Priest Shortage Panic

Last fall, the editors of the National Catholic Reporter warned their readers—as they have been for years—that a terrible crisis is looming for the Church in America. They quoted approvingly a talk given by Father Norman Rotert, the vicar-general of the Kansas City archdiocese, who declared:

There is a huge issue that is not being confronted by the leadership of the Church … the declining number of priests…. It is the top of an iceberg of other explosive issues … like sexuality, women’s rights, power…. The shortage of priests is not going to be solved by gritting our teeth and praying for more vocations…. We must celebrate the Eucharist or we will die.

Rotert went on to recommend the ordination of women and married men. The editors commended Rotert for his courage, but then remarked that “the tragedy is that the Vatican, instead of providing the space and means for conversation, keeps insisting that everyone simply shut up and stop thinking.”

Dire pronouncements of this sort appear with great frequency in the pages of the Reporter and periodically in America and Commonweal as well. Indeed, one columnist for the Reporter, Tim Unsworth, was so troubled by this question that he put together a book about it and gave it a suitably apocalyptic title: The Last Priests in America. Unsworth chose as his subjects forty priests, mostly from the Chicago area and almost to a man liberal or radical on matters theological. It seems the unifying factor among those interviewed was their fondness for Andrew Greeley; most referred at least once in their conversations to Greeley’s writings.

To buttress his argument that the celibate male priesthood is verging on extinction, Unsworth repeatedly referred to scholarly work done on the subject by Richard Schoenherr and Dean Hoge. Schoenherr, a laicized priest who taught sociology at the University of Wisconsin until his death this year, had projected that the number of diocesan clergy will have dropped 40 percent from 1966 to 2005. Schoenherr had no qualms about predicting the future; he unhesitatingly declared the priest shortage to be irreversible.

Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America and Presbyterian layman, accepts Schoenherr’s figures and asserts that the shortage is an institutional one, not a spiritual one. He believes that the laity—including young people—are faith-filled and ready to serve, but are deterred by the Church’s strictures on celibacy.

Schoenherr’s and Hoge’s research is significant and must be taken seriously. But their work and the popular essays on the subject in the Catholic press are problematic in several respects. First, they pay little attention to history; they assume the Church in America consistently had an abundance of priests until the 1970s. Studying the Church’s past would have made them aware of how dramatically vocation rates have varied over the decades. Furthermore, while the Church in America has suffered a net loss of priests in recent years, certain dioceses have experienced substantial growth. Turning to history might encourage these writers to reconsider their apocalyptic assertions.


Vocations in the Nineteenth Century

As America’s first Catholic bishop, John Carroll had a multitude of concerns, but chief among them seems to have been the desire to establish seminaries to train native-born men for the priesthood. In the early 1780s, he had twenty-four priests to minister to twenty-five thousand Catholics, roughly a 1:1,000 priest-to-people ratio. Most of his priests were foreign-born, however, and several were troublemakers. In addition his priests were not evenly distributed throughout the country. In Pennsylvania, for example, there were only two priests to tend to its seven thousand Catholics.

To remedy these problems, Carroll established Georgetown Academy in 1789, hoping it would serve in part as a minor seminary. Two years later he founded St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and staffed it with four French Sulpician priests. The schools struggled at first and their respective faculties mistrusted each other. During the 1790s only one student from Georgetown entered St. Mary’s. Over the following decade, St. Mary’s fortunes improved: nearly fifty men had enrolled there by 1810 and twenty-three of them were ultimately ordained.

Over the next twenty years the Church in America grew at a rapid pace as immigrants streamed in from Ireland and Germany. Dozens of new churches were built, new seminaries were opened in Maryland and Kentucky. All these efforts notwithstanding, the Church was not able to keep pace with its burgeoning population. By 1829 there were 232 priests serving five hundred thousand Catholics; the priest-to-people ratio had slipped to about 1:2,150. Some dioceses were even worse off. When John Hughes took over as Bishop of New York in 1838, for example, he had only forty priests available for the two hundred thousand Catholics in the diocese. The bishops were very much aware of the problem.

By 1852 more progress had been achieved. While the Catholic population had quadrupled over twenty years to two million, the Church had increased its clergy more than sixfold to 1,471. The priest-to-people ratio had improved to 1:1,425. Still the bishops were not totally satisfied. When they convened again in 1866, they warned the laity that the clergy shortage had still not abated. The bishops also upbraided Catholic parents for “exaggerating the difficulties and dangers of the priestly calling, and painting in too glowing colors the advantages of a secular life.”

By 1884 the Catholic population had quadrupled from what it had been in 1852; heavy immigration from Ireland and Germany after the Civil War had helped to swell the Church’s numbers. Still the Church was keeping up more or less with this massive influx. Scores of churches, parochial schools, hospitals, and orphanages were erected throughout the East and Midwest.

