The National Catholic Review

Many Catholics believe that unless the priesthood is opened up to women or married men, the church will soon lack enough priests to provide Mass. According to most Catholic social scientists, the growing number of Catholics and shrinking number of priests are inexorably moving the church toward a situation of “full pews and empty altars,” which is the title of the flagship book arguing this thesis, published in 1993 by the late Richard Schoenherr and Lawrence Young.

As Schoenherr put it, “The stark facts are that, while the diocesan priesthood population will have declined by 40 percent between 1966 and 2005, the lay population is increasing by 65 percent. The laity-to-priest ratio, a fairly accurate measure of supply and demand, will double between 1975 and 2005 from 1,100 to 2,200 Catholics per active priest.” It is, therefore, “obvious from the data that the losses in the supply of celibate priests are approaching the crisis point. The only choice is to staunch the hemorrhaging supply or cut back key operations.” Since “practicing Catholics should [not] be deprived of the Mass because of the scarcity of celibate priests,” Schoenherr and Young conclude that “the church will need to jettison male celibate exclusivity in priestly ministry, first through the ordination of married men to the priesthood and later through the ordination of women.”

Although this conclusion has been almost universally accepted among social scientists, the argument as stated above ignores at least three well-known facts to the contrary that, in my opinion, render it highly dubious. First, demand by the laity for the services of the church has not increased, as Schoenherr and Young assume, but in fact has significantly declined since the 1960’s. Second, although the number of priests has indeed declined dramatically, the influx of deacons and lay ministers has greatly ameliorated the impact of that decline upon services to the laity. Third, in historical terms, the current staffing level of clergy in American parishes is not particularly low. Let’s consider each of these issues in turn.

Fewer Catholics Seek the Mass

Schoenherr and Young arrived at their estimate of the amount of services “demanded” from the clergy by the laity by counting the number of self-reporting Catholics on Gallup polls since the 1960’s, assuming that an increase in Catholics represents a directly proportional increase in lay “demand.” But this assumption is well known to be false. Nearly every sociological study of Catholics in the last 20 years has observed that their rate of participation in the sacraments has been declining since the 1960’s. Although there are more Catholics in 2001 than in 1965, today’s Catholics attend Mass and partake of other sacraments in much smaller proportions than in 1965. The same Gallup surveys that Schoenherr and Young use to estimate the number of Catholics document this fact: the percentage of Catholics attending Mass each week dropped from a high of 74 percent in 1958 to only 52 percent by 1983. According to the most recent survey (2000) by the National Opinion Research Center, only 30 percent of Catholic respondents reported that they attend Mass each week.

When the declining proportion of Catholics actually attending Mass is taken into account, the argument that the church will lack enough clergy to administer the sacraments loses most of its support. The ratio of priests to weekly Mass attenders has not declined, but in fact has significantly increased since the 1960’s. The ratio of priests to 10,000 weekly Mass attenders rose from under 20 in the mid-1960’s to almost 30 by the early 1980’s—its highest level ever and an increase of roughly 50 percent. Since that time it has fluctuated slightly; but in 2000, at about 27, it remains well above what it was in the 1960’s. In other words, if we count only the parishioners who actually show up for Mass, there is no numerical shortage, much less a crisis, in the supply of clergy compared to the 1960’s.

Deacons and Lay Staff Provide More Services

In fact, access to the sacraments is in some ways greater for the laity today than in the 1960’s because of the dramatic rise of alternate forms of ministry in the church following Vatican II. In particular, permanent deacons have contributed to the pastoral care and sacramental access of the laity. Today there are about 13,000 active permanent deacons in the church, or about 4 deacons for every 10 diocesan priests, with the ratio growing higher each year; before 1972 there were none. Schoenherr and Young acknowledge that “[D]eacons perform some ministerial tasks once reserved to priests and so augment clerical manpower.” But they do not consider deacons in analyzing how much care laypersons receive from the church, they explain, “precisely because [the priest shortage] is the driving force for change in the structure of Catholic ministry.”

