The Shrinking Supply of Priests: The number of ordinations is not keeping up.
American bishops discussed research describing changing parish staffing patterns at their national convocation in Milwaukee on June 15-17. The three-hour deliberation considered data showing that the number of priests continues to decline, while parishes are hiring more and more lay ministers. Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark indicated that the worst is yet to come. A continuation of current clergy staffing trends in his archdiocese, he said, would result in a decline in the number of active diocesan priests from the present total of 544 to 192 by 2010. Since the Archdiocese of Newark includes 1.3 million registered Catholics, the near future points to a staffing ratio of 6,978 Catholics per diocesan priest. In 1995 one diocesan priest served an average of 2,220 Catholics.
According to the Official Catholic Directory, the number of active diocesan clergy declined by 346 priests per year between 1995 and 1999. Three factors contribute to changes in the number of diocesan clergy. First, the number of retired, sick or absent diocesan priests continues to increase gradually while the population of diocesan priests shrinks. Second, resignations and deaths presently exceed ordinations. Finally, the number of priests moving to this country continues to increase, which will somewhat mitigate the negative staffing impact of increased clergy retirement, deaths and resignations.
Most pastors once expected to die with their feet firmly planted under the dining table in their parish rectory. Modern medicine, however, has greatly extended the average life span. Retirement has changed from a relatively rare happening to a right. When Franklin Roosevelt signed the initial Social Security legislation, only one in 16 Americans reached the retirement age of 65. By 1990 one American in eight lived beyond 65 with increasing prospects for an active lifestyle.
A formal notion of retirement first entered Catholic management practices when, under Pope Paul VI, bishops began submitting letters of resignation at the age of 75. About the same time priest’s councils in various parts of the country stressed the need for the development of standard clergy personnel practices. This movement led to the establishment of formal retirement standards and pension programs. Research conducted by the Third Age Center at Fordham University reported that 16 percent of priests in 1997 had an option to retire between age 65 to 69. About half the clergy can retire between 70 and 74, while the remaining one-third must wait until age 75.
In recent years the number of retired diocesan priests has gradually increased from 6,436 in 1990 to 7,785 by 1999, according to the O.C.D. Should this current pattern continue, the retired population of diocesan priests will increase to 8,107 by 2005. The increase in the number of retirees has occurred at a time when the total of diocesan priests declined from 32,992 in 1990 to 30,034 by 1999 and a forecast of 27,940 by 2005. The proportion of retired diocesan priests as a part of the total clergy population has increased from 19.5 percent in 1990 to 24 percent for 1999 and will likely grow to a forecast of 29 percent by 2005.
The increasing number of retirees, coupled with a declining total population of diocesan priests, may well lead to pressure to revise upward some current retirement age norms or even threaten the notion of a right to retirement. A 1997 Vatican document on standards for parish management stated that retirement is possible only at the discretion of the bishop. In the absence of any grave health or disciplinary reasons, it should be noted that having reached the age of 75 does not constitute a binding reason for the diocesan bishop to accept a parish priest’s resignation. The American Congress has extended the eligibility age for the receipt of a Social Security pension check; changing circumstances may force American bishops to consider similar changes in clergy retirement practices, particularly in dioceses where present norms allow for retirement at 65.
Ordinations, Deaths and Resignations
At the same time that the number of retirees is increasing, the number of ordinations fails to keep up with the number of deaths and resignations from the priesthood. From 1995 through 1999, there were 1,247 diocesan ordinations according to the O.C.D., but there were also 2,654 deaths or resignations from the priesthood. (The number of deaths and resignations was determined by subtracting the number of priests in 1999 from the number in 1995 and adding the number of ordinations: 31,44130,034+1,247.) During this period, the number of deaths and resignations declined from 852 per year to 545, probably due to a decrease in resignations. But, at the same time, the number of ordinations declined from 352 to 278 per year. In short, the ordination classes would need to double in size to keep up with the decline caused by deaths and resignations.
One trend that offsets the decreasing number of native diocesan clergy is the influx of priests from outside the United States. Exact statistics are not available, but some estimates can be made. The O.C.D. reports that in 1999 there were 2,872 extern priests in U.S. dioceses. An extern priest is one from outside the diocese, so these could be Americans from another diocese or foreign priests. The O.C.D. also reports that there are 1,446 diocesan priests working outside their American diocese. Subtracting this figure from the total number of extern priests gives us a rough estimate for the number of foreign priests in the United States1,426. The number of foreign priests has been increasing in recent years and will probably continue to increase. If trends continue, there could be an estimated 2,140 foreign priests in the United States in the year 2005.
This anticipated influx of 1,515 priests from abroad will lessen but not solve the continuing clergy shortage in the United States. Present trends suggest a decline in the number of active diocesan clergy from 24,603 in 1990 to 18,544 for 2005, a drop of 6,059 priests. The number of active diocesan clergy will about equal the number of parishes in the country in 2005. A total of 1,515 additional international immigrants will offset about 25 percent of the anticipated decline in the number of American priests. The need for new pastors may well be mitigated but certainly not relieved by international immigrants.