February 24, 2011
The Priest Shortage
The Catholic Church is facing a priest shortage crisis. In the United States alone, the Catholic population rose from 29 million in 1950 to 64 million in 2005. This is great, but during this same period, the population of priests not only failed to keep up but actually fell by 2,000. This is a concerning trend. There are approximately 41,400 priest in the United States today. Aside from local parishes, the Catholic Church runs a considerable number of schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and charities. Increasingly the Church has been forced to rely on deacons, lay ministers, nuns and brothers. But given the consistent increases in the Catholic population, changes are needed fulfill the role of the priests. There are many possible solutions, ranging from changes in parish districting to revolutionary changes that address the rules for who is allowed to assume church leadership roles. In the book “American Catholics Today” an extensive survey was undertaken to understand how practicing Catholics view challenges, such as the priest shortage, and what solutions they felt were acceptable. In terms of parish leadership options, approximately 9 of every 10 respondents were supportive of sharing a priest with another parish, bringing in a priest from another country to lead, and merging two or more nearby parishes into one. In terms of expanding eligibility, most respondents favored allowing priests who married to return to active ministry (81%) and allowing married men to be ordained. More than 50% approved of allowing women to become priests.
The response of the Church’s leadership, including the Pope, has been limited at best. Pope John Paul II refused to consider expanding priest eligibility. So far Pope Benedict XVI has at least allowed some discussion of the matter, but it has not been embraced by the church leaders. So the question remains - what will we do to address this growing concern? And will the Church leadership ever be willing to change eligibility requirements if that’s what it comes down to?
American Catholics Today by William V. D’Antonio et al.; 2007