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Not Enough Priests

This article on the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland starts out pretty humdrum, but then moves on to the more interesting topic of the precipitous decline in the number of new priests. For all the attention that's been focused on Catholic stuff since the Pope passed away, I haven't yet seen anyone try to look at this really comprehensively. Are there anything like enough new priests coming out of places like Africa to make up for the worsening lack of priests elsewhere? Purely institutional/administrative problems of this sort seem much more likely to provoke changes in doctrine than anything else.

April 17, 2005 | Permalink


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This is sort of old news, isn't it? The US used to import a lot of priests from Ireland, but that supply is drying up. Worldwide, the richer countries are facing a looming priest shortage. It's like the Social Security crisis. We need Bush administration thinkers to go to the Vatican to come up with some fresh ideas.

Posted by: Anita Hendersen | Apr 17, 2005 11:42:36 AM

"I haven't yet seen anyone try to look at this really comprehensively."

Andrew Sullivan has been writing/talking a bunch about the collapse of the priesthood in Europe/North America as a way of taking swipes at Woytła.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 17, 2005 11:43:18 AM

Are there anything like enough new priests coming out of places like Africa to make up for the worsening lack of priests elsewhere?

No. That said, the decline in church attendance in the developed world means that it's been possible to reduce priest numbers, merge parishes etc.

By the way, did anyone see the 'new traditionalist' panel of young Catholics on This Week? A more unrepresentative group of papists, you're never likely to meet. Dear me.

Posted by: ahem | Apr 17, 2005 12:19:32 PM

There's a timeliness, though, about the LA Times piece. American Catholicism -- and American Christianity, more generally -- is more reminiscent of the church-state relations in Ireland in the 1970s than it is of modern Ireland. The Catholic hierarchy in the US, in particular, is sclerotic: the product of its traditional base growing older and more reactionary.

Catholicism in Ireland remains a social glue: it's what people do on a Sunday morning before doing other things. But its perniciousness has gone, and a good thing too. Curiously, I think it's been replaced, at least in part, with a European identity: the EU's development grants played a large part in the Irish economic revival, combined with an openness to technology that makes Ireland the European base for Apple, Dell, Gateway and all sorts of other hardware people.

Posted by: ahem | Apr 17, 2005 12:26:34 PM

Actually, it's the liberal/progressive Catholic orders that are dying out from a lack of new priests. (Why join up with a Catholic order in the first place if your main goal in life is to be a modern American libertine?) But when you look at more traditional dioceses in Virginia or Nebraska, or at traditionalist orders like the Legionaries, they are overflowing with new priests. The overall priest shortage is caused by the liberal dioceses.

So that tells you whether the priest shortage will push doctrine in the liberal/progressive direction. It won't.

Posted by: Jack V. | Apr 17, 2005 12:38:46 PM

And there are real reasons to want priests to be local -- to the extent that they are expected to provide spiritual guidance rather than filling a merely ritual role, competence in their parishoners' language and culture is vitally important.

My cousin's funeral was presided over by a Latin American priest, who, while I'm sure that he was agood man, kept on talking about "Alice, our dear brother in Christ." If the church can't staff American parishes with priests whose English is good enough to not be risible on a solemn occasion, it's in for a lot of trouble in maintaining parishoners' connection with the Church.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Apr 17, 2005 12:43:11 PM

"Are there anything like enough new priests coming out of places like Africa to make up for the worsening lack of priests elsewhere?"

Nope. It kinda depends on where you looks (below are the Center for Applied Resource into the Apostolate's numbers, compiled by FutureChurch; There's a NY Times article floating around somewhere that has numbers slightly less dire), but the number of priests has either declined or stayed the same over the past 30 years, while the number of Catholics has increased by about half.


African and South American priests tend to be younger than those in the US and Europe (and since the average age of a priest in the US is IIRC 74, that's pretty significant), and recruitment in Africa is higher, but it's not like it's high.

Posted by: jdw | Apr 17, 2005 12:44:24 PM

Jack, The text of the article doesn't support your point entirely. Key graph here:
"They point to such places as Alexandria, and Lincoln, Neb., and Peoria, Ill. -- places where very conservative bishops, enforcing church orthodoxy, are filling their parishes with energetic young priests. Men appear to be flocking from around the country to be trained and ordained in traditionalist dioceses."

