If, as projected, the economic downturn is long-lasting, there will be other measures. Dioceses are likely to halt all renovation projects or new constructions, sell off properties, shutter ministry centers, and neglect long-term obligations, including self-funded priest pension plans, many of which are already underfunded. Some of those measures simply pass the costs of the present into the future; they will need eventually to be paid.
Many dioceses run small savings-and-loan operations, in which parishes can deposit their savings and earn interest, and cash can be loaned to other parishes for construction or renovation. If parishes pull their cash reserves, dioceses will halt loans. If they halt loans, they’ll have difficulty paying interest on deposits, and parishes will be less likely to put new money on deposit.
The mutual aid of non-profit savings-and-loan will likely dry up, and future parish projects will require bank loans, at far higher interest rates, and under much harsher terms. There will be simply fewer of those projects permitted.
Large Church projects coordinated at the diocesan level are mostly funded through the gifts of major donors. Those donors have lost considerable portions of their wealth amid market volatility. The loss of their benificence will impact school scholarship funds, seminary formation, and ministry to the poor, along with campaigns to meet the underfunded pension or construction liabilities of previous decades.
Not all dioceses will be impacted equally, but several have already begun announcing the layoffs and closures that signal their financial positions.
As dioceses find themselves increasingly strapped, many bishops will become, almost certainly, less eager to send money to the bishops’ conference in Washington, DC.
In January, the U.S. bishops approved an increase on the amount of money they must send to the USCCB - but barely. The measure, similar to one passed in 2017, barely got the two-thirds majority it required, something conference officials attributed to the financial challenges and giving downturn of the 2018 sexual abuse scandal.
But in November 2019, Archbishop Charles Chaput offered another objection to increasing funding to the USCCB. “I don’t think that some of the work of the USCCB is essential to the mission of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” he said.
With diocesan revenues on the decline, the conference can surely expect to see its unrestricted revenues drop, considerably, and to see more bishops raise questions about whether the offices of the USCCB are providing a meaningful return for the Catholics in their pews.
While the USCCB has given no indication of its financial situation, some conference staffers tell CNA they are expecting a round of layoffs.
In short, from parish to conference, the Church in the U.S. should expect to see significant reductions in staff in months to come, and a long road to rehiring. Maintaining properties will become more difficult for the Church, and meeting debt and other long-term obligations will also become a challenge.
The economic downturn likely forecasts more diocesan bankruptcies, the closure and sale of parish and diocesan properties, a financially poorer presbyterate, and considerably smaller ministry staffs at every level.
What those things mean for the future of the Church is a matter of perspective.
Few will be glad to see ministry professionals lose their livelihoods, or to see the families of Church workers face uncertain futures. Few will be glad to see churches paid for by past generations fall into disrepair or be sold. Few will be glad to see retreat centers or schools shuttered.
Some will likely praise the winnowing of the Church’s bureaucratic class. But those with day-to-day experience of ministry professionals will acknowledge, even while criticizing a tendency towards bureaucratic bloat, that the individuals who fill Church positions usually do so because of a desire to serve Christ and the People of God, and usually do so after ample investment in their own education for ministry.
Nevertheless, barring some dramatic change in forecasts, those things seem practically inevitable.
They will require a new way of living the Church’s life, or the rediscovery of old ways.
A poorer U.S. church, even one made poor through tragedy, might find that it meets the vision of Pope Francis' hope of a "poor Church for the poor."
Such a Church will require more Catholics to take personal responsibility for the mission of the parish, the diocese, and, ultimately, the Gospel.
It will also require creative approaches to Christian ministry.
The downturn may well occasion a rise in the prominence and influence of ecclesial movements, whose lay members generally give far more time than other Catholics to missionary work, and often with more evangelical fervor. It may also occasion the emergence of small tight-knit faith communities within parishes, who meet regularly in homes, rather than in large parish events. It might even occasion a rise in the frequency of catechesis undertaken mostly at home, by parents themselves.
The downturn might also occasion a new zeal, and opportunity, for evangelization, as people shaken by the pandemic and its aftershocks find themselves looking for meaning. That new evangelization will likely be undertaken organically, which is say to cheaply, rather than by professional initiatives driven by expensive and time-consuming pastoral plans.
None of those things are new, but all of them might seem like novelties in the months to come. But whether bishops will encourage embracing a new way of seeing the Christian vocation, or instead try to get back to “business as usual,” remains to be seen.
The U.S. is facing an unprecedented time in its history. But the Church is not: she has faced plagues, pandemics, and depressions before.
This pandemic, and the economy, will disrupt the typical parish experience of American Catholics for a long time to come. But bishops might just begin to look to the Church’s past, to articulate a vision of hope for her future.