The Priesthood in Peril

Author: John Monczunski

Except that all the delegates were men, and most of them gray-haired, the professional meeting at Toronto’s Westin Harbour Castle Hotel looked like any other business conference. In between meetings, delegates milled about sipping coffee, chatting with one another or inspecting the wares of exhibitors selling items and services of special interest to the profession: vestments, clerical garb, hymnals. The theme of the April 2002 annual meeting of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (NFPC) was “evangelization,” but whenever two or more gathered during breaks the topic of conversation inevitably turned to the ever-unraveling clerical sexual abuse/coverup scandal.

In small knots of two and three between meetings and as a large group at a closed-door session on the canon law rights of accused priests, the men vented their emotions — sadness for the victims and the priests involved, anger at the perpetrators and bishops who covered up, collective shame, fear of a witch hunt, and hope that somehow, some way, something good might emerge.

This has not been an easy year to be a priest. Twelve months ago no one could have predicted popular culture would paint the priesthood as an object of derision and suspicion, that “Catholic priest” would become the snickering punchline in Jay Leno’s nightly monologue. The priesthood has been wounded by the scandal. In the aftermath, the institution has come under increasing scrutiny. Questions have been raised about the selection, training and conduct of priests. In the midst of all this are the priesthood’s own powerful demographic trends. As these trends progress, hastened in part by the scandal, some believe a transformed church may emerge, one which surely will be struggling with other issues.

An aging group

Whenever a large group of priests gather, one demographic fact dramatically asserts itself: American priests are old. It was no accident that the NFPC assembly in Toronto, which included the Canadian as well as U.S. branches of the organization, was a sea of silver hair. The median age for the 46,041 U.S. Catholic priests today is 60. That number inevitably will creep higher as the priest population continues to grow older and the number of newly ordained fails to keep pace with the number of priests who die or resign.

At the current rate, in a decade the average priest will be 65 years of age. In contrast, the median age in 1970 was 47. This is not a trivial concern. The older generation of priests shoulder the lion’s share of parish work. Realistically, they will be gone sooner than later. And then what?

Seminarians are aging as well. A generation ago priestly study often began in a high school “minor” seminary. Today’s candidate usually holds at least a bachelor’s degree and often has several years experience in another profession before entering the seminary. Consequently, the average age of ordination has crept up to 36. Twenty-something priests have become rarer in the church than the Latin Mass. In fact, today more priests are above the age of 90 than below the age of 30. The good news is that the newly ordained bring more maturity and life experience to their ministry; the bad news is they provide fewer years of service to the church.

Currently, fewer than 4,000 men are enrolled in seminaries in the United States. The replacement rate is about 40 new priests for every 100 who die or resign. Since the social turbulence of the 1970s, ordinations have been falling 7 percent per decade. The number of priests is likely to plummet even more as the scandal takes its toll directly and indirectly. As of late August, 2002, some 300 priests had been suspended from priestly duties this year. That number is likely to grow as U.S. bishops implement their national policy on clergy and child abuse.

Then there are the future priests who may be lost because of the scandal. Rev. Donald Cozzens, former rector-president of Cleveland’s Saint Mary Seminary, says experience has shown a mentoring priest is crucial to fostering vocations to the priesthood. In fact, 60 percent of the last ordination class reported that conversations with a priest were instrumental in their decision to enter the seminary. In the wake of the abuse scandals, will many priests be wary of establishing recruiting relationships with young men? Perhaps so. A survey of priests last spring found that 25 percent said they were less inclined to encourage a young man to become a priest.

Rev. Dan Mirsberger, a parish priest from the archdiocese of Milwaukee, says he continues to talk to young men about the priesthood, but he is somewhat discouraged. “I think the events of this past year will have a negative effect on vocations,” he says. “We pray for vocations every day here, but I worry about who will follow us.”

Then, too, there is the difficult issue, which the scandal has raised, of what to do — if anything — about gay seminarians. A number of American bishops and Vatican officials, including Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have argued that homosexuals, even if celibate, are not fit to become priests. The Philadelphia archdiocesan seminary, in fact, excludes gay candidates as a matter of policy.

If this automatic disqualification were to become churchwide policy, it surely would have a negative effect on the number of future priests in U.S. parishes. And what message would it send to current gay priests who are faithful to their vows? Might such a policy drive them out of the priesthood as well, with potentially devastating results? In his 2000 book, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Father Cozzens says five studies suggest that gays constitute anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the priesthood. Even if the numbers aren’t that large, certainly there are significant numbers of gay priests whose loss would have a major impact on the church.

