The National Catholic Review

During the last couple of years, more than one American bishop has said that the clergy shortage is not unique to the Catholic Church. A recent expression of this view is found in Bishop Wilton Gregory’s letter of Aug. 29, 2003, to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, in which he states: A number of studies in recent years indicate that denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church (USA), as well as other mainline churches with married clergy have also faced a shortage of ministers.

Is this true? After reviewing studies of the clergy situation in the Catholic Church and 10 Protestant denominations, here is what I found.

Defining the Problem

First, the clergy shortage is a complicated problem involving at least five issues:

total number of clergy a denomination or church reports (that is, the supply of clergy)

ratios of church members to clergy and clergy to congregations (the demand side)

distribution (e.g., how many clergy are in parish ministry or nonparish ministries, or in large or small parishes)

demographic characteristics (e.g., how many are single or married, men or women, young or old, first-career or second-career)

quality (e.g., how many have distinguished or undistinguished academic records, or are well equipped or poorly equipped to serve in today’s churches)

So people who claim the clergy shortage is unique to the Catholic Church and those who claim it is not might be referring to the same thing (in which case, one side is right and the other is wrong), or they might be referring to different aspects of the problem (in which case, both sides might be right). Here is a summary of what I have learned about each dimension.

Total Clergy

On this dimension, the evidence clearly indicates that the Catholic Church is unique. In the Catholic Church, the total number of priests has declined from 58,534 in 1981 to 52,227 in 1991 and 45,713 in 2001 (a 22 percent loss between 1981 and 2001). In every other group, including denominations in which membership has declined (e.g., the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches), the total number of clergy has increased. In the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) the increases have been rather modest (3 percent to 5 percent). In the Evangelical Lutheran, Lutheran-Missouri Synod and United Methodist churches, they have been larger (11, 15 and 21 percent, respectively). In four groups, the increases have been larger yet. These denominations include the Church of the Nazarene (25 percent), American Baptist churches (27 percent), the Episcopal Church (29 percent) and the Assemblies of God (35 percent).

Given the claims of a very recent clergy shortage in some Protestant churches, I also checked the data for each year between 1995 and 2001. They show steady increases in total clergy in five denominations (the Assemblies of God, Nazarenes, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians and United Methodists), year-to-year ups and downs with overall increases in four groups (American Baptists, Missouri-Synod Lutherans, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ), annual fluctuations with a slight overall decline in one group (Disciples of Christ) and a steady decline in only one group: the Catholic Church. On this dimension at least, I found no evidence that Protestant churches face a clergy shortage that at all resembles the steadily declining number of Catholic priests.

Ratios

The Catholic Church also is unique regarding the ratio of church members to total clergy. With the Catholic population increasing steadily and the number of priests declining, the number of laypeople per priest has climbed from 875:1 in 1981 to 1,113:1 in 1991 and 1,429:1 in 2001 (a 63 percent increase). No other religious group even comes close to that increase. Three Protestant groups (the Church of the Nazarene, the Presbyterian Church and the Assemblies of God) have experienced minor increases (from an average of 98:1 in 1981 to 103:1 in 2001, an average increase of 5 percent). In every other group, the number of members per clergyperson has declined (from an average of 250:1 in 1981 to 189:1 in 2001, an average decline of 24 percent).

Five Protestant denominations now have more congregations than they had in 1981, with very small congregations of 100 or fewer members accounting for the bulk of the increase. The Catholic Church also has more parishes (19,946 in 2001, compared with 19,971 in 1991 and 18,903 in 1981), although the number has declined in the last decade. The Catholic Church, with its history of much larger parishes, is the only group to have fewer clergy per parish in 2001 (2.3) than it had in 1991 (2.6) and 1981 (3.1). The number of clergy per congregation increased for all other groups, from an average of 1.5 in 1981 to 1.7 in 1991 and 1.8 in 2001 (a 20 percent increase).

Thus, whichever ratio one considers, there is a growing shortage of Catholic priests but an increasing supplysome analysts say an oversupplyof clergy in most Protestant denominations.

Distribution

The Catholic Church also is unique in that the declining number of priests in parish ministry is producing a marked increase in the number of priestless parishes. In 1960, only about 3 percent of Catholic parishes had no resident pastor. By 2000 that figure was up to 13 percent, and by the summer of 2003 it had risen to 16 percent. Given the continuing decline in ordinations, there is every reason to believe this figure will continue to grow in the years ahead. The situation is very different in Protestant churches, where pulpit vacancies are highly concentrated in very small congregations, many of which are located in small, rural, poor and/or minority communities. As the researcher Jack Marcum recently concluded in a report for the Presbyterian Church, the situation is less a shortage of ministers than a coming together of related trends that result in a growing number of very small congregations with limited financial resources at the same time that dual careers and other personal considerations have made ministers without calls more selective in their searches. In Marcum’s words: There may be a shortage of pastors, but there is clearly no shortage of ministers. Marcum’s analysis also helps to explain the situation in other Protestant denominations, but not the situation in the Catholic Church.

