Few people begin planning for retirement early enough, and in this respect diocesan priests are no exception. In the United States, the church is now facing the impending retirement of nearly 40 percent of its 27,614 diocesan priests.
Diocesan priests take no vow of poverty and are expected to support themselves when they retire. As ministers, however, their salaries have tended to be low, which has given them limited opportunity to save much. Very low lifetime earnings also mean very low Social Security benefits. Diocesan priests receive about half the monthly Social Security benefit of the average layperson, according to an article in The Tidings, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Priests who were ordained in the 1960s were allowed to opt out of Social Security altogether; some were even told there would be no funds left in the program when they retired. As a result, many priests did not contribute to the plan; those who opted out and would now be eligible for benefits receive neither a monthly Social Security check nor Medicare coverage.
The bishops of the United States are not unaware of the financial issues facing diocesan priests as they retire. The bishops also view the problem in its larger context, as priests of the baby boom generation reach retirement age without enough young vocations ready to replace them. For the past 20 years, the bishops have taken up a national collection to supplement the retirement needs of members of religious communities, most of whom are women, but that money does not include diocesan priests. Few Catholics in the pews have understood the distinction.
Diocesan priests face not only a substantial reduction in income when they retire, but their living expenses tend to increase, especially if they can no longer reside at a local parish and have no family home to move into. If a priest chooses to live outside the diocese, he might not be given authorization to minister when he requests it in his new home, depriving him of the ability to celebrate Mass and hear confessions.
For priests with limited means and for those who need household assistance, some dioceses operate retirement homes. Such homes provide a safety net and are a welcome relief when necessary, but most are expensive relative to a typical priest’s retirement income. And some of them can be isolated—far from a priest’s parish, family and friends. Or the style of living may represent a substantial departure from what a diocesan priest had been accustomed to: daily interaction with a great variety of people of all ages. Like other retirees, priests typically will not choose to live in a retirement home unless they have no better choice.
The retirement problem is somewhat new for priests in this country. It is related to the shortage of priestly vocations, the closing and merging of parishes and the selling of church property and facilities. The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law mentions priests’ retirement only once, in Canon 538, Paragraph 3, which refers only to pastors, not to parochial vicars (associate pastors). So it is not surprising that diocesan policies are widely divergent and may be inadequate to meet the needs of retired priests today.
Some dioceses have begun taking up an annual collection for their own diocesan priests’ retirement. According to The Tidings, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has collected roughly $10 million since 2001 for its Retirement Fund for Archdiocesan Priests. The Diocese of Providence is engaged currently in its second year of collecting for priests’ retirement. Some dioceses, like the Archdiocese of Denver, have set up a standing committee to administer a diocesan pension plan for priests. Across the nation, though, retirement arrangements for diocesan priests still need to be established and maintained.
The bishops and their advisors must raise awareness among lay Catholics about the financial needs of retired diocesan priests, an effort that involves communications, media and the development of education and advocacy materials. The hope is that Catholics will give their support once they understand the magnitude of the problem.
Long-term planning also requires that the church marshal data about diocesan priests’ retirement needs. According to the last major study of priests, conducted in 1999 for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops through the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the average age of priests was 60, and 25 percent of priests were 75 or older. The study also predicted that the number who are 75 or older will increase to 40 percent of priests by the year 2010.
The church needs more current data, a new survey to help planners assess the situation and identify practice models that could be used in all the dioceses. Such a research survey could report priests’ attitudes (retired priests and those approaching retirement), locate the gaps in salary, savings, coverage and care, build on previous surveys and identify ways of solving the problems facing retired diocesan priests. The information would add significantly to the information on diocesan retirement practices now being collected every three years and published by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils.
Two years ago a group of laypeople in Florida, in consultation with active and retired priests (including myself) and bishops began meeting to examine the critical issues facing retired diocesan priests and to support retirement planning. The group, Laity in Support of Retired Priests Inc., has organized itself as a 501(c)(3) not for profit public charity. As one of the founding members, I continue to serve as a consultant. Early on, the organization contacted the Third Age Center at Fordham University in New York and the National Federation of Priests’ Councils to see what information was available and what still needs doing. Thomas W. Hoban, the president of L.S.R.P. Inc., is a former C.E.O. of the Hennepin Medical Society (now West Metro Medical Society), a large physicians’ organization. He explains L.S.R.P.’s threefold goal: (1) to develop a minimum pension and benefit plan to present to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, (2) to create awareness among the laity regarding the plight of many retired diocesan priests and (3) to develop a national association of retired priests and bishops, which will provide a forum for them to discuss individual concerns. The association will enable priests and bishops to speak with a collaborative voice.
Already L.S.R.P. has raised more than $30,000 and has engaged the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate to conduct a new comprehensive study, which is currently underway. CARA is surveying a national random sample of active and retired diocesan priests about issues related to retirement for diocesan priests. L.S.R.P. plans to share the findings with the U.S.C.C.B. and is in conversation with the appropriate committee there, the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations. The research will provide bishops with specific data to help them improve the quality of life of retired priests, especially those who require assisted or skilled care. (For more information about the group and for news about the CARA survey, see www.lsrpinc.org.)
While the retirement concerns of diocesan priests require an organizational response, the story of each priest is unique. I myself was ordained 48 years ago and retired from active priestly ministry three years ago, on the advice of my doctors and with the permission of my bishop. After just one year of retirement, I developed neuropathy, which makes it difficult for me to walk without a cane. Since I carefully saved enough for my retirement years, my financial needs are being met, but others are not so fortunate. One diocesan priest I met from another state lived on the cusp of poverty. I felt very sorry for him and thanked God that his parishioners had set up an annuity fund to help him out.
In the last few decades, priests’ salaries and benefits have increased slightly. The overall situation is improving, but much more needs to be done to improve the quality of retirement for diocesan priests.