"Filling" and "flocking" seem to be more metaphorical than literal, and the latter seems to suggest they also cannot fill their needs locally but still need to skim off of other dioceses. Now if Peoria starts acting as a net exporter of priests then your argument is justified, but nothing in the article actually supports that specifically.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Apr 17, 2005 12:49:16 PM

yeah... I tend to think the priest shortage has been a steady drumbeat for at least two decades, during most of JPII's term, aong with parish closings and consolidations (it's why the issue of women's involvement in the priesthood keeps bubbling up - the numers of men are just not cutting it). The priest sex scandals certainy haven't helped, especially since the group most likely to embrace celibacy - closeted gay men - are now (as I understood it) persona non grata. All around, it's rather like our military, no? I'd suspect the next pope will be the one to create some sort of "workaround" for this - either relaxing celibacy or finding new roles for women - except that this organization is so hidebound and behind the times, they might just continue to rot from within.

Posted by: weboy | Apr 17, 2005 1:10:37 PM

Bruce Webb:

Nothing about my argument hinged on whether any diocese is a "net exporter" of priests. Fact: Liberal dioceses and seminaries don't attract or produce nearly as many priests as traditional dioceses and seminarites. In fact, traditional dioceses probably don't have any shortage at all. Inescapable conclusion: It is disingenuous and dishonest to pretend that the shortage will improve in any way if the traditional dioceses and seminaries start emulating the liberal dioceses/seminaries. People who make that argument are only trying to make the shortage worse.

Posted by: Jack V. | Apr 17, 2005 1:22:03 PM

"Traditional" dioceses _do_ have a shortage of priests! They have a shortage of priests representing the catholicity of views held by believers. Do you seriously believe that catholics with a strong faith in and commitment to the Christian imperatives for peace and social justice will find a warm welcome in a diocese that defines itself narrowly?

I believe that celibacy remains the main issue for the shortage of moderate and liberal priests. The rapid growth in the Byzantine Catholic Church (a "uniate", Rome-aligned Eastern church with -- like the Orthodox churches -- no obligatory celibacy for priests) in North American is good evidence that a non-celibate priesthood can play an important role. In the meantime, non-conservative catholics are receiving ever less spiritual nourishment from the church, and that is a real failure for the church.

Posted by: DJW | Apr 17, 2005 1:47:47 PM

We're specializing in our comparative advantage. Hondurans send their Catholic priests up here, and we send our Pentecostals and Mormons down there on missionary missions. Overall, we all end up better off than with religious autarky.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Apr 17, 2005 2:01:12 PM

It's not just the Catholics, y'all. Most protestant dominations are having trouble getting new seminary students under the age of 40. The Orthodox church is also feeling a pinch. And it's not just the clergy. Nursing and social work are also facing shortages. In our culture, any profession based on the idea of service is in trouble. In certain other areas there are compensating factors: doctors are reputed to all be rich, and police and firefighters are seen as more manly. But it seems that most young people balk at putting themselves in a servant role.

Posted by: Achilles | Apr 17, 2005 2:08:10 PM

They have a shortage of priests representing the catholicity of views held by believers.

That's a fundamentally unCatholic -- and Protestant -- point of view. The Catholic church simply does not exist to "represent" the "views held by [so-called] believers." From the Catholic point of view, it is the so-called believers' responsibility to form their consciences under the teachings of the Church. If they don't believe what the Church teaches, they belong elsewhere.

Similarly, if I don't believe in altar calls, "once saved always saved," the importance of baptism, etc., etc., I don't have any business calling myself a "Southern Baptist," much less demanding that the Southern Baptists change everything that they believe so as to suit my tastes. (How unbelievably narcissistic that would be!) If I prefer non-Baptist beliefs, it's my responsibility to find a home elsewhere.

Posted by: Jack V. | Apr 17, 2005 2:17:13 PM

It's not just the Catholics, y'all. Most protestant dominations are having trouble getting new seminary students under the age of 40. ... In our culture, any profession based on the idea of service is in trouble.

What sustained the priesthood was two things-- first, larger families meant that parents could "afford" to have one of their children go into the priesthood or a convent without impacting family patterns (eg, the expectation of, grandchildren). Next, being in the priesthood was considered a prestigous profession to go into, and a family with a priest in the family would see its social standing improve. Neither of those things are true today-- families are smaller, so a son who enters the priesthood is just as likely as not to be the only son that a family will have. Next, parents would rather see their child become a doctor or a lawyer than see him become a priest, so there is a smaller pool of service-oriented intelligent people entering the vocation. (the latter issue, of course, will be the primary reason for declines among churches that allow a married clergy)

On the other hand, neither of these factors is present among "traditionalist" Catholics-- who have large families and walk in social circles where having a son in the priesthood is seen as a, um, "mitzvah" (for lack of a better word :).

