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Facts and figures


The state of the priesthood

By Dean R. Hoge

As preparations got under way for the election of a new pope in April 2005, there was no lack of attention paid in the media and academe to problems facing the Catholic Church today. Near the top of most observers' lists was a shortage of priests.

The number of Roman Catholics in the world is increasing. The total number now is about 1.06 billion, reflecting a growth in membership of 25 percent since 1985 (nearly matching the world's population growth of 27 percent). But growth in the number of priests has been zero.

Facts and figures

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In the United States alone, membership in the Church has grown 21 percent since 1985, while the number of priests has fallen off by 15 percent, to approximately 43,300 priests. Europe has seen virtually no growth in membership, and the number of priests there has declined by 11 percent (the sole exception to this trend being Poland, where the priesthood has grown by more than a third). Africa and Asia, on the other hand, have seen large increases in priests—55 percent and 60 percent, respectively—as well as in Church membership. In these regions the number of Catholics has grown 87 percent and 51 percent, respectively. Central America, the Caribbean, and South America haven't been far behind.

Put plainly, the wealthy Western nations are losing priests, while virtually all of the rest of the world is gaining them, though not always fast enough.

And yet, it is in the wealthy regions of the world where Catholics have had, and still have, the greatest access to priests. Let us look more closely at the availability of priests in the United States. There were 1,453 laity per priest in this country in 2003 (compared with 652 back in 1950, and 778 in 1965). Since the 1980s, the number of priests has dropped 10 to 12 percent per decade, and there are signs of a continuing decline in the years ahead. The average age of nonretired priests in 2001, for instance, was 56.

The number of U.S. ordinations has ranged between 440 and 540 annually in recent years, but with a long-term gradual decline. Today American seminaries are producing priests at between 35 and 45 percent of the number needed to keep the priesthood at a constant size. Meanwhile the U.S. Catholic membership has been increasing about 10 to 12 percent per decade, largely as a result of immigration and the larger number of children that immigrants have.

For all that, the assertion that we face a priest shortage in the United States needs to be assessed carefully. A shortage can be defined in several ways. The first is a statistical measure: the number of Catholics per priest. Objective and simple, this measure would lead us to conclude that the United States faces no priest shortage relative to other parts of the world. In Africa, for instance, the number of Catholics per priest is nearly four times higher.

The second definition depends on the feeling of lay Catholics that a priest shortage exists. It is instructive to remember that in the United States there was no discussion of a "priest shortage" until the 1980s, when the decline in the availability of priests became perceptible. In Latin America, which has never enjoyed a large number of priests, a style of Catholicism grew up over the centuries that doesn't require many priests. Latin Americans have evolved a family-based or home-based Catholicism that is less parish-based than what we have in our own country; religion is taught by mothers and grandmothers and practiced in the home, without benefit of weekly Mass attendance or frequent sacraments. There is no perceived priest shortage in Latin America.

The third definition of shortage derives from opportunities lost. Using this definition, one could conclude that the whole world has a priest shortage. In Nigeria, Ghana, and India, for instance, millions of people show signs of readiness for evangelization. And what Catholic community wouldn't benefit from having more active, capable, and devoted priests working in it? Why shouldn't we strive to double the number of priests in the world? In my view, we should.

COMPARISONS WITH less fortunate countries aside, most American Catholics believe there is a priest shortage in the United States and that it is a major problem. In 2003, some 16 percent of U.S. parishes had no resident priest; the number of weekend Masses is down; and bishops increasingly are asking priests to pastor two or more parishes at a time. Nobody likes these trends. The laity want more access to sacraments and greater availability of priests for weddings and baptisms; priests desire to pastor one parish well; and bishops want to be able to adequately staff the parishes for which they are responsible. It would take as much as a doubling of ordinations to meet the perceived need for priests in the United States. Are there any solutions? In theory, yes, but in actuality, not many. Here are eight possible alternatives.

