Catholic Crisis : Flock Runs Short of Shepherds

Times Religion Writer

Each year the gap widens: Fewer priests are available to serve an increasing number of Roman Catholics in the United States.

Since 1966, the number of men in seminaries seeking the priesthood has plummeted from 48,000 to 7,500. By the year 2000, according to surveys produced for the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, the projected decline from resignations, deaths and fewer ordinations will leave only 15,000 active parish priests--about the same number as in 1925 and less than half as many as in 1966--to serve an estimated 65 million faithful.

At the turn of next century, the average age of these priests is projected to be 65.

“The vocation shortage is long-term, not just temporary, and the church is powerless to reverse . . . the social pressures causing the downturn,” declared Dean Hoge, a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington.


This shortage of shepherds for a growing flock has already made a sharp impact in most dioceses. One in 10 U.S. Catholic parishes has no regular priest. In Chicago, the vocations director fears that the present average of two priests per parish in the archdiocese will slip to only one by the year 2000.

In response to the shortage, the church is training deacons and lay men and women to do tasks formerly reserved for priests. At the same time, the effort to find priests is focusing on candidates from the growing Latino and Asian Catholic populations. Some dioceses are also using novel recruitment approaches, such as advertising for priesthood candidates in national magazines.

But despite the bleak vocations picture, the church has no nationally coordinated program to reverse the trend. And there is no movement at the Vatican to consider changing the celibacy requirement for priests, which is the most frequently cited reason that more men do not pursue the priesthood.

Social Comfort


A recent Vatican report on college-level seminaries frankly acknowledges that “pressures on the family, the attraction of material prosperity and social comfort, the sexual revolution and the growth of insecurity, as well as a delay in the age of personal career decision-making, have all had their effect.”


- Within 25 years of their ordination, 42% of all U.S. priests have resigned. Younger priests are resigning in greater proportion than older ones.

- One of every six men who were ordained as priests are now married, thus eliminating them from priestly service. Of those under age 50, one of every three is married.

- Overall, Catholic seminaries are replacing only about 60% of the priests who resign, retire, are disabled or die.

Two decades ago, 7,855 men were enrolled in the final four-year-program of the nation’s Catholic theological seminaries that leads to ordination; today there are only 3,826.

“In the pool for the next four years we have less than half the potential that we had in 1969,” lamented Benedictine Father Adrian Fuerst, a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, an independent Washington-based agency that supplies information to the church’s decision makers.

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where 1,280 priests serve an estimated 3 million Catholics, 10 men were ordained last year. This year, only five or six will be ordained. The average for the nation’s 10 largest archdioceses last year was about nine new ordinations each.


“If we had 20 a year, we could come close to holding our own,” said Msgr. Edwin O’Brien, rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York City, where 10 men will be ordained in May.

A recent survey of 600 Catholics between the ages of 16 and 21 in the Los Angeles Archdiocese revealed that the single greatest obstacle to their choosing a religious vocation was the “lifetime commitment to celibacy” required to enter the priesthood and religious orders.

“Celibacy is always No. 1, and a permanent commitment to a life style is second as the reasons young men don’t become priests here,” echoed Father Scott Donahue, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Despite the problems in recruiting candidates for the priesthood, Fuerst said, there is “no national thrust, no concerted effort by the bishops as a national group.”

“Although there is concern, the (seminary) enrollments are still declining,” he said.

The closest thing to a unified approach is the Called by Name program. Adopted in several forms by many dioceses, the program works at the parish level.

Members are asked to identify young people they think might be interested in religious vocations and supply their names to the diocesan vocations director, who in turn writes the youths asking them to consider a vocation and to attend an orientation meeting.

“It’s a very positive idea,” Fuerst said. “It makes others aware of the importance of becoming part of the whole recruitment picture.”


Some dioceses have their own innovations. In Fargo, N.D., for example, Father Valentine Gross has devised an aptitude and interest test to help junior and senior high school students decide who might “have a vocation.” Other dioceses with large Latino or Asian populations concentrate on enlisting seminarians from these ethnic constituencies.