JackV's claims notwithstanding, there is a shortage of Catholic priests. The number of "traditionalists" entering the priesthood is never going to be enough to make up the gap when it comes to serving the entire Catholic community. I don't think people would be talking about the existence of a problem if more traditional seminaries were so popular that they were able to produce enough priests to serve all of the parishes that needed them.

Posted by: Constantine | Apr 17, 2005 2:38:36 PM

As someone who once "flocked" to what was arguably the most conservative and traditional abbey in the United States to be ordained a priest, I think to say that these seminaries or parishes are thriving is misleading in a number of ways.

First and most generally, many people do not feel they fit into the modern world, and their feelings of alienation give rise to the fundamentalist impulse in them. My experience is that conservative seminaries are thriving in large part due to this fundamentalist impulse, which is little different in its psychological components from that which drives Wahhabism or Taliban ideology. While it is arguably good to be pious and devoted, much of the conservative identity is simply based on a rejection of the modern world and lawful changes in one's religion, and an ideology develops to justify hatred and/or violence against those who disagree. We shouldn't rejoice that people feel driven to join groups like this.

Secondly, while conservative seminaries attract a lot of candidates they frequently have a high turnover. There were nine postulant candidates during my first year, and eight left or were asked to leave. The yearly attrition numbers were kept secret, but from what I was able to gather anecdotally I would guess them to be well over 60%. And we would get dropouts from the Legionaries of Christ, so obviously they were losing people as well. A significant percentage of those under temporary vows left before ordination. Some priests quietly admitted their desire to leave for less reactionary abbeys (mainly because of the focus on conservatism over being Christ-like) but didn't because of their vow of stability. Even the "true believers" weren't immune. The one young priest who stood out as the paragon of the abbey ideology, a hero to the seminarians who said the Latin Mass at the historic LA church that he served and denounced the abuses of the modern Church and world...left the priesthood to shack up with a nun. And then they broke up a few months later.

Thirdly, when a group races to be most conservative, most traditional, and most perfectly conforming to these views there is at the same time a sense of group martyrdom and a disdain for differing views among one's brethren. This tends to create an atmosphere of uneasy bedfellows, like a cult where not everybody gets along. So while at the seminary I attended there was general agreement that all Protestants, Jews, "Heathens," and liberal Catholics were doomed to Hell, disagreements over doctrine or culture saw the eruption of fistfights and screaming hysteria. Because everyone ends up essentially being a little pope unto themselves, there is terrible emotion over disagreements -- as by definition anyone who disagrees with you is attacking the very faith which sustains you, not to mention they're probably going to Hell for their serious errors. One seminarian who left the abbey spent months prior writing a treatise on just how specifically those he left behind were damned for not agreeing with him. He read his damnation litany to the group (twenty minutes!) and even channeled Jesus to prove it.

This kind of odd behavior was not terribly unusual there, I'm sorry to say. I saw records burned, doors kicked in, mail and family contact withheld, and a coup attempt.

A problem with reactionary movements or institutions that base their identities on being conservative or traditional and focus on doctrine over spirituality is that there will always be someone more conservative than you ready to judge you at a moment's notice for being a heretic. As someone who grew up in a traditionalist Catholic home, was schooled in traditional Catholic catechism for years, and ended up in the most conservative Catholic seminary I could find, I can tell you that much of what drives people to an ideology like this are the unhealed psychological complexes of fear, guilt, and anger, leading to extraordinary attempts to be "right" "true" and "perfect." Anyone who doesn't go along with your quest is an enemy of your Truth, and needs to be dealt with accordingly. An example from my conservative seminary experience: as part of the complete rejection of modern culture, seminarians were forbidden to watch or listen to any media, including television news. No personal possessions were allowed and the seminarians could not leave the abbey grounds except for schooling or official errands. But this did not go nearly far enough for some. Why wasn't everyone sleeping on straw over concrete? Why wasn't there enforced fasting? Why no self-flagellation or other forms of punishment? Well, the majority of the abbey members including the founders did not see this as necessary in modern times; they lived a life of relative mortification and deprivation, faithful to their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. Not satisfied with this explanation, a cabal of seminarians clandestinely tried to take over the abbey. They passed a letter to the pope via the archbishop detailing the "abuses" and their demands, the main one being that the founding abbot be removed and replaced so that the order could return to a twelfth century observance. The archbishop kindly notified his friend the abbot, who was mortified that some of his own priests and seminarians whom he loved and cared for would try and overthrow him. Unfortunately for the abbey, such a blatant abuse of trust and friendship caused a rift that cannot truly heal, and there will always be an uneasiness in the halls after that.