Indeed, when Church leaders convened in Baltimore for their Third Plenary Council in the autumn of 1884, they exuded a confident air. There were now seventy-seven American bishops and all but one gathered in Baltimore for the meeting. On the opening day of the council, a seemingly endless line of elegantly robed churchmen processed from the Archbishop’s house to the cathedral: fourteen archbishops, sixty-two bishops, six abbots, thirty-four superiors of religious congregations, eleven rectors of theological seminaries, eighty-one theologians, and twelve minor conciliar functionaries, a grand total of 220 clerics.

The number of clergy was increasing rapidly as well. By this time the Church had just over seven thousand priests serving its flock of eight million; the priest-to-people ratio had improved to 1:1,135. A great many of these priests, however, were foreign born. As John Tracy Ellis has noted: “At no time in the nineteenth century, or even in the present century, was the Catholic Church able to recruit sufficient priestly vocations within her own community to satisfy the needs of the rapidly increasing population.” As an example he cited the Detroit diocese, which in 1870 had just six Americans among its eighty-eight priests.


World War I to Vatican II

When World War I came to end, America had twenty-one thousand priests serving a Catholic population of almost eighteen million. In just thirty-five years, the Church had tripled its number of priests. For the first time, the Church’s priest-to-people ratio had dropped well below one thousand to 1:850.

In the years after the war, a new challenge faced the Church in the form of a nativist backlash. Many Americans were angry that they had been dragged into Europe’s war, and many were troubled by the waves of European immigrants who were landing on America’s shores year after year. From 1880 to 1924 more than twenty million people had entered America. Most came from southern or eastern Europe and the majority were Catholic. In 1924 Congress enacted the Immigration Act, which severely limited the entry of Italians, Poles, Hungarians, and Russians into America.

While sparked in part by anti-Catholicism, this legislation proved a blessing in some respects for the Church. With immigration all but cut off, the Catholic population began to grow at a more manageable pace. This lull in population growth gave the Church a chance to consolidate its position. Rather than having to focus their energy and resources on the latest group of immigrants, the bishops were able to build up the Church’s infrastructure. In these years, a number of Catholic colleges were founded and a few long-established institutions like Notre Dame began to offer graduate programs.

Under these more stable conditions, the Church was able to make further headway with vocations. During the 1920s the Catholic population grew by 14 percent while the number of priests increased by 28 percent, and in the ’30s the Catholic population grew by only 6 percent while the number of clergy rose by 26 percent. By 1940 there were almost thirty-six thousand priests ministering to twenty-two million Catholics; the priest-to-people ratio now stood at 1:630.

Msgr. George Kelly recounts his experience entering New York’s major seminary in 1936:

Fifty new aspirants, mostly ball players of one kind or another, each crowded into a small room in the seminary wing, sometimes in pairs because of the shortage of space. We did not have the least idea what we were getting into… . Up at 5:30a.m., prayers at 6, Mass at 6:30, class at 9, Chapel at 12, handball at 3, bed by 10, and no talking above the ground floor.

After World War II, the Church continued to expand. Father Hugh Nolan, a church historian, remarks that the post-war period has been called the “golden age” of American Catholicism:

The Catholics of that era were … proud of their Church, of their priests, of their schools. Attendance at the Latin Sunday Mass was excellent. Every Saturday there were long lines of parishioners awaiting confession. Novenas of all types were never better attended.

Other observers take a more critical view. Will Herberg and James Hitchcock, for example, see Catholics at this time as becoming thoroughly enamored of the American way of life but having only tenuous links to their faith.

While the true health of the postwar Church may be uncertain, there can be no dispute that the Catholic population was increasing at a rapid rate. America was in the midst of the baby boom and Catholics played a disproportionate role in the phenomenon. In the 1950s, the Catholic population increased a staggering 47 percent. While the clergy increased by a healthy 25 percent in the decade, that was not enough to keep pace. On the eve of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the priest-to-people ratio had slipped to 1:771.


Turbulent ’60s

During the turbulent years of the ’60s, the clergy were not immune from the confusion and doubt that afflicted so many other Catholics. While the number of clergy topped fifty-nine thousand in 1967, there were already disturbing signs that the priesthood was in crisis. Immediately after the Council, sizable numbers of priests began resigning. In 1966, two hundred diocesan priests resigned; in 1968 almost six hundred quit; and in 1969 750 left. Indeed, in 1969 the number of priests who left almost equaled the number of those newly ordained. Richard Schoenherr termed the years 1968-1974 as the time of the “mass exodus” from the priesthood. During this six year period, forty-one hundred diocesan priests left the active ministry. Along with the priests were two bishops who resigned their positions and attempted marriage. Schoenherr claims that most of the clergy who left were liberals unhappy with Humanae Vitae and the discipline of celibacy.