Some dioceses are finding it pays to advertise. In Chicago, the vocations office has been experimenting with radio spot announcements in Spanish to reach the Latino community.

The St. John Neumann College Seminary Residence in the Bronx, N.Y.--which arranges for men who are thinking about the priesthood to continue their studies at local universities or colleges while supplementing their training in seminary classes and in a religious environment--places ads in major publications like Reader’s Digest, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.

“It gets people thinking,” explained O’Brien, the seminary rector, “ ‘Do I want to consider the possibility of the priesthood? If so, at least there’s a way to go.’ ”

Candidates for the Roman Catholic priesthood must have a college degree or its equivalent and complete four years of graduate theological study at an approved Catholic seminary.

Vocations experts say the overall recruitment efforts are too little too late, and that it is a losing battle unless Rome changes its policies on who can be a priest.

Sociologist Hoge speculates that if priests were given the option to marry, the number of candidates would quadruple. In a massive study, he found that 16% of college-age Catholic men would be interested in the priesthood if it were not for the celibacy requirement.

“It would go up so high, that the church would have to institute quality standards. The church could be much more selective,” Hoge said in an interview.

The Roman Catholic Church has decreed since the 4th Century that its priests must be celibate, basing the requirement on the fact that Jesus was unmarried, upon the words of the Apostle Paul that “an unmarried man can devote himself (fully) to the Lord’s affairs” (First Corinthians 7:32) and upon church tradition.

The Code of Canon Law says that “clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and are therefore bound to celibacy . . . a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart . . . .(Canon 277.1).”

Recent polls have shown that about 55% of the priests and 60% of the U.S. Catholic laity favor optional celibacy for priests. During the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the late Cardinal Julius Dopfner called for the suspension of the laws of celibacy pending an extensive historical analysis of their origins, but the recommendation was turned down. The present Pope, John Paul II, is well known for his insistence on maintaining tradition in the matter.

Meeting at the Vatican with bishops from western Canada last November, the Pope suggested that “the ordained priesthood and the church’s love and understanding of it are being tested, precisely so that what is essential may be strengthened, purified and renewed. . . .”

“If we are being brought to our knees, so to speak, by the need for more priests, is it not in order that we may understand with greater humility and love who the Lord of the harvest truly is?” he asked.

Sister Katarina Schuth OSF, coordinator of a Lilly Endowment-funded study, points to better programs of priestly formation since Vatican II and increasing involvement of lay people as ways the church is attempting to solve the leadership problem. By training the laity to take on some tasks, the clergy is freed to concentrate on sacramental duties, such as saying Mass, that require ordination.

Sister Katarina noted that there are currently about 4,000 nuns and lay people pursuing graduate degrees in theology in seminaries across the country. Twenty years ago, there were none, she said.

But increasing lay enrollment presents its own problems. Many seminaries are not yet equipped to handle lay students. The administrations and faculties at the institutions have not yet defined the program to be followed by these lay men and women. In some cases, students training for the priesthood desire a clear delineation between the educational training received by them and their lay classmates.

Further, priests are not held in the high esteem they once were, a fact that can sometimes be discouraging to the seminarian, Sister Katarina said. If no line is drawn between the curriculum followed by those training for the priesthood and that followed by lay students of theology, change in attitude toward priests is sometimes even more pronounced to seminarians, she said.

“Today a person must have a special spark within himself that draws him to the priesthood, because the outside support just isn’t there,” the sister said.

Lack of support experienced by administrators at the seminaries is one reason for large turnover in those positions, she added, as well as transitions in leadership, which increase the difficult struggles seminaries in this country are undergoing.

Still, mandatory celibacy is the major reason for clergy leaving the priesthood and for loneliness among those who stay, according to a recent report from a committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The language used in explaining the call to live a celibate life does not speak adequately to many priests today, especially in terms of the contemporary culture and society in which priests live out their ministry,” the Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry warned. “Not only must new language be found, but ways must be discovered to help priests appropriate this commitment within their own lives.”

At St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, where priests are trained for service in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, students interviewed for this story frankly said it was not easy to decide to give up the possibility of marriage and fathering children in order to follow the celibate life expected of priests.

