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Special Report

Accommodations to continuing priest shortage


The surveys included items exploring the attitudes of the laity toward dealing with the shortage of priests. Respondents were asked about the acceptability of possible changes in their parishes if there were a reduction of priestly activities in the future. They were also asked about their views toward including previously excluded groups into the priesthood. (Data from Dean Hoge’s The Future of Catholic Leadership: Responses to the Priest Shortage provided the statistics for 1985 so that we could examine trends at three points in time.)

The data showed a mixed pattern of willingness to accommodate to changes in running parishes and in supplying pastoral services. (See Table 12.) Some accommodations were more acceptable over time, and others were more satisfactory in 1993 than they were in 1999.

We asked respondents if they would be willing to have parishes run by a lay administrator and visiting priest instead of a resident priest. Over time, the laity was more willing to accept that change in parish administration. In 1985, 39 percent thought that a lay administrator and visiting priest were satisfactory. By 1993, 56 percent agreed; the percentage dropped to 51 in the 1999 survey. Thus, by the 1990s, respondents were split about 50-50 on whether they required a resident priest.

Several questions probed respondents’ willingness to accommodate to a cutback in the pastoral services routinely performed by priests. We asked if having less than one Mass a week was acceptable. In 1985, only 28 percent agreed that it was acceptable; however, in both 1993 and 1999, 41 percent found it acceptable. Still, about 60 percent did not. While the trend demonstrated increasing acceptance of reducing the pastoral services of a priest, many respondents still did not want a cutback.

Also, respondents were asked if not having a priest to visit the sick or to administer the last rites were satisfactory options. In 1985, only 24 percent agreed that having no priest to visit the sick was permissible. By 1993, 41 percent found it satisfactory and the percentage dropped to 34 percent by 1999. In other words, in the 1990s, between about 60 and 65 percent thought having a priest to visit the sick was imperative.

Even more wanted a priest for the last rites. In 1993, 70 percent desired a priest for the last rites. By 1999, 10 percent more thought it important. In general, the 1999 data showed that the laity found being without a priest for visiting the sick and the last rites much less acceptable than they had in 1993.

Overall, the laity found administering the parish without a priest to be more acceptable than any reduction in pastoral services that priests typically perform. They treasured the services of priests. They recognized that the numbers of priests have been dwindling, a fact thoroughly documented since about 1974 in articles and books by Andrew Greeley, Dean Hoge, Katherine Meyer, Eugene Schallert, Richard Schoenherr, John Seidler, Lawrence Young and many others. They seemed aware of the trend expressed by the titles chosen by various authors. For example in the 1970s, Seidler wrote about “Priest Resignations, Relocations and Passivity” in NCR (May 10, 1974). By the early 1990s, Schoenherr and Young published Full Pews and Empty Altars (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993).

Respondents seemed receptive to envisioning changed parishes in the future and valued the components articulated by Bishop William Higi in the Aug. 1, 1999, issue of The Catholic Moment in which he noted points from talks about the future of the church by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk and Msgr. Philip Murnion, head of the National Pastoral Life Center. At the same time, the laity was willing to expand the definition of priest beyond its current boundaries.

The laity was most willing to expand ordination to married men, formerly active priests and women. (See Table 13.) In 1987, 63 percent thought “it would be a good thing if married men were allowed to be ordained as priests.” By 1993, over 70 percent agreed and the percentage remained stable in 1999. Also, in 1999, close to 80 percent responded that “it would be a good thing if priests who have married were allowed to return to active ministry.”

The laity increasingly accepted the option of ordaining women. Gallup poll data were available from 1974 through 1999 on the statement that “it would be a good thing if women were allowed to be ordained as priests.” In 1974, about 30 percent thought so; by the 1990s, over 60 percent assented. In 1999, the question about ordaining women was further explored by questioning respondents about ordaining celibate women and married women. Sixty-three percent agreed that the former should be ordained, and 54 percent thought that married women should. In the 1990s, respondents seemed comfortable with the idea captured in the title of Ruth Wallace’s book, They Call Her Pastor: A New Role for Catholic Women (State University of New York Press, 1992).

Clearly, a large proportion of the laity wanted to open up the priesthood to those currently excluded. While they did not want a reduction of the priestly ministries of celebrating Mass frequently, visiting the sick and administering the sacraments to them, lay respondents favored enlarging the ranks of priests to include women and more men.

Using only the 1999 data, we examined these findings by gender to see if women and men thought differently about changing the current norms for ordination, particularly because the decline in women’s allegiance to the church between 1987 and 1999 was so dramatic. We found that 73 percent of the women approved of married men as priests; 80 percent thought that formerly active married priests should be able to return to ministry and 55 percent responded that married women should be ordained. Women were somewhat more supportive of these changes than men. Both men and women felt the same about the ordination of celibate women; 62 percent of each gender agreed that it was a good idea.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999