Catholicism's suburban boom Sharp drop in city: Has the exodus removed Catholics from greater mission?

October 04, 1995

IT SHOULD come as no surprise that the booming growth of the Catholic church in Baltimore's suburbs -- documented in a recent Sun story by reporter James Bock -- has coincided with the flight of the white middle-class from city to suburbia. Protestant and Jewish congregations with deep roots in Baltimore have likewise followed their members and established new suburban addresses.

Growth of the Catholic population outside the city limits is nonetheless remarkable, particularly in the newer suburbs and the exurbs. During the past 20 years, the number of Catholics in Carroll County has grown 212.5 percent; in Frederick County, 152.4 percent; and in Howard County, 149.8 percent. Significant increases have occurred also in Harford (85 percent) and Anne Arundel (41.4) counties.

Predictably, aging and increasingly urban Baltimore County has only 200 more Catholics today than in 1975 -- reflecting how the jurisdiction has become more of a launching pad than a destination for folks seeking greener pastures. Meantime, Baltimore City Catholics can only wish they had 200 more members. Since 1975, the number of Catholic worshipers in the city has decreased 30.7 percent, from 123,000 to 85,000. Suburbia's gain has been the city's painful loss, with urban churches closed and parishes consolidated in recent years.

Archdiocesan officials have handled this problem fairly well, making the difficult decisions about closings but maintaining the church's mission in the city at the same time. Yet at least one prominent Catholic leader, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland, has raised the concern that the out-migration of church members is creating an ever-widening chasm between society's haves and have-nots. In addition, Bishop Pilla notes, the exodus to suburbia has resulted in wasted expenses for dioceses: Magnificent old city churches are underused, while new ZTC structures must be built in the thriving counties.

Perhaps Bishop Pilla's admonition, as well as the visit to Baltimore by Pope John Paul II, will remind Catholics who profess belief in a global church that they are obligated to look beyond the safe walls of their own moral and material comfort. They must think, too, of those who are less comfortable, who might also move to a cleaner, safer place if they could.

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