The case for saving Chicago’s old churches

Here is an argument for why the broader public should work to preserve dozens of older churches throughout Chicago:

The protection of religious structures presents a unique set of problems. A particularly formidable roadblock is the city’s inability to step in to designate threatened religious buildings as a landmark. The city has powers allowing it to move forward with landmark designations for non-religious buildings in spite of owner consent, however, a 1987 revision to the Landmark Ordinance states that “no building that is owned by a religious organization…shall be designated a historical landmark without the consent of its owner.” And without protections, many of these buildings are left to deteriorate and ultimately face demolition…

Chicago’s Catholic churches are among the most prominent visual connections to the city’s past and the ethnic communities that once dominated the neighborhoods. They provide clues to what ethnic communities make up Chicago’s diverse population through the languages engraved on facades, the style of buildings, and the saints for whom they were named…

For most Chicagoans, the interiors of sacred places remain a mystery, but Seidel’s anecdote indicates that people still care a great deal about the buildings in their neighborhoods, even when they might not necessarily understand or fully appreciate the Latin, Polish, Hebrew, or Greek spoken inside.

And this is the exact point that preservationists believe to be the most important. Even if the number of people attending religious services drops, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the general populace fails to recognize great architecture or stop using religious structures as spatial identifiers. It doesn’t mean that many of these struggling South Side neighborhoods don’t deserve to have culturally significant structures.

This comes after the archdiocese of Chicago announced it would close dozens of churches. This is interesting because historically it has been Protestant groups who have been happy to step away from their churches in big cities. Particularly after white flight, many of those Protestant churches were sold to other religious groups, converted to other uses, or demolished over recent decades. But, many Catholic churches stayed because of a commitment Catholics had to the building and neighborhoods as well as providing worship spaces to new waves of immigrants. The archdiocese suggests this is no longer tenable:

In his announcement, Blase indicated that the church is faced with a perfect storm: a shortage of priests joining the seminary, declining mass attendance, and the deferral of maintenance bills for churches that are in need of attention. All of these issues combined has put a squeeze on archdiocese resources and will force many parishes to either close or consolidate. And with the looming closure of potentially dozens of churches, there is now a threat of demolition for some of the city’s most important cultural and architectural icons.

But, I would guess it may be hard to mobilize many neighborhoods (and the necessary resources) to save old churches from religious groups that few attend or adhere to in those places. How many Americans are willing to sacrifice something to save old buildings for the sake of keeping them around? The argument laid out above is a typical one from preservationists: losing the buildings means losing a physical part of the place’s heritage. But, where are the resources to preserve these buildings if market forces – both in the economy and in American religion where attendees can choose among hundreds of options – are suggesting they are not worth much?

Sociologists help Catholic Church understand itself but the data is not always welcome

Here is an interesting look at the reactions to the findings of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate:

Sociology wasn’t always viewed kindly when applied to church matters. Cardinal Roger Mahony (now retired) of Los Angeles once assessed as “nonsense” research done in the early 1990s by Richard Schoenherr of the University of Wisconsin predicting an impending priest shortage. Mahony said the work did the church a “disservice and “presumes that the only factors at work are sociology and statistical research. … We live by God’s grace, and our future is shaped by God’s design for his church — not by sociologists.” The predictions of the priest shortage, by the way, were remarkably accurate and decades ahead of the reality.

Not all church leaders feel that way, of course, and it was a prominent archbishop, Boston Cardinal Richard Cushing, who gathered other bishops and superiors of religious communities and donated $50,000 to start CARA…

Even the most convincing data can be upsetting when it gets in the way of a favorite narrative. Gaunt cautions that CARA’s inquiries can lead to rather pedestrian conclusions. For instance, he said, the center began to notice a drop in baptisms. The major theories being advanced in some quarters to explain the phenomenon blamed secularization and an anti-religious U.S. culture.