Claude LeBlanc entered St. John’s as a first-year theology student last September after having previously studied in a Salesian Society seminary in New Jersey for five years. But he dropped out after only two months and is now teaching at Catholic high schools in Southern California.

“In the fall of 1987,” he said in an interview, “I really decided to take my spiritual life more seriously, and that led me to become more willing to do what God wanted me to do. . . . I came to the conclusion that I really loved what the priests did--the life style, the sacraments, preaching. . . .

“I didn’t feel a definite call to the priesthood, but I felt drawn by God to go to St. John’s,” declared LeBlanc, 29, a graduate of Don Bosco Technical Institute in Rosemead. “I decided to spend one year to discern this vocation.”

But after two months, LeBlanc had his answer.

“What God called me to was my deepest desires,” he concluded, “the things I’d longed for all my life . . . being a music composer and having a family.”

LeBlanc nonetheless still wishes he could be a priest: “I’d prefer to do that above anything else. . . . There’s where my heart is. But because of the church’s laws on celibacy, I can’t be a priest because I feel called to have a family.”

“I’m not angry,” added the Alhambra resident, who plans in August to marry a young woman who left a religious lay community last summer. “That’s the way it is and that’s fine with me.

“But if there were married priests in the Catholic Church, I’d be the first in line.”

Richard Schoenherr, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a colleague of Hoge, has produced definitive studies of the vocations problem at the request of the nations’ bishops. His newest analysis, he said in an interview, confirms his earlier surveys indicating that about 1,300 U.S. priests resign each year, and about 90% of these marry.

In her analysis for the Lilly-funded study, Sister Katarina identified past periods when the number of vocations to the priesthood has been small, but the problem was remedied by waves of immigrants to the United States. Many immigrants were Catholic and wanted to become priests.

The church cannot expect the present shortage to be corrected in the same way, she concluded, because--except in a few Third World countries--young men no longer see becoming a priest in the United States as a ticket to upward social and professional mobility.

Meanwhile, those who enter seminary tend to be older than their predecessors.

“Those who are older won’t be around as long,” researcher Fuerst explained. “So, many will give about 10 years less to the priesthood” compared with a typical period of service for priests ordained two decades ago.

The latest national study of post-college Catholic seminarians shows that compared to 1966, when 72% of seminarians were 25 years old or younger, that group is now only 36%. And while in 1966 a scant 7% of the students were over 30, today they make up at least a third of those in the theology program, and 4% are over 50.

Average age is not the only difference between American seminarians of the late 1980s and their younger counterparts about 20 years ago.

Seminarians today tend to be more conservative and traditional, desiring to stress personal meditation and prayer, administering the sacraments, preaching, tending to people’s needs and caring for the sick, according to 1987 research titled, “Seminary Life and Visions of the Priesthood: A National Survey of Seminarians,” by sociologist Hoge and Father Eugene Hemrick.

Nor are today’s priests as likely as they were in the 1960s to engage in social action addressing poverty, racism, sexism and injustice. This category scored the lowest of roles identified with the priesthood.

All in all, concluded a section of the Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry report, “Reflections on the Morale of Priests,” “The continuing shortage of clergy casts its shadow on both present ministry and future hopes. Official directives which focus on duties ‘only the priest can do’ tend to increase the workload and make for less effective ministry. The lack of a unified, coherent vision of what we are all about is an additional burden. . . .”


Among the nation’s 10 largest archdioceses, Los Angeles has the highest ratio of Catholics per priest.

CATHOLICS ARCHDIOCESE TOTAL CATHOLICS TOTAL PRIESTS PER PRIEST Los Angeles 2,753,952 1,280 2,151 Chicago 2,350,000 2,228 1,054 New York 1,839,204 2,201 835 Boston 1,807,312 2,176 830 Detroit 1,484,443 900 1,649 Newark 1,359,787 1,130 1,203 Philadelphia 1,351,177 1,407 960 Hartford 824,297 582 1,416 St. Paul/Minneapolis 620,558 511 1,214 Miami 596,650 365 1,635


Source: The Official Catholic Directory, 1988