While the number of priests seeking laicization was climbing, fewer men were being ordained each year and fewer were entering seminaries. Although more than one thousand were ordained in 1967, by 1982 the number had dropped to only 511. The decline in seminary numbers was even more precipitous: forty-five thousand in 1967 but fewer than twelve thousand in 1982. While it must be noted that many of the forty-five thousand were minor seminarians, the majority of whom generally dropped out somewhere along the line, this was still a dramatic and worrisome decline for the Church.

To understand the severity of the crisis facing the clergy in the late ’60s and ’70s, one can look to the Jesuits’ disastrous handling of their flagship theologate, Woodstock College. Established in Maryland in 1869, Woodstock had gained fame in the 1950s because of Father John Courtney Murray’s presence there. Garry Wills, a one-time Jesuit seminarian, vividly recalls the campus:

Woodstock College, folded into the hills of Maryland, is a historic place—the first, and for long the best, Jesuit school of theology in this country. Its main building, hewn of native white stone … is very impressive, each wing of it backed by semidetached bell towers.

In the late ’60s influential Jesuits began to press the college to relocate to an urban environment. In a city, it was reasoned, the Jesuits would be able to build a vibrant community, dialoguing with non-Catholics and ministering to the poor and the homeless. After some debate, a fateful decision was made in 1969: Woodstock College would relocate to the upper West Side of New York City so as to be in close proximity to Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University.

The students and faculty settled in a cluster of apartments living in groups varying in size from two to twenty-five. Wills describes the community’s “common room”:

The suite in which [the Jesuits] meet … has a bar, with draft Budweiser served in cold tankards all night, called “The Gang Plank” [because of its] nautical motif…. Trendy rock is taped into the Gang Plank with politely high fidelity.

Wills notes that the community’s hip atmosphere impressed Columbia’s president, William McGill. Woodstock’s academic president, Father Christopher Mooney, told Wills that “the place really blew [McGill’s] mind. He talked to young theologians in everything from beards and sandals to business suits and ties, working in places like the UN and police stations.”

To a number of Jesuits, however, the fruits of this experiment were not so apparent. In 1973 the order’s leadership decided to close down the venerable college completely. During the school’s four years in New York, more than forty Jesuits—seminarians and priests alike—had left the society. Among those departing were the provincial, the rector of the college, and several senior faculty members.

By the early ’80s the Church in America seemed to be stabilizing again. Under the leadership of John Paul II—who was elected in 1978—Catholics throughout the world were urged to remain faithful to Church teachings “in season and out of season,” and dissident theologians such as Charles Curran had been reined in.

Nevertheless, the decline that had begun shortly after the Council continued into the ’80s. Mass attendance rates continued to drop, as did the number of men and women studying for the priesthood or religious life. Throughout the decade ordinations to the diocesan priesthood averaged around five hundred per year, which was not equal to the number of priests dying, retiring, or resigning each year. While the number of priests stood at fifty-nine thousand in 1980—almost unchanged from the total in 1967—a decade later there were only fifty-two thousand—a 12 percent drop.


Signs of Hope

While the situation remains serious, there have been many encouraging signs since 1990. Ordinations have risen to about six hundred per year, a 20 percent increase over the 1980s. Meanwhile, the resignation rate has dropped to about 125 priests per year, much lower than in the immediate post-conciliar years. Thus, while ordinations are still not keeping pace with deaths and retirements, the gap is narrowing. The Church in America presently has about fifty-thousand priests serving fifty-five million Catholics. At 1:1,100, the priest-to-people ratio is higher now than in the postwar era, but consistent with nineteenth and early twentieth century ratios.

What is perhaps most striking about vocations in the ’90s, however, is the imbalance in the number of seminarians in various dioceses. Several dioceses have had considerable success in recruiting men for the priesthood in recent years. Peoria, Arlington, and Lincoln are three notable examples. In Peoria, where fifty men are presently studying for the priesthood, the Bishop, John Myers, has asked the laity to prepare for the “re-priesting” of the diocese. One-priest parishes will soon be staffed by two and two-priest parishes will have three.

In Arlington, Bishop John Keating has dramatically increased his corps of diocesan priests in the past decade. Whereas in 1985, he had ninety diocesan priests, he now has 133, nearly a 50 percent increase. This past spring, Keating ordained thirteen men, more than any other diocese in the country. According to the vocation director, Father James Gould, the real problem will be finding enough beds for them.

