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Fall Ministries

The church and its choices if the priest shortage continues


For several years diocesan managers have puzzled over the dilemma of staffing parishes and programs with fewer priests. The Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development reported in 1995 on parish reorganization plans active at that time in 46 dioceses around the country. The fact of fewer priests to staff existing parishes motivated half of the 46 dioceses to undertake restructuring efforts.

In 1999 Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati reflected on the parish of the future in an address to a conference on pastoral planning. He speculated that parish consolidations and fewer priests would make the parish of the future larger. Such continuing references to the theme of fewer priests leads inevitably to a question of how much longer this picture of a dwindling number of priests might continue. Will the decline in the number of ordained clergy continue for the foreseeable future?

Recently the staff at the Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reported that the number of theology students studying for the priesthood increased by 228 to a total of 3,386 in 1998-99. Perhaps this change signals the beginning of the end of the pattern of fewer priests. On the other hand, possibly the problem is too large to be cured by a modest increase in the number of theology students preparing for the priesthood.

Searching for an answer to the question of when the clergy decline might end involves a look at two related notions. First, the present diocesan clergy population continues to shrink because clerical deaths and resignations exceed ordinations. How many ordinations are needed to balance deaths and resignations? Second, clerical retirement rates affect the number of working priests. Are clergy retirement rates remaining stable or increasing?

To answer these questions, I first examined the staffing history of 11 major dioceses and archdioceses between 1989 and 1998 (the analysis included data from the Official Catholic Directory for the sees of Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver). The clergy staff of these sees equals 19 percent of all diocesan clergy in the country. While these data certainly are not sufficient to represent a scientific sample, the information is adequate to give some indication of trends. For the purposes of the present discussion, I assumed that the historical staffing patterns from these areas generally represented clergy personnel dynamics affecting the operation of the entire American Catholic church.

Several patterns emerged. The total number of diocesan clergy declined by 12 percent or 780 priests between 1980 and 1998. The drop in the size of the clergy workforce ranged from 7 percent in the East to 17 percent in the Midwest and 11 percent in the West. The cause of the decline is simple enough to compute. A total of 1,127 deaths and a calculated net of 304 resignations exceeded 651ordinations to the diocesan priesthood. Given the present median age of the clerical population, I can assume that a clerical death rate of 2.2 per hundred diocesan priests will continue for the foreseeable future. Resignations represent a wild card in the research effort. A total of 134 priests resigned from the diocesan clergy in the study dioceses in 1991. Resignations were more than balanced during 1998 by the arrival of priests, probably from outside the country. The net result is a gain of 79 priests from a source other than ordination.

Finally, ordinations are related to the size of the graduate-level seminary population. In the past five years an annual average of 3,246 theology students resulted in an average of 510 ordinations annually. In the study group of dioceses, about twice as many priests die or resign as enter the priesthood via ordination. Since the clerical death rate will likely not change for a number of years, only a doubling of the number of theology students would stop the present pattern of a decline in the number of diocesan priests for the dioceses included in this inquiry.

A second factor surfaced in the examination of staffing data for the 11 dioceses that will further complicate diocesan personnel decisions. The number of retired, sick or absent priests increased from 1,294 in 1990 to a total of 1,557 by 1998. Since this principally retired population increased while the total number of diocesan clergy declined, the proportion of total priests taking retirement grew from 18 percent in 1990 to 24 percent by 1998. Should present patterns continue, there would be a total of 1,836 retired priests or 38 percent of the total population in the study dioceses by the year 2010.

A final step in this discussion involves using the patterns evident in the study of diocesan clergy staffing data from 11dioceses across the country to develop national estimates of the number and working status of diocesan priests from 1998 to 2010. The total number of diocesan priests declined in the study group because twice as many priests died or resigned as were ordained between 1990 and 1998. I assume for the national population that the same clergy death rate of 2.2 per hundred priests that emerged from the 11 dioceses studied will continue for the foreseeable future. Resignations will probably constitute a modestly negative factor.

The one element in the equation that could change would be the size of the seminary population. At the present time, ordinations replace every other priest who dies or resigns. For the present discussion, I assume that this pattern will continue, though I have no evidence to indicate that the seminary population will not increase. Present patterns suggest that the total number of diocesan priests in the United States will gradually decline from 31,370 in 1998 to 26,614 by 2010.

The study data revealed a pattern beyond actuarial facts such as ordinations and clergy deaths that compound parish staffing problems. The number of retirees in the study group increased while the total number of clergy declined. Assuming that this pattern is typical of the total population, the number of clergy retirees increased in the United States by 1,976 between 1990 and 1998. Since the total diocesan priest population declined by 3,183 for the same period, the active workforce decreased by 5,159 priests. Applying these same patterns to future estimates, I expect the number of working priests to drop from 23,098 to 15,136 by 2010. Part of this anticipated drop relates to the actuarial fact of deaths outnumbering ordinations (4,756). The pattern of a growing retiree priest population will contribute to an additional decline of 3,205 in the size of the workforce.

Present evidence and estimates certainly underscore the dilemma Archbishop Pilarczyk spoke about. In 1990, the American church operated about 19,800 parishes that were substantially staffed by an active workforce of 28,257 diocesan priests. The number of parishes declined by 200 between 1990 and 1998 while the number of active diocesan clergy dropped to 23,098 or 1.18 priests per parish. Should the American church continue to operate 19,600 parishes through 2010, estimates suggest that the staffing ratio would drop to .77 priests per parish. On the other hand, bishops might choose to reduce the number of parishes to 12,827, a drop of 6,773, in order to maintain the 1998 staffing ratio of 1.18 priests per parish.

Management choices seem to lie somewhere between giving up the ideal of priest-as-pastor and closing one-third of the parishes in the country. For whatever the outcome, future options seem much more difficult than past problems.

Joseph Harris works as controller for the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Seattle. He authored The Cost of Catholic Parishes and Schools (Sheed and Ward, 1996).

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999