What didn’t fit, however, was CARA’s understanding that the decline was occurring in areas with lots of new Catholics. “This is in Dallas or Houston or Phoenix,” said Gaunt. “There are no parishes you can walk to. They all drive. And they’re overwhelmed. And this is where we’re beginning to find the drop in the number of baptisms. The data would suggest it’s not secularization — it’s parking. If you’re there with a baby, and you’re going to have to show up an hour early to try to get a parking spot and get in,” he said, that could cut into attendance and those early sacraments.

Some good discussion of how data can be used used by religious organizations: sometimes it goes well and sometimes the data is not welcome. I would think large organizations would want as much information as they could get but there are several issues when social scientists get involved. One, data doesn’t interpret itself – it simply provides more information that has to be acted upon. Second, interpretations of the data data can contradict folk theories and threaten those who hold such ideas.  Third, sociology can be viewed as antithetical to God’s work, either through its emphasis on society and humans or its tendencies toward liberal theories. Yet, hopefully good things can come from this marriage of sociological findings and church work.

Catholic bishop in Germany removed after building new McMansion

Catholic priests living in McMansions are controversial and one German bishop was just removed from his post due to the uproar about his new large house:

Pope Francis on Wednesday permanently removed a German bishop from his Limburg diocese after his 31 million-euro ($43-million) new residence complex caused an uproar among the faithful.

Francis had temporarily expelled Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from Limburg in October pending a church inquiry.

At the center of the controversy was the price tag for the construction of a new bishop’s residence complex and related renovations. Tebartz-van Elst defended the expenditures, saying the bill was actually for 10 projects and there were additional costs because the buildings were under historical protection…

Francis has called on his priests and bishops to be models of sobriety in a church that “is poor and is for the poor.”

McMansions don’t get many favorable reviews for the average homebuyer so it is not too surprising they may be even more disliked for religious figures. But, this sounds like it could be more than just a personal McMansion in a suburban neighborhood and more about luxurious finishes and a larger complex. At the least, this is a good example of the term McMansion being used more in a moral judgment sense rather than strictly matching a home that has all of the typical American McMansion characteristics.

What happens if a Catholic archbishop moves to a New Jersey McMansion in retirement?

“A Catholic archibishop moves into a McMansion for his retirement…” might be the start of a joke or it may be this story from New Jersey:

The 4,500-square-foot home sits on 8.2 wooded acres in the hills of Hunterdon County. With five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, a three-car garage and a big outdoor pool, it’s valued at nearly $800,000, records show.

But it’s not quite roomy enough for Newark Archbishop John J. Myers.

Myers, who has used the Franklin Township house as a weekend residence since the archdiocese purchased it in 2002, is building a three-story, 3,000-square-foot addition in anticipation of his retirement in two years, The Star-Ledger found. He will then move in full-time, a spokesman for the archbishop said.

The new wing, now just a wood frame, will include an indoor exercise pool, a hot tub, three fireplaces, a library and an elevator, among other amenities, according to blueprints and permits filed with the Franklin Township building department.

There are quite a few details about the house in this story. It sounds like a fairly lavish McMansion but there are plenty of similar homes in New Jersey, a state closely tied to McMansions due to its many suburbanites as well as the famous Soprano McMansion.

However, there is also a lot of questioning of why an archibishop needs such a lavish house. The issue isn’t just that this is a big or poorly-designed house. Rather, this is a moral issue. Shouldn’t priests live simply and serve God rather than live it up in a McMansion paid for by church members? If purchasing a McMansion is excessive spending for an average American and threatens to throw off their retirements, how much more so is it for an archbishop? This could lead to an interesting conversation of just what kind of housing priests should live in to best pursue their vocation and provide the image the church wants to project.

