Catholic priest shortage caused by discouragement

Thomas Toghramadjian, Columns Editor

Tuesdays with ThomasInvigorated by a dynamic new pope, rapidly expanding in the developing world, and comprising over 1.1 billion members, the Catholic Church has entered the 21st century poised to remain a very relevant institution. However, in one important respect, the Church is facing a veritable crisis. Since the 1960s, the number of Catholic priests relative to Catholic faithful has steadily declined worldwide; clergy numbers have remained stagnant, while the Catholic population has nearly doubled.

Research by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate reveals the problem in full. Over 49,000 parishes worldwide are without a pastor. Numbers of Catholic nuns are declining as well; from over a million in 1965, to just 700,000 in 2014. The decline is especially pronounced in the United States; a full 20% of American parishes lack a priest, and the clergy is aging, with an average age of 63. To compound the shortage, a significantly smaller percentage of American priests (68%) are engaged in active ministry than in 1965 (94%).

Perhaps more than any other religious group, catholic Christians depend on their clergy; in addition to serving as community leaders and providing doctrinal instruction, priests alone are tasked with the dispensation of the sacraments central to catholic life. Father John Hardon SJ, a Jesuit priest, writer, and theologian, explained the great importance of this latter function in a short essay written shortly before his death in 2000.

“(W)ithout the priesthood, there would not only be no Sacrifice of the Mass. There would be no Catholic Church. This may sound strange, even exotic. But the fact of life is that God became man in order to sacrifice Himself on the Cross by dying for the salvation of the world… But there is no Mass without the priesthood. That is why Christ instituted the Sacrament of the priesthood, to ensure that His sacrifice on Calvary would be renewed and repeated in every Mass until the end of time.”

Clearly, the Vatican and diocesan leaders face a very important challenge in replenishing the priesthood for future generations. However, to effectively address this challenge, they must first identify the underlying factors driving its decline.

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In looking for explanations, Catholics may be better served by looking inward than by re-evaluating their doctrines.

— Columns Editor, Thomas Toghramadjian

One commonly proposed explanation for decreasing enrollment in the priesthood involves the Catholic Church’s unique celibacy requirement, absent from its sister Orthodox Churches, and all major Protestant denominations. It is true that celibacy has been cited as a discouraging factor for those considering a life in the church—naturally, considering the magnitude of the commitment. It is also true that the celibacy rule is traditional, rather than dogmatic, and accordingly could be overturned by the Pope at any time.  However, changing the rules for priestly marriage would not likely be a panacea to the shortage; Orthodox churches, although they allow married men to become priests, are suffering from their own clergy deficit. While the requirement of celibacy deserves continuous evaluation, the prospect of re-filling the priesthood is not strong enough alone to justify eliminating such a venerable practice.

In looking for explanations, Catholics may be better served by looking inward than by re-evaluating their doctrines. According to CARA research, a full 69% of Catholic adults stated that they would not encourage a young man to consider the priesthood, while a mere 6% actually reported doing so. More newly ordained priests had friends discouraging their decision than supporting it. This seems to indicate two dangerous trends: first that American society, Catholics included, is increasingly fearful of strongly committing to self-sacrificial ways of life, and second that priesthood and its equivalents have somehow fallen outside our collective definitions of “success” and “happiness.” Beyond detracting from the ranks of the priesthood, this indicates a growingly materialistic collective social calculus whose destructive effects are being felt well outside of the Catholic Church.

A priest’s daily schedule can appear monotonous—much of his time is occupied by paying visits to his parishioners, organizing apparently mundane church events, and possibly helping with his parish’s financial administration. Even masses, the very reason for his vocation, can proceed along very routine lines. But it is through the very humility of this routine that priests transcend, and help others to transcend, mundanity. They gain an affinity for stories, a skill at finding pieces of beauty in the world. They give freely and patiently of themselves to others. It’s a wonderful vocation; one that should be not only more respected, but more aspired to.

TUESDAYS WITH THOMAS is published weekly.  Columnist Thomas Toghramadjian engages readers in topics ranging from politics to literature to science.