What Peoria and Arlington have in common are bishops willing to recruit aggressively for seminarians who are committed to a celibate, male priesthood. The successes in Peoria, Arlington, Lincoln, and several other dioceses have led Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha to ask whether the “vocation crisis” is real or contrived. In an editorial in his archdiocesan paper, Curtiss identified what he thought was the key to plentiful vocations:

I … think the vocation “crisis” in this country is more artificial … than many people realize…. When there is strong support for vocations, and a minimum of dissent about the male celibate priesthood and religious life loyal to the Magisterium; when bishops, priests, Religious, and lay people are united in vocation ministry—then there are documented increases in the numbers of candidates who answer the call.

The archbishop then claimed that whatever vocation “crisis” the Church is facing is caused “by people who want to change the Church’s agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching.”

Indeed, the evidence seems to support Curtiss’s claim. For it is not only the case that certain dioceses are thriving— including Omaha which has thirty-six seminarians—but certain other dioceses have hardly any seminarians at all. Milwaukee, for example, the see of Archbishop Rembert Weakland, has only seventeen seminarians at present. Although the Milwaukee archdiocese has twice as many people as the Peoria diocese, it has only a third as many seminarians as Peoria. Weakland is very concerned about the future clergy demographics for Milwaukee. Indeed, he is so worried that in 1991 he issued a pastoral letter saying that he would consider ordaining married men to the priesthood—subject to Rome’s approval. Vatican officials were not pleased by this statement, and informed the archbishop that his plan was “out of place.”

Undeterred, Weakland has continued to express doubts about the celibate male priesthood. In the summer of 1995 he helped draft a wide-ranging statement about the role of the American bishops conference. Concerned that the American bishops act “almost like children” in their relations with Rome, Weakland and his co-signers expressed disappointment with the pope’s 1994 letter which definitively ruled out women’s ordination:

The recent apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was issued without any prior discussion and consultation with our conference. In an environment of serious question about a teaching that many Catholic people believe needs further study, the bishops are faced with many pastoral problems in their response to the letter.

Among the cosigners to this statement were three other ordinaries: Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan; Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minnesota; and, Walter Sullivan of Richmond. In each of these dioceses, the shortage of priests and seminarians is acute. In New Ulm, Bishop Lucker has only fifty-five diocesan priests for his eighty-three parishes and only six men are studying for the priesthood. Similarly in Saginaw, Bishop Untener has only eighty-six diocesan priests for his 110 parishes and only four seminarians. Sullivan’s diocese is in better shape with 137 diocesan priests for 124 parishes and twelve seminarians. Still, when compared to the neighboring diocese of Arlington, Richmond’s statistics are disappointing.


Why the Difference?

While any number of factors can contribute to a diocese’s success with the recruitment of priests, it does appear that orthodoxy is a factor. Some vocation directors have responded to Curtiss’s charge saying that they don’t reject orthodox candidates, but only those who are “rigid.” They claim that these prospering dioceses “are accepting men with a rigidly conservative view of church—in some cases candidates rejected by their home dioceses.”

Father Gould, Arlington’s vocation director, rejected this charge out of hand. After noting that only six of Arlington’s forty-two seminarians are not native to Northern Virginia, Gould defended the practice of taking applicants from other dioceses:

There are some vocation directors keeping good candidates out. When questioned about the ordination of women or married clergy, if the candidates answer in support of the Church, they are often rejected.

Pope John Paul II is, of course, very concerned about priestly vocations in America. During his brief visit last fall, he made a point of visiting seminaries in both New York and Baltimore. At St. Joseph Seminary in New York, the pope urged the seminarians to follow Christ courageously. He then told them that he was heartened “to know that your number is increasing”—a reference to the rapidly rising numbers of seminarians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. With more than one hundred thousand seminarians worldwide, the Catholic Church has almost twice as many priestly candidates as it did in 1978 when John Paul was elected pope.

The pope’s remarks should reassure all American Catholics. While in the nineteenth century the Church in America had to rely heavily on French, Irish, and German priests, in the twenty-first century she may find herself relying on Nigerian, Filipino, and Indian priests.

From the successes in various American dioceses and in many non-western nations, it should be clear that the vocation crisis is not insurmountable. Contrary to Tim Unsworth’s claim, the priesthood is not facing extinction. Nor is it in a state of “irreversible decline” as Richard Schoenherr had thought. The workers in America are relatively few at present—just as they have oftentimes been in the past—but this should not be a cause for discouragement. Instead, American Catholics need to keep the faith and implore the Lord of the harvest to send more workers.


  • John F. Quinn

    John F. Quinn is Professor of History at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of Father Matthew's Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth Century Ireland and Irish-America (2002). He earned his doctorate in history from the University of Notre Dame in 1992.

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