Recruit more seminarians by trying harder. This is an obvious course of action. But I have had 20 years of experience working with vocation directors and vocation programs, and it seems to me that we are already trying harder and are investing immense energy and money into recruitment with no gains to speak of. A modest increase may be achievable here or there, but I believe that the major increase we need cannot happen without changing the circumstances of the priesthood itself.

Make celibacy optional for diocesan priests. This change is favored today by 71 percent of the U.S. Catholic laity and 56 percent of American priests. In 1985, I conducted a survey of Catholic college students and found the celibacy requirement to be the single biggest deterrent keeping men from entering the priesthood. If celibacy were optional for diocesan priests, there would be an estimated fourfold increase in seminarians, and the priest shortage would be over. The ranks of priests would grow until the Church hit financial limits in its ability to train and support them.

Ordain women. Possibly a first step in this direction would be to ordain celibate women. This idea was favored by 62 percent of the U.S. Catholic laity in a 1999 survey. I have not seen figures on priests' attitudes, but I'd say probably 35 to 55 percent are in favor. A logical first step would be to ordain vowed women in religious communities. Ordaining married women would be a more drastic step, but one favored by 53 percent of Catholic laity in 1999.

Bring in priests from other nations. At present, about 17 percent of all active priests in the United States were born overseas, and the percentage is gradually growing. In recent ordination classes in this country, 28–30 percent of seminarians were born elsewhere; most will end up staying here. Are there more priests overseas who are available to come to the United States? Yes—from several countries, especially India, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Colombia. Those nations have a worse priest shortage than we have; that is to say, they have fewer priests per thousand laity, in fact many fewer. But they never had the high ratio of priests that we've enjoyed in this country, so there is no tradition of priests being readily available. Furthermore, in many of those countries there is not enough money to sustain a growing cadre of priests.

At present about 350 to 400 foreign-born priests come into the United States each year, of whom 35 to 40 percent were trained in American seminaries. A portion of these men are brought here explicitly to minister to immigrant parishes, for example, Korean priests invited to minister to Korean Catholics. But the majority minister to multicultural or predominantly European-American parishes. The largest numbers are in the Western and Southwest states, Florida, and the New York City area. They have come mainly from Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Poland. Their average age is 46, which makes them much younger than American-born priests. The majority do not expect to serve in this country their entire lives.

With international priests come unique problems. From the point of view of American priests and laity, the most serious of these are inadequate English skills, cultural misunderstandings, and a too-conservative ecclesiology—a belief that the priest should exercise unassailable decision-making power in local church affairs. From the point of view of the foreign-born priests themselves, the main problems are inadequate orientation to American culture and the ways of the American church, lack of appreciation and respect by American priests, and unfair treatment by diocesan leaders in placements and appointments. More careful screening of candidates and better orientation programs for new arrivals are needed.

Increase the number of lay ministers. Today there are more lay ministers working in parishes than priests, and their number is growing rapidly. About 80 percent are female, and in a recent survey the average age was 52. Fifty-three percent have received professional training beyond their BA. Typically, lay ministers are in charge of schools, religious education programs, youth ministry, liturgy, music, and administration. Priests sometimes feel threatened by them. Many of these lay servants have worked in their parishes for years and know more about them than any new priest coming in. But they cannot celebrate the sacraments, and thus their usefulness is limited.

Expand the permanent diaconate. Take steps to ordain more permanent deacons and at the same time revise the theology so that deacons can administer all sacraments, not just baptism, matrimony, and last rites. This would be a major step, and, so far as I know, it is not much talked about.

Accept more married Episcopalian priests. There exists in the Catholic Church a special provision for allowing married Episcopalian priests (and ministers of several other Protestant denominations) to come in as Catholic priests. But the protocol is daunting and the course plagued with delays, and fewer than 200 have signed on over a 20-year period. Why not improve the process to make the invitation more enticing?

Allow men who left the Catholic priesthood for marriage to return. Estimates of the number of priests in the United States to whom this might apply range from 12,000 to 20,000. Only one research study, to my knowledge, has asked whether these men would like to return. Forty percent responded that they would—either on a full-time or part-time basis.