By contrast, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that deacons perform a significant—and increasing—amount of the practical pastoral work of the church. In addition to performing marriages and baptisms, deacons also routinely visit the sick and preach homilies—all activities that, until 1971, fell exclusively on the shoulders of the clergy. A 1995 survey by the United States Catholic Conference found that, in their current assignments, 92 percent of deacons visited the sick, 93 percent preached homilies, and 98 percent performed baptism and/or marriage liturgies. Since deacons are fully qualified and actively and frequently participate in providing life-cycle sacraments (baptisms, marriages and funerals), an accurate accounting of supply and demand for these rituals should reasonably include them.

The number of life-cycle sacraments each priest was called upon to perform, on average, declined from over 40 in the late 1950’s to just under 29 in 1978, after which the number has risen gradually back to almost 40 in the most recent year. This illustrates the fact that the decline in demand for these sacraments has generally paralleled the decline in priests. Even without considering the contribution of deacons, priests in 2000 were not called upon to perform any greater number of baptisms, marriages and funerals than priests in 1960. But when all members of the clergy—both priests and deacons—are included, the number of these sacraments performed by each clergyperson annually, on average, has increased only slightly from its lowest level in the 1970’s. By this measure, not only is there not a crisis in the supply of the services of the church, but the availability of qualified clergy for these commonly demanded sacraments today is greater than in the 1960’s. Indeed, it is not far below the highest level it has ever reached.

These figures do not take into account, moreover, the rapidly growing involvement of lay persons in pastoral care activities that until recently were typically the province of priests, including parish administration, catechization and counseling. While the effect of their contribution has not yet been estimated precisely, clearly the activities of lay professionals counteract to some extent the declining availability of clergy and professed religious.

We’ve Been Here Before

Another statistic often cited as evidence of a numerical clergy crisis is the growing number of parishes without a resident priest. The effect of the declining number of priests, we are told, will be “to dramatically increase the number of priestless parishes in the United States, already more than 2,000”—a situation that is taken as yet more evidence that “celibacy is eroding Catholicism.”

The problem with this claim is the implication that the current level of parishes without a resident priest is particularly high in historical terms. In fact, just the opposite is the case.

Prior to World War II, counting both parishes and missions, about a third of Catholic churches did not have a pastor in residence; after mid-century that proportion has gradually declined to about a fifth. Far from being unusually high, the rate of nonresidency in 1999 was at its lowest point in the 20th century.

Another way of making this point is to examine the ratio of priests not to parishioners, but to parishes. This figure does reflect a decline from the flush days of the 1960’s, when there were over 2.5 priests per parish on average. But the current ratio (just over 2), while lower than in the 60’s, is still much higher than at any time before World War II, and nearly twice as high as at the beginning of the 20th century. Although it has declined in the last few decades, by historical standards the current overall availability of priests to parishes is not particularly low. As the figure makes clear, today there are more priests per parish than there were for the entire first half of the 20th century. The current situation, while certainly amenable to improvement and in some respects worse than in the 1960’s, is by the standards of the past century not particularly bad, and certainly not a crisis.

Revitalization

The argument from supply and demand that the Catholic Church is suffering a shortage of priests of crisis proportions fails to convince, because it ignores clearly documented decreases in demand and increases in supply. On the demand side, the argument fails to account for the dramatic decrease in participation in the church by the laity since the 1960’s, as evidenced by declining Mass attendance and participation in the life-cycle sacraments. On the supply side, the argument ignores the rise of the ministry of deacons and lay professionals. Furthermore, in historical terms the current ratio of supply to demand is not unusually small.

Whether there may be other grounds to consider relaxing the restriction of priesthood to celibate males is beyond the scope and competence of this discussion. But the contention that a numerical clergy crisis provides an impetus for such changes in the priesthood is simply without basis. To whatever extent ordaining women or married men has been seen as an answer to the problems posed by a shortage in the numbers of clergy, to that same extent those actions are not, in fact, necessary or urgent.

