In a short story about his Pennsylvania hometown, published in The New Yorker in 1961, John Updike wondered why more people didn’t attend church. To enter a “venerable and lavishly scaled building,” he wrote, and “to witness the windows donated by departed patrons and the altar flowers arranged by withdrawn hands and the whole considered spectacle lustrous beneath its patina of long use; to pay, for all this, no more than we are moved to give—surely in all democracy there is nothing like it.” Nearly 60 years later, on this Easter weekend, nobody is attending church. Instead, a pandemic confines Americans in their homes to prevent community spread, the first instance of which in the country was identified by the CDC on February 26—Ash Wednesday.
When Updike wrote his story, nationwide church membership had risen to more than 63 percent of America’s population. In subsequent decades, secularism has eroded religious observance among Americans. As the Pew Research Center found, since 2009, the nation’s religiously unaffiliated population has exploded. Fifty-four percent of Americans, though, still report going to services at least a few times a year. Easter undoubtedly made the cut—a welcome reality for any church’s financial solvency. But empty pews are now a public-health necessity, one that could imperil the future of many churches.
Congregational uncertainty especially affects America’s 17,000 Catholic parishes, which were confronting significant headwinds long before the Covid-19 crisis. Decades of sexual-abuse scandals have led many disillusioned Catholics to skip the Lenten appeal—critical donations for dioceses—and say “good riddance” when churches closed. Just in late February, as the coronavirus spread, the Harrisburg and Buffalo dioceses filed for bankruptcy following abuse-related litigation. Now parishes nationwide—some thriving, others barely getting by—must somehow fiscally survive lockdowns.
Lost in the fog of this crisis, moreover, is the crucial role that churches play in many local economies. As the non-profit Partners for Sacred Places reported in 2016, the “economic halo” effect of houses of worship in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Fort Worth collectively translated into $3 billion in annual local impact. From struggling cities to prosperous suburbs, a Catholic parish supports a local economy through food pantries, daycare, festivals, and even Easter—an annual boon for flower shops.
It’s through Easter masses that parishes commonly raise money necessary to maintain their operations and social services. “It’s a homecoming time for us, but it’s also a very important fundraising time that allows us to continue with our mission and our ministries,” Catholic Archbishop Robert Casey told Fox News. “And so, this Holy Week will be especially worrisome for our parishes.” In response, the Archdiocese of Newark created a GoFundMe page where people can donate to specific parishes or those that particularly need help. Meantime, the Diocese of Scranton launched an emergency fund for parishes, but also for parents of Catholic school students and for social-services programs. Yet frugality—even among the devout—will reign during this uncertain time.
The CARES Act—the federal government’s $2.2 trillion economic relief package—could help qualifying parishes. According to the legislation’s interim final rules, eligible religious nonprofits can apply for Small Business Administration loans to pay employees. The rules, however, remain complex, and many dioceses and parishes have proceeded with layoffs and furloughs. The Pittsburgh Diocese, for example, ceased publication of its newspaper—in circulation since 1844—and terminated its positions. At the same time, a parish in Pasadena, despite the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s pleas to keep paying staff, furloughed over a dozen workers, without pay. Parish layoffs will particularly hurt Catholics in communities where employment opportunities hardly abound in good times.
During this distressing period, Easter mass must somehow go on—virtually. In recent weeks, parishes have turned to Facebook or local television stations for Catholics to watch mass. But there’s no collection basket to pass around online. The Diocese of Grand Rapids experienced a 300-percent increase in viewership of its televised Sunday mass, but most of its 80 parishes still had to furlough staff.
Many Catholics observe Easter wondering if their parishes will ever reopen. But there are currently more temporal, and immediate, concerns—above all, employment. Though Updike called church attendance “the most available democratic experience,” the lockdown has undoubtedly replaced that designation. The closure of parishes erases an invaluable social and economic presence in communities—and they’re needed now more than ever. For now, reflective of the spirit of Lent, Americans—regardless of religious affiliation—pray for the end of the pandemic and the resurrection of the economy.