Let's suppose there are 16,000 married Catholic priests in the United States, and that only 30 percent return; that would mean 4,800 more priests—the equivalent of 10 years of ordinations. A 2001 survey asked American priests whether they would support such a move, and 52 percent responded yes.

TODAY, ANY SOLUTION to the priest shortage in the United States will likely be complicated by a marked division among priests themselves in the way they understand their priestly role. Surveys of American priests indicate two distinct views of the priesthood and, it follows, two views of the role of the laity in the Church.

The cultic view, which prevailed before the 1960s and which has lately found favor again, sees the priest as mainly an administrator of the sacraments and teacher of the faith. The cultic priest stands apart from other Catholics and, of necessity, is celibate; his life is both a witness to faith in God and an example of godliness. The cultic model emphasizes that priests are different from laity—higher in holiness and mediators between God and humanity.

During and after Vatican Council II, American priests gravitated from the cultic model toward a servant-leader model of the priesthood. This new view positioned priests within the Catholic community, interacting closely with the laity and collaborating with them in parish life as spiritual and social leaders. The distinctness of the priest was de-emphasized, as symbolized by the tendency of many priests to minimize their wearing of the clerical cassock and collar. Priests living the servant-leader model invested themselves more in community leadership beyond the parish than did cultic priests, as they attempted to have a beneficial effect on the larger society.

In the mid-1980s, the predominant understanding of the priesthood in this country began shifting back to the cultic model. According to research carried out by social scientists at Catholic University, this second transition was well advanced by 2001—and it was generational. Specifically, young priests differed from their elders on whether ordination confers new ontological status; on whether celibacy should become a matter of personal choice for priests (33 percent of priests ages 25–35 said yes, versus 56 percent of all priests); and on whether the Church should cultivate more lay ministers (54 percent of the younger priests say yes, versus 73 percent of all priests). As numerous observers have noted, younger priests today are more conservative on matters of liturgy, morals, and priestly life. They find it more important, for example, to be seen in clerical attire.

It was the newest priests in 2001, and especially the youngest diocesan priests, who held most ardently to the cultic model. At the same time, the priests holding the opposite viewpoint were in the 56-to-65-year-old age cohort, rather than the very oldest priests. The oldest priests—over 70 years old—stood between the two extremes, not clearly upholding either. Within some American presbyterates, a state of uneasy tension exists, I'm told.

Research findings illuminate the advantages of the two models. In favor of the cultic model, for instance, is the finding that priests who adhere to this view report having higher morale. Seminaries and dioceses where the cultic position prevails have been more successful in attracting vocations. With its clarity about identity and its focus on the sacraments, the cultic model is closer to the teachings of Pope John Paul II and during his reign received his support.

The argument against the cultic model comes partly from the laity and lay ministers, who assert that tomorrow's parishes must be led by collaboration and that the cultic position is divisive. A survey of professional lay ministers in 2002 indicated that the older ones, in particular, felt undervalued by cultic-oriented priests and found them difficult to work with. The research also indicated that the younger lay ministers were more in accord with cultic priests.

Another criticism encompasses both theological and organizational elements: that the cultic model fosters stronger clericalism in a Church that has given priests and bishops too much power, privilege, and secrecy already. It is unclear how many laypeople feel this way. But there are hints: A 2003 survey, for instance, found that 77 percent of Catholics agreed that "the Catholic Church needs better financial reporting at all levels." In the same survey, 73 percent agreed that "laypeople should have some say in who their parish priest will be." American Catholics are ready for the laity to have more input on Church governance.

A tug-of-war over the priesthood is under way today that promises to be with us for years to come. Judging from research on trends in generational attitudes, the cultic model is gaining ascendancy.

Dean R. Hoge is a professor of sociology at Catholic University and the author, with Jacqueline E. Wenger, of Evolving Visions of the Priesthood: Changes from Vatican II to the Turn of the New Century (2003). His essay is adapted from a paper he delivered at a conference on the Roman Catholic priesthood in the 21st century held at Boston College June 15–17, 2005.

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