“Decline is a dynamic form of change for contemporary religious communities and institutions. ”
This dissertation examines the qualitative significance of institutional religious decline. It considers the effects of declining service attendance, decreasing numbers of clergy, aging communities, and financial insecurity on the Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia. Although historians and sociologists have recognized the declining institutional presence of the Catholic Church both nationally and internationally, “Just and Grave Causes” will be the first in-depth study to broadly consider the effects of these changes on both the institutional religion of an archdiocese and the lived religion of its local Catholics.
“Just and Grave Causes” uses archival and ethnographic research to consider the historical roots of institutional decline in Catholic Philadelphia, as well as the discourses and practices that emerge from and respond to decline in the 21st century. This project also engages digital humanities methods to map the Catholic Church’s presence in the city at key historical junctures, showing the relationship between urban change and religious change. I argue that archdiocesan policies in the 20th century shaped a discourse that linked “religious decline” to “urban decline” as a racialized issue resulting in “inner city” parish closures. However, as Catholic adherence declined following the clergy sexual abuse crises of the early 21st century, parish closures have affected a more racially and geographically diverse range of Catholic communities in the area. The second half of this dissertation thus examines how concern with “decline” manifests in religious discourses and practices in contemporary Catholic communities, both in and beyond the parish. While race and ethnicity continue to inflect these responses, “decline” also engages with assumptions about the age and gender of Catholic communities. I argue that religious decline is a complex, nonlinear form of religious change with which both Catholic communities and hierarchies dynamically engage.