I do not mean to suggest by this that there is no basis or need to encourage priestly vocations in the American church, nor to deny that there are crippling shortages of priests in certain geographic areas and among certain populations. On the contrary, in the absence of a numerical clergy crisis, the need for vocations is more important, not less. The decline in lay participation that has paralleled the decline of priests in the past generation indicates, not that we have no problem, but that the problem we have, a crisis of secularization, is much more fundamental, widespread and urgent than simply a numerical shortage of priests. The revitalization of the church in the face of that larger crisis, so greatly needed among both clergy and laypersons, will depend in large part upon a rediscovery of the joy and commitment of vocation among growing numbers of our young people.

D. Paul Sullins teaches sociology at The Catholic University of America. A longer version of this article appears in the 2001 Catholic Social Science Review.

Comments

William F. Cain, S.J. | 1/26/2007 - 4:26pm
I am very disappointed in your May 13, 2002 issue.

As a priest of approximately the same vintage as the Rev. Michael L. Papesh I have a difficult time reconciling my own experience of issues of celibacy and sexuality with his account. Yes, I read the papers, and I have painful personal knowledge of injury done to families who are close to me. I have also heard the rumors and gossip about brother priests as well as bishops. But his claim that “winking” is the ordinary response to what seems to be, by his account, almost constant, universal misbehavior does not fit with my experience as priest. That includes life in a diocesan rectory and shared life with non-Jesuit priests.

As a professor of chemistry I know little of sociological methods of study. I wonder how Professor D. Paul Sullins came to the conclusion that Catholics don’t go to Mass anymore. As a presiding celebrant, that is hardly my experience; as a member of a “supplying” religious community I hear more and more pleas for help from neighboring Catholic pastors and communities. I also see more of them unanswered as my brother Jesuits diminish in number and vigor. I believe the sociological data show not only a decline in numbers, but a rapidly increasing age profile for those remaining.

Finally, I find the cover and inside illustration of the Papesh article in poor taste.

Not a good week.

Richard M. Nahman, OSA | 5/27/2002 - 8:42am
Re: D. Paul Simon's "Empty Pews and Empty Altars" (May 13, 2002) I would observe that he uses quantitative instruments to measure a qualitative issue. Using his method a nursery that can now find only ten arborists to cultivate 11,000 trees would be judged a more successful enterprise than it was ten years ago when it was able to find a thousand arborists to nurture a million trees. Perhaps there are fewer people availing themselves of the sacramental nurture of the Church because there are fewer nurturers. Since the Church exists to nurture, this demise is a crisis ... and its cause is critical.

Robert E. McNulty | 5/23/2002 - 9:00pm
Where is AMERRICAS going? Fr. Slon tells us of a new liturgy in which the fourfold presence of the Christ is expressed. In that liturgy the priest presider is the prayer leader and might have a side function of confecting the Gifts.

D. Paul Sullins tells us not to worry about the priest shortage because the abundance of lay ministers and deacons will meet our needs. Since only a priest can "confect" the gifts perhaps Prof. Sullins foresees our celebrating as our Protestant brethren do. Not that that is bad, but maybe we all don't want to go there.

Is there room for the faith of our fathers?

Fr. Alan Phillip, C.P. | 5/21/2002 - 2:37pm
I was greatly saddened by the article, Empty Pews and Empty Altars, by D. Paul Sullins (America, May 13th, 2002). What caused my sadness was not his handling of statistics. As a professor of sociology I am sure he can handle number analysis. What disturbed me was his misunderstanding of priestly ministry. The conclusions he reached in his article were based on his notion of the priest as a functionary.