Services without priests

For all of the previous reasons, as well as the fact that the U.S. Catholic population is growing 10 percent per decade, fueled mainly by Hispanic immigration, the priest shortage in the United States is likely to get worse before it gets better. And this worsening shortage, wrote the late University of Wisconsin sociologist of religion Richard Schoenherr, is a powerful engine driving change within the church.

About 25 percent of all Catholics have thus far noticed the effects of the shortage, according to a survey commissioned by the American bishops. That will change. The once unthinkable “No Mass on Sunday” is about to become a reality in an increasing number of parishes. Bishop James Griffin of Columbus, Ohio, in fact, has already warned his diocese that “there will be times when due to a lack of an available priest there may be no Mass on a Sunday in a given place.”

Anticipating such times, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops several years ago established a “Word and Communion” liturgy to be celebrated when no priest is available. The service resembles a Mass in every respect except there is no consecration of the Eucharist. In Goodbye Father: The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church, published posthumously this autumn, Schoenherr contends that this priestless service “could signal the most momentous structural change in the Roman Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation.”

Such a structural change could have a profound effect on the ethos of the church. “If there is no priest at a Sunday service, no one in the congregation is identifying with the role played by the priest,” Schoenherr writes. "So no one is identifying with the beliefs and values inherent in priesthood and the intimately related ritual of eucharistic sacrifice.

“Hence, little by little, the role of priest falls out of the social structure of the community as Sunday after Sunday the congregation adapts to an order of worship which does not include a priest. Along with the disappearing role of priest go the beliefs about the centrality of the eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass, which have been the bedrock of Catholic piety since the earliest days.”

If they reach a critical mass, the Word and Communion services could accelerate and perhaps even perpetuate the priest shortage. The place of the priest in the community would be diminished in a revolutionary way, and the net effect would be to make Catholicism more Protestant in structure and style.

David Yamane, a Notre Dame assistant professor of sociology and the editor of Schoenherr’s book, talks about carrying the issue to its logical, if absurd, conclusion. “As far-fetched as it sounds, potentially we could have one priest or bishop in the country who would consecrate all the hosts needed and ship them out to the nation’s parishes.”


Schoenherr contends in Goodbye Father that the church is now at a crossroads and must choose the direction for the future: Either expand the available pool of candidates for the priesthood to maintain the centrality of the Eucharist or evolve into a lay-dominated form of Catholicism. Or there could be a schism of some type. Whatever choice is made, Schoenherr argues that a strikingly transformed Catholicism looms on the horizon.

In his book, Schoenherr predicts that ultimately the church will realize that maintaining the eucharistic tradition, the sacrifice of the Mass, is more essential to Catholicism than maintaining a celibate, male clergy. He argues that sacrament and priesthood are not expendable; they are at the core of the faith. Celibacy and male exclusivity are traditions maintained by church law; consequently they can be set aside, he asserts.

A 2001 study of the American Catholic laity, led by Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio, suggests that lay Catholics agree with Schoenherr. They express strong belief in the importance of the sacraments and a strong desire for their regular availability. The study indicated that U.S. Catholics find Word and Communion services unacceptable as a long-term substitute for the Mass. Meanwhile, 70 percent approve of ordaining married men, while 60 percent are open to ordaining celibate women and 50 percent married women.

As the priest shortage worsens, Schoenherr writes, pressure will build for a radical solution that will result in the ordination of married men in the Roman rite. “Optional celibacy will be legitimated amid conflict, but will spread and be routinized in the next two or three generations.”

Certainly, the leap to ordaining married men is not a large one. Married men are ordained in Eastern rite churches that are in union with Rome, such as the Melkite church. Even in the Roman rite an estimated 80 married former Episcopal priests in the United States have been allowed to continue their priestly ministry after converting to Roman Catholicism. It’s a much greater leap to ordaining women, but Schoenherr writes that this gap too eventually will be spanned, although not without bitter controversy and conflict.

But maybe he has it wrong. Some argue that Schoenherr’s conclusions do not hold up because the priest shortage, while real, is not as threatening to the integrity of the church as he believes. They point out that the church successfully has endured worse shortages in the past. Indeed, in 1829, the ratio was one priest for every 2,150 Catholics; today’s ratio is one priest for every 1,898 members of the laity.

“When folks talk about circuit-rider priests [a priest serving many parishes], this is nothing new,” says Rev. Wilson Miscamble, CSC, rector of Moreau Seminary. “Remember Stephen Badin [the priest who acquired the land on which Notre Dame was built] was a circuit rider priest. People saw a priest only once every three months or so in the 19th century.”

Priestly differences

In defense of his mentor’s position, Yamane argues that the current situation differs from earlier times because Vatican II has changed the expectations and role of the laity, who are now more actively engaged in the church. Also, since a self-contained Catholic subculture no longer exists, it places a heavy burden on a high-quality parish life to transmit the faith and keep people active. “The priest is crucial to this because he still sets the tone in many ways for the quality of parish life,” Yamane says. Without enough priests that quality will suffer, he argues. Then, too, there is that ethos-changing effect of the “Word and Communion” service.

