How the Financial Crisis Affects U.S. Churches

The impact of the financial crisis on the election will end on Nov. 4. The effect of the financial meltdown on America's churches, synagogues, temples and mosques will not end for some time to come.

For the most part, our current dire economic straits will not cause the changes to America's religious institutions I am about to enumerate. Rather, the 2008 meltdown will merely accelerate the changes that began to reshape American religion in the last part of the 20th century. Robert Putnam in his "Bowling Alone" echoed the work of other sociologists in describing the collapse of both religious and secular communal affiliations and the rise of a new more isolated and lonely civic culture.

Let's start with a religious pundit's prediction of some of the ways that the financial crisis may affect Roman Catholics and Jews. There is obviously no good time for a financial catastrophe to hit, but this one has struck the Roman Catholic Church in America at the worst possible moment. The collection plates are already light because of anger at the priest scandals, and the payments to settle legal cases have sucked the coffers dry. Even for the devout, there is often a frustration at going to mass and trying to understand the accent of the priest from Southeast Asia or some other far-away place, who is officiating because of the historically low number of vocations among American Catholic men.

Another factor hurting the church in the pocketbook and the pews is the fast-growing popularity of Evangelical Christianity, particularly among Hispanics and other traditionally Roman Catholic groups. Evangelicals have also usurped Roman Catholics as the leaders of the pro-life movement in America as many wealthier Catholics, and many prominent Catholic politicians have opted for a socially and politically convenient pro-choice posture in violation of church doctrine and values.

 The place where the most immediate impact of the crisis on the church will be felt is in the closing of many Catholic parochial schools. Despite the heroic efforts of some of the Catholic laity and all the bishops to do everything to save the Catholic schools of America, I do not believe that the wind is at their backs. Many wealthy or suburban Catholics frankly no longer need these schools for their kids. The schools themselves are also no longer staffed solely by committed priests and nuns, but often by outsiders whose occasional lack of commitment to the values of the church had to be overlooked in order to get a science teacher who knows how to use a microscope.

 Some upper-crust Catholic schools that have managed to morph into full-fledged prep schools like Chaminade high school here on Muttontown, N.Y., will survive. However, if you are the 95-year-old St. Pius V school in the Bronx, N.Y., or the 102-year-old St. Cecilia, St. Fortunata and St. Finbar schools in Brooklyn, or St. Gerard Majella and Our Lady of the Cenacle schools in Queens, you are out of luck because now everybody knows that there is just no money left for the schools.

 Non-Orthodox Jews don't support parochial education to any great degree, but they do support synagogues, and it is the American synagogue that has felt the full force of this economic tsunami. Synagogues charge dues, and in order to get the dues you need the Jews. The financial meltdown has caused Jews who were only peripheral members of synagogues to drop their memberships as they clear their household budgets of all discretionary spending, and sadly, Judaism has become discretionary for many Jews. Their departure from the membership roles has left synagogue budgets savaged.

The loss of members from American synagogues is quickening because of this crisis but it is not caused by this crisis. The root cause is the shrinking of the American Jewish population due to a brutal combination of low birth rate (1.3 kids per family), high intermarriage (52 percent nationally), and assimilation. All this may reduce the six million American Jews to less than 3 million by the year 2050. So the decline of the synagogue would have happened in any event, but the financial crisis has made many marginal synagogues just blow away.

 I do see a new model forming out of this crisis. The national Jewish fundraising organization, the United Jewish Appeal, and the Jewish federations have never funded synagogues because they could not get accountability and control over salaries and other expenses and, to be frank, working with rabbis can be a pain in the neck (so my board of trustees often tell me). I believe that this separation of federations from synagogues will end soon. I believe that quite soon, synagogues will become agencies of the Jewish federation who will set and pay rabbis' salaries, and offer free or greatly reduced membership to all Jewish families in America as an attempt to save the Jews who are left. I think this would be a very good thing, but, in full disclosure, I am also contemplating retirement!

 Bad times for the economy, means bad times for the places where we go to flee the predations of the economy. Without places of faith and hope, our financial losses will pale before our loss of charity, community and the bundling that keeps us all from breaking when we are alone and afraid.

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