If I were to measure my thirty-five years in the priesthood from the viewpoint of a functionary, I could claim a highly successful ministry. I have celebrated approximately eight hundred weddings, eight hundred funerals, a thousand baptisms, taken part in five thousand meetings, visited ten thousand sick people, preached homilies too numerous to count, and heard what seems like an infinite number of confessions. But none of us in the field measure our ministry by statistics. That would make a priest in a large parish better than a priest in a small parish because "he does a lot more sacraments." A terrible criteria.

I suggest this non-functional approach. Those of us who "walk the walk" every day see priestly ministry as a relational ministry that culminates in sacramental experiences. Or again, priestly ministry is a ministry of being present to people during their faith journey, leading them to express this faith in the sacraments. Or again, priestly ministry is a call to watch the Spirit in action in the lives of people and celebrate this gift in a sacramental way. As the Spirit gifts his people with faith (Baptism), with forgiveness (Reconciliation), with commitment (Confirmation), with gratitude (Eucharist), with unity (Communion), with love (Marriage), with healing and peace (anointing of the sick), the priest (Holy Orders) is present to affirm, confirm, ritualize, celebrate and make highly visible God's everlasting love here and now. "I have called you by name. You are mine." (Isaiah 42:1) No mere function, this. It calls for a loving heart.

Two comparisons:

If grand-parenting were merely a function, I'll bet my grandmother could have organized and pulled off a Thanksgiving dinner for ten thousand people. (She was a great cook!) But she wouldn't have had any relationship with the people she was feeding. She wasn't their grandmother. Instead, when she had Thanksgiving dinner in her home, with family and close friends, this was a meaningful experience. She cooked and served with love. Those who came deeply loved and revered her. It was a relational experience.

The "job" of parents is to love their children (and each other) twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. This love is from God. Parents express and celebrate this love at family meals, birthday celebrations, vacations together, etc. The "job" of priests is to love their people twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. This love is from God. We celebrate this love in the sacraments. It is a relational vocation.

If the priesthood were merely a function, that I could celebrate Mass every Sunday for a hundred thousand people at the Rose Bowl, and that would easily take care of all the Catholics in Pasadena, CA, Glendale, and the surrounding area. So much for any statistical shortage. But I would not know most of the people by name. I would not have journeyed with them in their daily faith struggles. I would not have witnessed the Spirit working in their lives. I would be a stranger praying with strangers. And they would only loosely be considered a community. I could bless a hundred marriages at one gathering (e.g. Rev. Moon). I could also celebrate a funeral Mass for a hundred deceased people at one time. But there would be no significant bonding, no relationship and, in my judgment, no effective face-to-face "priestly ministry."

I have a difficult time understanding the logic of Mr. Sullins' statement, "if we count only the numbe

Mike McCue | 5/24/2002 - 9:58am
I want to agree with the letters posted in response to Empty Pews, Empty Altars. The writer needs to look up from his numbers to see the real life of this poor Church. Clergy are aging. The pool of clergy and seminarians seems have less talent and intellect than what is needed --- especially with smaller numbers. What about quality of community life, and Catholic life rooted in sacraments? It was a very poor---and really irresponsible article. Perhaps it would be better published by the Catholic League.

On the other hand, the article "Welcome to the Club" is so on target with honesty and relevance to the project of moving forward to a better future.

Thanks, America!

Carol Dunsworth | 5/24/2002 - 8:02am
D. Paul Sullins tells us that we don't have a priest shortage, as evidenced by the fact that more and more Catholics don't "demand" the celebration of the Mass, the reception of sacraments, and other ministries. I get it! We have more lost sheep; therefore, we can get by with fewer shepherds to find them, to challenge them, to love them back into the fold. Good grief!