A microcosm of the "conservative" Catholic Church, the abbey I left as a seminarian remains in a constant state of essential schism and internal striving between the ultra-conservatives and the ultra-ultra conservatives. The love of Christ is not emphasized and rarely discussed. Legalism and its faithful attendant judgment are the order of the day for filial relations. Idealistic young men still flock there, get caught up in the politics, and many of them leave as quickly never to pursue priesthood studies anywhere. I'm sure liberal seminaries have their own problems relating to the opposite end of the spectrum. The solution might be to identify with your work and not your ideology. If you're actually serving the poor or visiting widows or prisoners or comforting the afflicted, you'll be less likely to focus on the divisiveness of abstract ideas.

Posted by: l | Apr 17, 2005 3:20:48 PM

Preach it, brother.

Posted by: Ted | Apr 17, 2005 4:17:24 PM

The Catholic church simply does not exist to "represent" the "views held by [so-called] believers."

What if they held a Mass, and nobody came?

Fact is, the Catholic church continues to exist, particularly in countries like Ireland, because of a tacit negotiation between the clerical hierarchy and the people who fill the aisles and stick their envelopes in the offertory basket.

And that interjected 'so-called' sums it up, really: the arrogant, sclerotic, Cardinal Law-lovin' front-row Catholicism that tolerates all sorts of shite as long as it doesn't scare the doctrinal horses.

If they don't believe what the Church teaches, they belong elsewhere.

Oh, fuck right off. You're sounding like a convert.

Posted by: ahem | Apr 17, 2005 8:36:58 PM

Spoken like a true Protestant.

Now: anything substantive to say on the issue at hand?

Posted by: Jack V. | Apr 17, 2005 8:47:18 PM

Re: If they don't believe what the Church teaches, they belong elsewhere.

If the Church is teaching something taht the Faithful refuse to acept as valid, that is a clear sign that the there's a problem with teh teaching.

As for traditionalist Catholic families, I suspect that they are not so large either, since the economic factors that dictate small families these days exist for traditionalists too. True, they won't use the Pill, but they do practice NFP, and while not as effective as the Pill of condoms, it is still somewhat effective.

Posted by: Jonf | Apr 17, 2005 9:48:35 PM

"The overall priest shortage is caused by the liberal dioceses."

That's true, but the same thing is happening among congregations as well. Liberal Christianity has begun a long, slow decline that will probably not be reversed, most notably because liberalism in the west is no longer particularly Christian (as it was for a good 1500 years), which is to say no longer populist (economically liberal, and socially conservative).

I happen to be pro-choice (and support equal rights for women generally), support gay rights (including gay marriage), and am opposed to the censorship of popular culture, but the subordination of women, the repression of homosexuality, and the suppresion of "indecency" and "vice" are fundamental to the Christian worldview. As such, even though a significant majority of the populace still identifies as Christian, every year fewer liberals attend church on a regular basis, and the more moderate and liberal demoninations are increasingly populated by the elderly.

Posted by: Milo | Apr 18, 2005 12:45:34 AM

There are always enough priests -- more than enough. In fact, there can never be too few.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Apr 18, 2005 6:44:50 AM

Re: but the subordination of women, the repression of homosexuality, and the suppresion of "indecency" and "vice" are fundamental to the Christian worldview.

Fundamental? No. The Christian fundamental is most concisely expressed by the old “ichthys” formula: “Jesus Christ, son of God, savior”. But a traditional add-on, yes. And in point of fact the above liberal sins are pretty much common to all major religious traditions in one form or another. Anyone care to argue that Buddhism or Islam (in traditional form) are feminist religions or look kindly on sexual liberalism? What the feminists call patriarchy is a general phenomenon that shows up in every culture that generates a sufficient wealth surplus to allow for women (or at least elite women) to drop out of active society and live sequestered lives.

Posted by: JonF | Apr 18, 2005 8:37:56 AM

Spoken like a true Protestant.

Yeah, yeah. Take the stick out of your ass, the spike out of your shoe and get your hands off that altar boy.

And check your calendar: it's not the 1950s any more. Thank God.

Posted by: ahem | Apr 18, 2005 10:07:30 AM

Mudslinging doesn't bother me. It merely betrays the juvenile mindset of the speaker.

Posted by: Jack V. | Apr 18, 2005 10:54:12 AM

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