All they have to do is check the Internet; see link below, for some statistics. In 1970, Cleveland had 600 active priests; today there are 273 active priests and 104 retired ones, serving 205 parishes. That’s a decline of more than half the number of active priests. Something has to give! I love the Church and will defend it to the hilt, but the Vatican bureaucracy makes itself look ridiculous at times. They need to discover Google!

  8. […] last post about the a rumored Vatican document in the works on reorganization of U.S. dioceses prompted so many insightul comments that we felt it was worth a follow-up […]

  9. John Estabrook says:

    AJC ,
    I think your comments are right on target, yet often ignored.

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