A group of professors (retired and otherwise) in the Netherlands have joined forces and written a manifesto to the Dutch bishops to voice their concerns about the ongoing effort of consolidating and merging parishes and faith communities in the Dutch Church province. They warn that mergers, which are ongoing or planned in virtually all dioceses, will destroy the “flourishing, sparkling and adult faith communities, in which lay faithful contribute in modern ways, adapted to local circumstances to faith life and liturgy, in open communication with local authorities” that have sprung up in the second half of the previous century.
Although the professors’ concerns are undoubtedly genuine, there are a number of problems with the manifesto, which I will outline below.
First there is the outline of the problem, which I have summarised above. The existence of such “flourishing communities” is considered “a great good”: they offer a home to active Catholics, which has g”reat existential value”. But, the professors say, the bishops are intent on destroying that by creating enormous parishes with a single council. And the reason that the bishops are doing this? The shortage of priests.
This is a clear untruth. As many bishops, confronted with similar concerns in their own dioceses, have said time and again: parish mergers are chiefly dictated by financial and demographical concerns: small parishes will, in the future, no longer have the financial means to support themselves, and the number of faithful is expected to drop over the coming years. It has been doing so for years already. And yes, the number of priests is certainly relevant in that context. But it is not the sole reason for consolidating and merging parishes and communities.
What the professors completely miss or ignore in their manifesto is the bishops’ duty to communicate and protect the faith. They say that the mergers are smothering the specific identities and expressions of parishes and communities. Measures imposed from above destroy the unique expressions of faith in these small communities. But what if these expressions are at odds with the teachings of the Church, with the faith that the bishops are tasked to protect? I would dare say that that is the case in too many communities in the Netherlands and Europe as a whole. Imposed measures, of whatever nature, are not so one-dimensional as to merely want to limit identity and expression. They can, and often also do, serve to assure the continued existence of such expressions, but always in union with the Church that Christ established.
Another odd conclusion that the manifesto describes is that the macro level (the Church province) which, the professors say, is characterised by bureaucratic and financial structures and cultures, can’t intrude on the micro level, the local faith communities, which are characterised by communicative action, mutual understanding, agreement and meaningfulness. But neither level exists in isolation, so some level of “intrusion” must occur, since both levels are interdependent. A model by which a group of faith communities continues to exist under one parish council, as is foreseen in virtually all the plans for mergers, will allow the micro level to continue operating as it should, and will prevent the problems that are now looming on the horizon: lack of financial means and a dearth of volunteers as the number of faithful drops.
As I have said, the concerns of the professors are undoubtedly genuine, but their cause is not served by inaccurate projections of reality. All the bishops who are currently facing the prospect of parish mergers have been quite open about the reasons behind it, and in many cases they have emphasised the need for thriving communities on the local level. Placing them under a unified parish council within the larger framework of the diocese does not mean their end. Bishops can’t end that, but neither can they be solely responsible for the communites’ continued existence. That is in the hands of the communities themselves. In many placers, things can’t continue for very long as they are now, but they can if the structures that are needed are in place, and if faithful everywhere work towards it, keeping their communities alive in Christ. Only they, and He, can do that. A bishop can’t, and neither can he prevent it.