Rev. John F. Provenza | 5/23/2002 - 11:54am
The article “Farewell to ‘the Club” by Rev. Michael Papesh was one of best-reasoned articles on the future of the clergy that I have read. Unfortunately, an article by Paul Sullins, “Empty Pews and Empty Altars” which was very shortsighted followed it. Sullins based his article with on the assumption that there are less Catholics receiving the sacraments, more involved laity and therefore less work for the clergy at present in the future. I believe that is dangerous for us as a church to remain blind to the fact that four fifths of the priest that are currently serving our church will be retired within twenty years with very few replacing their numbers while the number of Catholics are continuing to grow. Even if these Catholics no long fill the pews on Sunday they are still going to demand desire to have their children baptized, many will be married in the church and all will want a priest to attend them when they are dying. Lay involvement is a great gift to the church; however, it often means more work, not less for the clergy. The more we close our eyes to the near future crisis in our church the more empty our pews and altars are going to be.

James M. Nicholson | 5/14/2002 - 8:59am
According to the statistical analysis in this article, there is no shortage of priests because fewer Catholics now go to Mass. By this logic, the ultimate solution to the vocations problem is for all of us to stop going to Mass. A more future-oriented approch would seem to require planning for increased participation at Mass and evaluating the need for vocations accordingly. Otherwise, we are left with a strategy of, "the worse we get, the better off we are."

Richard M. Nahman, OSA | 5/27/2002 - 8:42am
Re: D. Paul Simon's "Empty Pews and Empty Altars" (May 13, 2002) I would observe that he uses quantitative instruments to measure a qualitative issue. Using his method a nursery that can now find only ten arborists to cultivate 11,000 trees would be judged a more successful enterprise than it was ten years ago when it was able to find a thousand arborists to nurture a million trees. Perhaps there are fewer people availing themselves of the sacramental nurture of the Church because there are fewer nurturers. Since the Church exists to nurture, this demise is a crisis ... and its cause is critical.

Robert E. McNulty | 5/23/2002 - 9:00pm
Where is AMERRICAS going? Fr. Slon tells us of a new liturgy in which the fourfold presence of the Christ is expressed. In that liturgy the priest presider is the prayer leader and might have a side function of confecting the Gifts.

D. Paul Sullins tells us not to worry about the priest shortage because the abundance of lay ministers and deacons will meet our needs. Since only a priest can "confect" the gifts perhaps Prof. Sullins foresees our celebrating as our Protestant brethren do. Not that that is bad, but maybe we all don't want to go there.

Is there room for the faith of our fathers?

Fr. Alan Phillip, C.P. | 5/21/2002 - 2:37pm
I was greatly saddened by the article, Empty Pews and Empty Altars, by D. Paul Sullins (America, May 13th, 2002). What caused my sadness was not his handling of statistics. As a professor of sociology I am sure he can handle number analysis. What disturbed me was his misunderstanding of priestly ministry. The conclusions he reached in his article were based on his notion of the priest as a functionary.

If I were to measure my thirty-five years in the priesthood from the viewpoint of a functionary, I could claim a highly successful ministry. I have celebrated approximately eight hundred weddings, eight hundred funerals, a thousand baptisms, taken part in five thousand meetings, visited ten thousand sick people, preached homilies too numerous to count, and heard what seems like an infinite number of confessions. But none of us in the field measure our ministry by statistics. That would make a priest in a large parish better than a priest in a small parish because "he does a lot more sacraments." A terrible criteria.

I suggest this non-functional approach. Those of us who "walk the walk" every day see priestly ministry as a relational ministry that culminates in sacramental experiences. Or again, priestly ministry is a ministry of being present to people during their faith journey, leading them to express this faith in the sacraments. Or again, priestly ministry is a call to watch the Spirit in action in the lives of people and celebrate this gift in a sacramental way. As the Spirit gifts his people with faith (Baptism), with forgiveness (Reconciliation), with commitment (Confirmation), with gratitude (Eucharist), with unity (Communion), with love (Marriage), with healing and peace (anointing of the sick), the priest (Holy Orders) is present to affirm, confirm, ritualize, celebrate and make highly visible God's everlasting love here and now. "I have called you by name. You are mine." (Isaiah 42:1) No mere function, this. It calls for a loving heart.

