Death by Monopoly, The Territorial Parish, and A Modest Proposal for the New Evangelization

This thought has been bouncing around in my head for some time now. At some point a year or so ago I was tempted to write it down but time slipped away. I thought of it again today as the topic came up in a conversation I had so I thought best to write it down even though I can’t hope that in such a short proposal it would be more than a shadow of my hoped for articulation. I pray others will respond if only because the vision is compelling to me and I wonder if it is possible. At some point I would like to see a scholarly treatment if only because a movement usually needs some philosophy and historical context (my sense is that this proposal has much to support it but I have done no research to speak of).

I’m no theologian and no expert on Canon law or Catholic history. But it seems to me that if one were to look for an underlying cause of the lack of growth, dynamism, and excitement in your typical parish in the United States one need look no further than the parish structure itself. For all the value there is in the hierarchy, for all the benefits that it lends to preserving and developing revealed truths, there is no getting around the fact that a system that is very good in preserving truth may raise certain challenges to propagating it. That is to say, it lends itself to a slow, lazy, risk-averse and somnolent bureaucracy that takes its members and its future for granted despite its long winded prognostications to the contrary. Specifically, and more concretely, while I am sure there are many higher level examples of this problem, I would like to discuss the territorial exclusivity that one calls the parish. Pull out your local diocesan map and you’ll see that if you live between Main Street and Elm Street, your parish is Saint Anne’s, but if you live between Elm and Maple you will be attending St. Joe’s. Now granted in this modern age these boundaries aren’t nearly as well honored as they were in years past but still there is plenty of compliance. In addition, and most importantly, your parish priest, the priest of St. Anne’s (you live between Main and Elm if I didn’t tell you) knows he has you. He knows he has a built-in fully loaded prepackaged parish. With no effort. It’s there. Now, again, I grant you this doesn’t mean you will show up. In fact, you probably won’t because most Catholics today don’t. But regardless Father knows he has some level of a built in base of souls, typically of the well-seasoned type who are close to meeting their maker, and of course, are currently living between Main and Elm. Father opens the doors on Sunday and lo and behold he has a congregation. This structure has its advantages in focusing a priest’s attentions and service on his flock. But no doubt it is a recipe for the fat and successful pulled from happier times. Times perhaps when the Church was living large. When there were so many priests that it was deemed necessary to grant exclusive fiefdoms.

But that is not today. There are many good things happening in most dioceses but I think it’s probably true that a strong growth wave in either priests or members is not one of them. Parishes need competition between themselves to sharpen the quality of their leadership, programs, mass, homilies, and sacraments, and to create new and better ways to attract more souls for God. The only way to do this in my humble opinion is to get rid of territorial exclusivity. Permit parishes to be formed wherever a dynamic priest or group of dynamic priests, whether diocesan or not, and lay team can gather a committed flock. Permit and even encourage cross-parish poaching of members, with the understanding that the more healthy inter-diocesan rivalries are fostered, the stronger the diocese as a whole will be. Give at least associate priests the ability to transfer from one parish to the other without Diocesan micromanagement and consider permitting the same for pastors. Don’t fear the splitting of the pie but its staling.

Do you want to see vocations, priests, brothers, and women religious, take off ? Give them a diocese where every block is free for the taking and territorial monopolies are non-existent. I guarantee you the that unshackling parishes from territorial boundaries and opening them to competition will attract leaders capable of growing the church like it hasn’t seen before. The dynamism, quality, and diversity that is reflected in the unbounded Catholic social media will be replicated in living breathing communities.

The lack of exclusive territories of course also suggests that any long term central planning or micromanaging by the Diocese which are open to sway by diocesan politics would be replaced with a deference to successful strategies proven in the new marketplace of evangelism.

Of course this will be opposed by those priest and parishes that like the stable and guaranteed, but increasingly old and shrinking congregation. And it will be difficult for Bishops. It will require Bishops to referee with a light touch entrusting growth to the Holy Spirit. At the same time, it will liberate the Bishop from micromanaging growth and dictating which parishes survive or die, permitting them to focus instead on teaching doctrinal truths, evangelization, and encouraging and enforcing orthodoxy.

For a contrast to the territorial parish, see the evangelical protestant model. The single church denominational model has no choice but to compete for members with other nearby congregations. They must think creatively, grow rapidly and act efficiently. Marry this model with the full measure of the Truth that is found only in the Catholic Church and bind it with the guidance of the magisterium and the world will be on fire.

In closing, I have no doubt that this is hopelessly naive and there’s a million reasons why it won’t work. Let’s hear them. Please comment below.