Cardinal George on secularization: it is harder for people to have faith today

Chicago Cardinal Francis George makes a secularization argument by suggesting it is more difficult for people today to have faith:

Cardinal George acknowledged the pope is concerned about faith, and added that all the cardinals are concerned as well. This will be utmost in their minds when they deliberate in Rome…

“The larger question: Is there now such a sea change in Western culture that people can’t believe; that they aren’t open to belief?” he asked. “That therefore you have to be your own god in a way. ‘You have to do just what you want to do in the way that you want to do it. You have to follow your own dream.’

“Well, it’s important to follow God’s dream.

“So we could say maybe (some) people have lost the gift of faith because we’ve created a society where people can’t believe. It’s impossible — well, not impossible, never impossible, but very difficult — to believe because it goes against the grain to say, ‘I surrender my life.’ Maybe it’s why marriage is in such difficulty because when you’re married that’s what you do. You surrender your life to a woman or a man, a husband, a wife. Well, faith means you surrender your life to God.”

George is suggesting social conditions, “we’ve created a society,” make it more difficult to have faith. He doesn’t suggest exactly why this is. Sociologists and others have made arguments over the years for why this has happened: new technologies, demonstrable progress as well as believing in its capabilities, new ways of thinking (from the Enlightenment on) that favor reason and science, the development of the welfare state that takes care of basic human needs, two world wars, and more.

It would be interesting to hear how the Catholic cardinals discuss this topic as they pick a new pope. On one hand, there are over 1 billion Catholics in the world. On the other hand, Catholics and other Christians have been challenged for decades on the relevance of faith and what position it should play in civil society.

Pope: modern society doesn’t leave much room for God

Pope Benedict’s Christmas Eve mass included this commentary about the role of religion in modern society:

“Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him,” said the pope, wearing gold and white vestments.

“The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full,” he said.

The leader of the world’s some 1.2 billion Roman Catholics said societies had reached the point where many people’s thinking processes did not leave any room even for the existence of God.

“Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the ‘God hypothesis’ becomes superfluous,” he said.

“There is no room for him. Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so ‘full’ of ourselves that there is no room left for God.”

This sounds like a secularization argument to me: the rational thinking that began off several centuries ago before and during the Enlightenment has squeezed out God. It also reminds me of the 2004 book Sacred and Secular by Norris and Inglehart that suggested the modern welfare state has met more people’s daily needs so there is less need for God.

Additionally, the Pope also suggests modern technologies that offered to help make our lives more efficient now just take up more of our time. Is the Pope simply a crank from an older generation or is this prescient commentary about the downsides of technology millions the world over have adopted?

New survey of Chicago Catholics

On Wednesday, a new comprehensive report on Chicago Catholics will be released. The report is based on data from “524 Catholics in Cook and Lake counties” and the project was headed up by sociologist Andrew Greeley. Here are a few of the findings:

In addition, 78 percent of the respondents said Catholicism is either “extremely important” or “very important” in their lives.

Greeley wrote that the survey suggests “two separate Catholic identities — an imaginative, story-telling identity and a rules identity,” commonly referred to as “Cafeteria Catholics.” Those Catholics revere the sacraments and run in primarily Catholic circles, but they make their own choices on moral, religious and political issues.

“The only safe prediction seems to be that … there will be, whether the leadership likes it or not, varied forms of affiliation with a Church most of them still love,” Greeley wrote. “Not Cafeteria Catholics so much as Smorgasbord Catholics, a rich and diverse collection of ways to affirm one’s Catholicism.”

These findings about Catholics don’t seem too different than findings from other studies of American religion that show people of faith don’t follow all of the doctrines or practices of their faith traditions. Overall, people have some basic Christian beliefs or notions about spirituality but then a wide range of opinions on moral and practical issues.

A few questions about the methodology: 524 as a total N seems a little small plus I wonder why they went for Catholics in Cook and Lake Counties and not some of the other collar counties. This reminds me that on maps that show the religious plurality in each American county, DuPage County is coded Catholic. I’d also be curious to know whether Latino Catholics, of which there are a large number in the Chicago region, have different views than other Catholics.