Besides advancing age and declining numbers, one other recent demographic characteristic of the priesthood is significantly impacting the church: the more traditional mindset of the newly ordained. Sociologists of religion have documented a generation gap within the priesthood. “Within the last 15 years a new type of priest has emerged,” says Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge. “Younger priests are more satisfied with the church as it is, and they have different agendas [than their older colleagues].”

In a survey by Hoge, responses to a question on the top issues for discussion in the church illustrate the differences. Priests 55 and older, the “reform generation” that came of age at the time of Vatican II, listed their top concerns as mandatory celibacy, the process of selecting bishops and ordination of women. Recently ordained priests, on the other hand, listed their main topics for discussion as the image and esteem of priesthood today, psychosexual maturity of priests, support for living the celibate life, and sharing ministry with the laity.

Rev. John Putnam, a priest from the diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, ordained in 1992, says his experience confirms the generation gap. “In my diocese, priests tend to get along well, but when it comes to theology of the church, ecclesiology, there’s a respectful divergence [between young and old]. I’ve been in some dioceses where there’s little or no interaction between the generations of priests.”

On the other end of the age spectrum, Rev. Joseph Browne, CSC, a Portland, Oregon, pastor who was ordained 47 years ago, confirms the gap but places it in slightly different perspective. “Some of the newly ordained, I find, fit in more with my age group than those who were ordained 15 or 20 years ago,” he says.

Putnam believes the generation gap within the priesthood emanates from the seminary experience. “Some seminaries staffed mainly by priests of the 1960s/’70s generation have been less hospitable to more orthodox views of the church,” he says. "So seminarians who hold those views experience some resistance, and then that engenders a lack of trust that can carry over into the diocese.

“I think many of the younger clergy come with a desire for a life that is rooted in the church’s tradition,” he says. “They don’t want the experimentation they saw when they were growing up. They’re attracted to some of the more traditional forms of devotion. They want sacrifice, a vocation that consumes every aspect of their lives, not just a job.”

Holy Cross centrists

Holy Cross seminarians and recently ordained priests generally mirror the national trend. “There’s a range of attitudes, but they are more likely to be traditional in a church sense,” Miscamble says. "Overall I’d say our people are of a ‘centrist’ temperament. They’re looking for a more ordered, traditional priesthood.

“Many identify closely with Pope John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization. They place a greater emphasis on explicit religious activity. They’re interested in perhaps less social service work and more evangelical work.”

While the pendulum has swung to a more conservative orientation within the priesthood, there’s no single, simple reason to explain why. A variety of theories have been advanced to explain the liberal Vatican II priests’ failure to replicate themselves.

Some have suggested that it may in part be because the mass exodus of priests following Vatican II who left to get married depleted the church of liberal-priest role models. Had these priests remained, there now would be a more visible liberal presence within the priesthood. Meanwhile, many of those liberal priests who did remain never made recruitment a priority, perhaps because of ambivalence about some church teaching and their own role as an official representative of the church. “If you’re not secure in yourself and you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you have a hard time passing that on,” notes Rev. Melvin Blanchette, S.S., of the Vatican II Institute in Menlo Park, California.

In fact, the most successful recruiters for the priesthood today are those bishops and religious orders generally regarded as conservative or orthodox. The conservative religious order the Legionaires of Christ, for instance, claims an astounding 2,500 seminarians within its ranks.

Yamane reports that Andrew Yuengert, a Pepperdine University economics professor, found that bishops who publish in Catholic Answers, a theologically orthodox publication, had a 31 percent higher ordination rate than bishops who published in the more progressive Jesuit magazine, America.

“These bishops and religious orders are what I call Catholics without apology,” says Yamane. "They say, ’We’re Catholics. Christ subsists in our church more than in any other church. We have something you can really believe in. And our faith is something you can consider committing your life to.’

“Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, are more conflicted about the church as an institution,” he says. “It’s not that they don’t love the church. But they have issues with the church. That’s not the kind of situation where you will go to people and say this is an institution you should give your life to. If you’re more at ease with the current structure and leadership, it’s much easier to go out to young people and say this is something you can believe in.”

Liberal families don’t seem to send as many of their sons to seminary as conservative families. Father Cozzens argues that along with mentoring priests, mothers play a central role in fostering vocations. Some speculate that liberal Catholic women, who may be upset with the place of women within the church, have been less inclined to encourage their sons to pursue the priesthood. Conservative families, in contrast, tend to have larger families and often encourage one or more of their children to pursue a vocation.