Two comparisons:

If grand-parenting were merely a function, I'll bet my grandmother could have organized and pulled off a Thanksgiving dinner for ten thousand people. (She was a great cook!) But she wouldn't have had any relationship with the people she was feeding. She wasn't their grandmother. Instead, when she had Thanksgiving dinner in her home, with family and close friends, this was a meaningful experience. She cooked and served with love. Those who came deeply loved and revered her. It was a relational experience.

The "job" of parents is to love their children (and each other) twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. This love is from God. Parents express and celebrate this love at family meals, birthday celebrations, vacations together, etc. The "job" of priests is to love their people twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. This love is from God. We celebrate this love in the sacraments. It is a relational vocation.

If the priesthood were merely a function, that I could celebrate Mass every Sunday for a hundred thousand people at the Rose Bowl, and that would easily take care of all the Catholics in Pasadena, CA, Glendale, and the surrounding area. So much for any statistical shortage. But I would not know most of the people by name. I would not have journeyed with them in their daily faith struggles. I would not have witnessed the Spirit working in their lives. I would be a stranger praying with strangers. And they would only loosely be considered a community. I could bless a hundred marriages at one gathering (e.g. Rev. Moon). I could also celebrate a funeral Mass for a hundred deceased people at one time. But there would be no significant bonding, no relationship and, in my judgment, no effective face-to-face "priestly ministry."

I have a difficult time understanding the logic of Mr. Sullins' statement, "if we count only the numbe

Mike McCue | 5/24/2002 - 9:58am
I want to agree with the letters posted in response to Empty Pews, Empty Altars. The writer needs to look up from his numbers to see the real life of this poor Church. Clergy are aging. The pool of clergy and seminarians seems have less talent and intellect than what is needed --- especially with smaller numbers. What about quality of community life, and Catholic life rooted in sacraments? It was a very poor---and really irresponsible article. Perhaps it would be better published by the Catholic League.

On the other hand, the article "Welcome to the Club" is so on target with honesty and relevance to the project of moving forward to a better future.

Thanks, America!

Carol Dunsworth | 5/24/2002 - 8:02am
D. Paul Sullins tells us that we don't have a priest shortage, as evidenced by the fact that more and more Catholics don't "demand" the celebration of the Mass, the reception of sacraments, and other ministries. I get it! We have more lost sheep; therefore, we can get by with fewer shepherds to find them, to challenge them, to love them back into the fold. Good grief!

Rev. John F. Provenza | 5/23/2002 - 11:54am
The article “Farewell to ‘the Club” by Rev. Michael Papesh was one of best-reasoned articles on the future of the clergy that I have read. Unfortunately, an article by Paul Sullins, “Empty Pews and Empty Altars” which was very shortsighted followed it. Sullins based his article with on the assumption that there are less Catholics receiving the sacraments, more involved laity and therefore less work for the clergy at present in the future. I believe that is dangerous for us as a church to remain blind to the fact that four fifths of the priest that are currently serving our church will be retired within twenty years with very few replacing their numbers while the number of Catholics are continuing to grow. Even if these Catholics no long fill the pews on Sunday they are still going to demand desire to have their children baptized, many will be married in the church and all will want a priest to attend them when they are dying. Lay involvement is a great gift to the church; however, it often means more work, not less for the clergy. The more we close our eyes to the near future crisis in our church the more empty our pews and altars are going to be.

James M. Nicholson | 5/14/2002 - 8:59am
According to the statistical analysis in this article, there is no shortage of priests because fewer Catholics now go to Mass. By this logic, the ultimate solution to the vocations problem is for all of us to stop going to Mass. A more future-oriented approch would seem to require planning for increased participation at Mass and evaluating the need for vocations accordingly. Otherwise, we are left with a strategy of, "the worse we get, the better off we are."