Many Catholics believe that unless the priesthood is opened up to women or married men, the church will soon lack enough priests to provide Mass. According to most Catholic social scientists, the growing number of Catholics and shrinking number of priests are inexorably moving the church toward a situation of “full pews and empty altars,” which is the title of the flagship book arguing this thesis, published in 1993 by the late Richard Schoenherr and Lawrence Young.
As Schoenherr put it, “The stark facts are that, while the diocesan priesthood population will have declined by 40 percent between 1966 and 2005, the lay population is increasing by 65 percent. The laity-to-priest ratio, a fairly accurate measure of supply and demand, will double between 1975 and 2005 from 1,100 to 2,200 Catholics per active priest.” It is, therefore, “obvious from the data that the losses in the supply of celibate priests are approaching the crisis point. The only choice is to staunch the hemorrhaging supply or cut back key operations.” Since “practicing Catholics should [not] be deprived of the Mass because of the scarcity of celibate priests,” Schoenherr and Young conclude that “the church will need to jettison male celibate exclusivity in priestly ministry, first through the ordination of married men to the priesthood and later through the ordination of women.”
Although this conclusion has been almost universally accepted among social scientists, the argument as stated above ignores at least three well-known facts to the contrary that, in my opinion, render it highly dubious. First, demand by the laity for the services of the church has not increased, as Schoenherr and Young assume, but in fact has significantly declined since the 1960’s. Second, although the number of priests has indeed declined dramatically, the influx of deacons and lay ministers has greatly ameliorated the impact of that decline upon services to the laity. Third, in historical terms, the current staffing level of clergy in American parishes is not particularly low. Let’s consider each of these issues in turn.
Fewer Catholics Seek the Mass
Schoenherr and Young arrived at their estimate of the amount of services “demanded” from the clergy by the laity by counting the number of self-reporting Catholics on Gallup polls since the 1960’s, assuming that an increase in Catholics represents a directly proportional increase in lay “demand.” But this assumption is well known to be false. Nearly every sociological study of Catholics in the last 20 years has observed that their rate of participation in the sacraments has been declining since the 1960’s. Although there are more Catholics in 2001 than in 1965, today’s Catholics attend Mass and partake of other sacraments in much smaller proportions than in 1965. The same Gallup surveys that Schoenherr and Young use to estimate the number of Catholics document this fact: the percentage of Catholics attending Mass each week dropped from a high of 74 percent in 1958 to only 52 percent by 1983. According to the most recent survey (2000) by the National Opinion Research Center, only 30 percent of Catholic respondents reported that they attend Mass each week.
When the declining proportion of Catholics actually attending Mass is taken into account, the argument that the church will lack enough clergy to administer the sacraments loses most of its support. The ratio of priests to weekly Mass attenders has not declined, but in fact has significantly increased since the 1960’s. The ratio of priests to 10,000 weekly Mass attenders rose from under 20 in the mid-1960’s to almost 30 by the early 1980’s—its highest level ever and an increase of roughly 50 percent. Since that time it has fluctuated slightly; but in 2000, at about 27, it remains well above what it was in the 1960’s. In other words, if we count only the parishioners who actually show up for Mass, there is no numerical shortage, much less a crisis, in the supply of clergy compared to the 1960’s.
Deacons and Lay Staff Provide More Services
In fact, access to the sacraments is in some ways greater for the laity today than in the 1960’s because of the dramatic rise of alternate forms of ministry in the church following Vatican II. In particular, permanent deacons have contributed to the pastoral care and sacramental access of the laity. Today there are about 13,000 active permanent deacons in the church, or about 4 deacons for every 10 diocesan priests, with the ratio growing higher each year; before 1972 there were none. Schoenherr and Young acknowledge that “[D]eacons perform some ministerial tasks once reserved to priests and so augment clerical manpower.” But they do not consider deacons in analyzing how much care laypersons receive from the church, they explain, “precisely because [the priest shortage] is the driving force for change in the structure of Catholic ministry.”