An orthodoxy gap

“There is not the kind of support today there once was, when the Catholic subculture nurtured and saw it as a good and honorable thing for a family to have a vocation to the priesthood and religious life,” Miscamble says. “Most parents today are likely to hear others say, ‘Why is your son doing that?’ instead of, ’It’s a great thing your son is doing.’”

The Moreau rector attributes some of the vocations success of conservative groups to their ability to tap into what remains of the old Catholic subculture. “They place great emphasis on prayer and commitment and that is what young folks are looking for. They have a clear identity and purpose. There’s something to be learned in that regard.”

Another explanation for the preponderance of young traditional priests is that liberal seminarians who make it through to the priesthood are more likely to be among the 12 to 15 percent of priests who resign within five years of ordination. In a study of the first five years of the priesthood, Dean Hoge found that those who resigned tended to be liberal theologically. On the matter of optional celibacy, for instance, the Catholic University sociologist found 94 percent of those who resigned agreed it should be optional versus 29 percent of active diocesan priests. Asked if they agreed with the statement “ordination confers a new status which makes him essentially different from the laity,” 75 percent of all diocesan priests agreed versus 27 percent of the resigned.

“What I derive from all this is that the resigned priests come from the post-Vatican-II theology. The ones who stay on embrace a more traditional ecclesiology,” Hoge says.

While the priesthood is becoming more conservative as the older, more liberal priests die out, the laity is not. And this could be a source of future conflict. “American Catholics are more affluent, more educated, more culturally conscious than at any time in history. They are more independent thinkers as well,” observes Hoge.

Several recent surveys by Hoge, James Davidson of Purdue University and their colleagues document an “orthodoxy gap” between the laity and the clergy. On several issues the views of the laity differ significantly from church teaching. The sociologists report, for instance, that a minority of American Catholics believe the following are always wrong: homosexual acts (41 percent), abortion (39 percent), premarital sex (31 percent) and artificial birth control (9 percent).

Support for women’s ordination climbed from 30 percent in 1970 to more than 60 percent in the 1990s. Meanwhile 70 percent favor ordaining married men and 80 percent would like married ex-priests to return to active ministry. Yamane points out that all of these topics have been closed for discussion by the Vatican.

“Overall, Catholics are not as likely as they once were to grant church leaders final say, nor are they as likely to agree with church teachings,” D’Antonio and his colleagues argue in their book, American Catholics: Gender, Generation and Commitment. “[Catholics] are more inclined to believe they have a personal responsibility to make up their own minds and, while doing so, increasingly distinguish between what they consider to be core beliefs and practices and what they consider peripheral or optional.”

Agree, disagree

D’Antonio’s group found high agreement with the magisterium on doctrine relating to the Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection and the Real Presence. However, they found less agreement on teachings related to abortion, birth control, labor unions and the death penalty.

Since Vatican II, lay Catholics have become more assertive, Yamane observes. “I think the Catholic laity now are not willing to tolerate some of the things the Catholic laity have tolerated in the past,” he says. “Catholics today are more likely to vote with their feet and move on to a parish where they find a priest to their liking. Interestingly, Catholics generally do not leave the church for another denomination; they merely become nonpracticing Catholics.”

Yamane suggests, however, that too much may be made of the orthodoxy gap. “Once you get into a parish setting a lot of that has no bearing on practical day-to-day issues. Thomistic theology is going to get you only so far when you’re dealing with people who are hurting or in crisis. On the day-to-day level what counts are pastoral skills.”

Also, in terms of viability of the institution, Yamane says it is better to have a conservative, traditional clergy and liberal laity than the reverse. He notes that several mainline Protestant denominations with more liberal clergy and conservative congregations have experienced erosion in numbers.

Although the younger generation of priests may have a more traditional orientation, Miscamble cautions that it’s inaccurate to say they wish for a pre-Vatican II church in which the pastor was king. “The old idea that ‘Father knows best,’ that’s gone. Our people train with folks who will be lay ministers. Every parish around town has three, four, five lay employees. One of the key roles of a priest as leader is to draw out the gifts of others. Collaborative ministry is very much the norm today.”

Putnam echoes the Moreau rector. “Most of the young guys I know don’t want the Tridentine Mass. They don’t want papal states with secular dominion. What they want is just to be faithful to what the church teaches.”

However the next chapter of the life of the church is ultimately written only time will tell, of course. For his part, Miscamble says, "I don’t expect any radical change within the next five to 10 years, but how it works its way out over time I look forward to experiencing and observing.

“I say to our guys here: You’re preparing for the long haul. You have to be able to preach well, preside well. And be an open, accessible person reaching out to share God’s love, to extend God’s call to everyone.”

John Monczunski is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.