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Bishops ponder new study of priest shortage

Special Report Writer

U.S bishops dealt with two persistently painful issues facing the American church during their spring meeting here June 15-17. For the first time as a body they confronted the priest shortage and began discussing strategies to combat it.

The bishops also showed support for the draft of a new constitution for the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. As proposed, the draft omits the most controversial changes demanded last fall by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

A large part of one day was devoted to a study developed over the past two years on “the impact of fewer priests.” The study indicated that the ratio of Catholics to priests is growing at an alarming rate, that the average age of priests continues to rise (57 years for diocesan, 63 for religious), and that approximately 27 percent of parishes have either no pastor or share one with another parish. The priest-to-Catholic ratio (1 to 1,127 overall) is higher in the West (1 to1,752) where startling growth is combined with great ethnic diversity in the Catholic population. (In fact, the national ratio would be considerably higher (1 to 2,185) if the study were based on the number of priests active in parishes rather than on the total priest population.)

The study cited effects on priests’ morale: “There is definitely an increased sense of isolation,” said one. Said another: “It’s true that the best kept secret is the shortage of priests. We have kept it from the laity. We have covered it up in every way imaginable and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

The study reported that the vacuum is being filled in part by some 30,000 lay or religious ministers (with another 30,000 in formation), 13,000 deacons, 150,000 schoolteachers and 25,000 lay associates of religious congregations.

Part of the research involved use of focus groups and a national poll of 2,600 Catholics on reactions to the shortage and ideas for the future. Some 74 percent of lay Catholics reported direct awareness of the decline, and 75 percent supported an increased use of deacons, lay ministers and foreign-born priests. Survey results contained no mention of ordaining married men or women as possible solutions. At a news conference, Bishop Richard Hanifen of Colorado Springs, Colo., head of the Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry,” said such suggestions did not arise probably because respondents chose to stay within parameters of church discipline. But Bryan Froehle, executive director of CARA, a research organization assisting the bishops’ conference with the study, later told NCR that bishops had deliberately omitted questions about ordination. “There is already so much empirical data on the subject that we saw no reason to include it in the survey,” he said.

During open discussion, reactions diverged. Portland, Ore., Archbishop John G. Vlazny suggested “we stop talking about the shortage of priests” since “it gives a bad impression” and “discourages the laity.” Instead, he said, bishops should concentrate on the “vibrancy”of the priesthood as many live it. Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan said the priest-to-Catholic ratio is “misleading” since “half [the Catholics] don’t go to church anyway.”

Others were more sober. Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick said his supply of priests (currently 544) will soon be reduced to less than 200 due to deaths and retirements and only about 12 ordinations a year. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of Los Angeles questioned the church’s emphasis on evangelizing dormant Catholics. “If we invite them back,” he asked, “what in heaven’s name will we do with them?” Some fast-growing parishes in his area will soon have up to 18,000 households, he said.

Several bishops recommended emphasizing vocations. (The study found that 25 percent of dioceses have no vocation plan.) Toledo Bishop James Hoffman, one of four bishops raising questions about current discipline, said he rarely attends a meeting where ideas about extending the priesthood to women and married men or inviting back resigned priests do not come up for discussion.

Bishops were asked to submit comments or proposed actions to the Priestly Life and Ministry Committee by Aug. 1.

Though hardly a declaration of independence, the new draft constitution for the International Commission on English in the Liturgy suggests that English-speaking bishops won’t comply meekly with Vatican demands. Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, handled the matter delicately, explaining that presidents of English-speaking bishops’ conferences who met in April considered the revised constitution a “workable draft.” He added that it did not “address every detail” or “implement every concern of the [Vatican] congregation.” Nor, he said, does it need to.

The Vatican’s concerns were set forth last October in a letter to the liturgy commission chair from Cardinal Medina Estévez. Medina urged bishops to involve themselves more directly in the commission’s work and said new statutes should give the Vatican broader powers, including authority to veto decisions of the commission’s staff and advisers and to bar publication of documents without Vatican approval.

In January Cardinal Francis George of Chicago presented a draft embodying virtually all of Medina’s requirements to the commission’s 11-member board, composed of bishops representing member conferences. The board rejected that draft and asked a subcommittee to make revisions. The result is a revised constitution that says nothing about Vatican interventions. It does, however, give greater oversight to an executive committee of the board.

George, who received sustained applause at the end of his presentation, made no mention of the Vatican’s concerns. At a meeting of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Liturgy held just before the full body of bishops convened, however, George apologized for failing to adequately review an analysis of the new constitution that had been distributed under his signature. The analysis was sharply critical of the constitution for failing to embody Medina’s demands.

Bishops supported the draft from the floor, though several expressed confusion about the Vatican’s recognitio required for translations the commission has approved.

Bishops approved four documents dealing with the media, including a “protocol” giving a method for self-proclaimed “Catholic” Web sites and other media outlets to obtain an official “approval” rating (originally called a nihil obstat) from dioceses. A statement titled “Civility in the Media” deplored personal attacks. “Persons in the secular and church media ought to conduct themselves with a regard for the worth and dignity of every person,” it stated. A separate statement warned Catholics about obscene and hate-filled material on the Internet. Using the Internet, said the document, “can be a little like visiting the best theme park in the world and coming across a toxic waste dump.”

Bishops voted by secret ballot on two hefty documents dealing with the ongoing formation of priests and deacons. The one on priests acknowledges that social support for celibacy among priests has disappeared and takes note of “highly publicized cases of sexual misconduct” by priests. It does not, however, address homosexuality or AIDS, nor were such matters addressed during discussion on the floor.

While the bishops were deliberating, several groups held a joint news conference deploring the Vatican’s silencing of Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent. Representatives of the National Coalition of American Nuns, Dignity/USA, Call to Action and Chicago’s 8th Day Center for Justice called the Vatican’s position unjust and urged the U.S. hierarchy to press for a reversal. Later, some 80 persons attended an outdoor prayer service sponsored by the Women’s Ordination Conference. The climax was the arrival of a small airplane pulling a banner that read, “Ordain Women as Roman Catholic Priests.” None of the bishops saw the plane, although it circled the center several times. They were inside considering revisions of their bylaws.

Robert McClory’s e-mail address is r-mcclory@nwu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000