By contrast, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that deacons perform a significant—and increasing—amount of the practical pastoral work of the church. In addition to performing marriages and baptisms, deacons also routinely visit the sick and preach homilies—all activities that, until 1971, fell exclusively on the shoulders of the clergy. A 1995 survey by the United States Catholic Conference found that, in their current assignments, 92 percent of deacons visited the sick, 93 percent preached homilies, and 98 percent performed baptism and/or marriage liturgies. Since deacons are fully qualified and actively and frequently participate in providing life-cycle sacraments (baptisms, marriages and funerals), an accurate accounting of supply and demand for these rituals should reasonably include them.
The number of life-cycle sacraments each priest was called upon to perform, on average, declined from over 40 in the late 1950’s to just under 29 in 1978, after which the number has risen gradually back to almost 40 in the most recent year. This illustrates the fact that the decline in demand for these sacraments has generally paralleled the decline in priests. Even without considering the contribution of deacons, priests in 2000 were not called upon to perform any greater number of baptisms, marriages and funerals than priests in 1960. But when all members of the clergy—both priests and deacons—are included, the number of these sacraments performed by each clergyperson annually, on average, has increased only slightly from its lowest level in the 1970’s. By this measure, not only is there not a crisis in the supply of the services of the church, but the availability of qualified clergy for these commonly demanded sacraments today is greater than in the 1960’s. Indeed, it is not far below the highest level it has ever reached.
These figures do not take into account, moreover, the rapidly growing involvement of lay persons in pastoral care activities that until recently were typically the province of priests, including parish administration, catechization and counseling. While the effect of their contribution has not yet been estimated precisely, clearly the activities of lay professionals counteract to some extent the declining availability of clergy and professed religious.
We’ve Been Here Before
Another statistic often cited as evidence of a numerical clergy crisis is the growing number of parishes without a resident priest. The effect of the declining number of priests, we are told, will be “to dramatically increase the number of priestless parishes in the United States, already more than 2,000”—a situation that is taken as yet more evidence that “celibacy is eroding Catholicism.”
The problem with this claim is the implication that the current level of parishes without a resident priest is particularly high in historical terms. In fact, just the opposite is the case.
Prior to World War II, counting both parishes and missions, about a third of Catholic churches did not have a pastor in residence; after mid-century that proportion has gradually declined to about a fifth. Far from being unusually high, the rate of nonresidency in 1999 was at its lowest point in the 20th century.
Another way of making this point is to examine the ratio of priests not to parishioners, but to parishes. This figure does reflect a decline from the flush days of the 1960’s, when there were over 2.5 priests per parish on average. But the current ratio (just over 2), while lower than in the 60’s, is still much higher than at any time before World War II, and nearly twice as high as at the beginning of the 20th century. Although it has declined in the last few decades, by historical standards the current overall availability of priests to parishes is not particularly low. As the figure makes clear, today there are more priests per parish than there were for the entire first half of the 20th century. The current situation, while certainly amenable to improvement and in some respects worse than in the 1960’s, is by the standards of the past century not particularly bad, and certainly not a crisis.
The argument from supply and demand that the Catholic Church is suffering a shortage of priests of crisis proportions fails to convince, because it ignores clearly documented decreases in demand and increases in supply. On the demand side, the argument fails to account for the dramatic decrease in participation in the church by the laity since the 1960’s, as evidenced by declining Mass attendance and participation in the life-cycle sacraments. On the supply side, the argument ignores the rise of the ministry of deacons and lay professionals. Furthermore, in historical terms the current ratio of supply to demand is not unusually small.
Whether there may be other grounds to consider relaxing the restriction of priesthood to celibate males is beyond the scope and competence of this discussion. But the contention that a numerical clergy crisis provides an impetus for such changes in the priesthood is simply without basis. To whatever extent ordaining women or married men has been seen as an answer to the problems posed by a shortage in the numbers of clergy, to that same extent those actions are not, in fact, necessary or urgent.
I do not mean to suggest by this that there is no basis or need to encourage priestly vocations in the American church, nor to deny that there are crippling shortages of priests in certain geographic areas and among certain populations. On the contrary, in the absence of a numerical clergy crisis, the need for vocations is more important, not less. The decline in lay participation that has paralleled the decline of priests in the past generation indicates, not that we have no problem, but that the problem we have, a crisis of secularization, is much more fundamental, widespread and urgent than simply a numerical shortage of priests. The revitalization of the church in the face of that larger crisis, so greatly needed among both clergy and laypersons, will depend in large part upon a rediscovery of the joy and commitment of vocation among growing numbers of our young people.