Catholics also are unique in having a declining number of priests in nonparish ministries. With a dwindling supply of both diocesan and religious order priests, the Catholic Church is no longer able to staff other forms of ministry with priests as it did in the 1950’s and 60’s. There is a well-established decline, for example, in the number of priests teaching in parochial schools and Catholic colleges. In contrast, a growing number and percentage of Protestant clergy are involved in noncongregational ministries, such as denominational administration, social outreach, hospital and school chaplaincies and missionary work.

 

Demographic Characteristics

The Catholic Church also is unique in having a clergy that is comprised almost entirely of unmarried men (the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod also limits ordination to males, but its clergy may marry). Protestant churches have always ordained married men and, with a few exceptions, have been increasingly willing to ordain women.

But the Catholic Church is not unique in experiencing a shortage of people in the age range 20 to 29 who want to be ordained. Although young adults are still going into fields like law and medicine in their 20’s, the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations are not attracting as many twentysomethings (whether male or female, single or married) as they used to. The average age of Protestant seminarians and recently ordained clergy has increased, just as it has in the Catholic Church. In addition, fewer young adults are choosing ministry and the priesthood as their first career. There is a growing number of members of both the Protestant and the Catholic clergy who have had careers in other sectors (including marriage and motherhood for many Protestant women) before deciding to enter seminary and the ministry.

Quality

The matter of quality involves many issues related to the screening practices and academic standards of seminaries, which I will not explore here. It also involves a great deal of subjectivity and many competing judgments about the types of spirituality, theological orientations and pastoral skills that members of the clergy ought to have at any point in time. For every liberal who worries about the increasing number of conservative seminarians and young priests, there is a conservative who celebrates the very same trend.

Setting such contentious matters aside, however, the Catholic Church does not appear to be unique in recent expressions of concern about the academic prowess of the men (and in many Protestant churches, the women) who are being admitted to seminaries and ordained. Data indicating declines in seminarians’ graduate-school admission test scores (relative to others who took these exams) and in the percentage of Phi Beta Kappa’s who choose religious life tend to support this claim. Another growing concern in both Protestant and Catholic circles is whether seminarians and newly ordained clergy are theologically and emotionally prepared for pastoral ministry in today’s churches. This concern is reflected in reports that fewer seminarians have educational backgrounds in theology and philosophy, and that a sizable number of young clergy leave the ministry after struggling with laypeople and older clergy who do not share their outlook on life in general and faith in particular.

Conclusions

In short, the Catholic Church is unique in several areas: the dwindling supply of priests, the increasing number of laypeople per priest, the declining number of priests per parish, the increasing number of priestless parishes and the declining number of priests in nonparish ministries. It also is unique in some demographics (having a clergy that is comprised almost entirely of unmarried men), but not in others (the declining number of young adults for whom the priesthood is a first career). It is not unique in terms of quality issues (growing concerns about intellectual prowess and suitability for parish ministry).

Because the church is not entirely unique in experiencing changes in the demographic characteristics and quality of its clergy, there must be forces in society and/or religious life generally that are making it difficult for many faith groups to attract talented, young, first-career men and women the way they used to (and the way some other fields still do). The researcher Jackson Carroll, among others, points to the diminished status and authority of clergy both in the church and in the broader culture. Such perceptions, other influences and possible responses need to be examined by Catholic leaders, perhaps in conjunction with leaders of other religious groups that are experiencing similar challenges.

On the other hand, because the Catholic Church is unique with respect to total clergy, ratios, distribution and some demographics, the root causes of and possible solutions to these problems are more likely to be found in the church itself. Bishop Gregory’s letter deals only with celibacy, because that is the issue the Milwaukee priests put on the table in August. But any analysis of the causes of and solutions to the uniquely Catholic aspects of the clergy shortage should be broader than that. It should explore any and all church-related circumstances that might adversely affect priestly vocations. These might include church teachings (for example, the post-Vatican II church’s positive view of marriage and modern society), ecclesial policies specifically relating to priesthood (like norms relating to poverty and obedience as well as celibacy), contextual conditions relating to parish ministry (large parishes, for example, and demanding work schedules) and the laity’s attitudes and behavior (like the reluctance of some parents to encourage their sons to enter the priesthood). A comprehensive analysis of such issues might result in a decision to reaffirm some of these conditions, in spite of their adverse effects on priestly vocations, but it also might lead to changes in others.

James D. Davidson is a professor of sociology at Purdue University. His most recent book (with Thomas Walters, Bede Cisco, O.S.B., Katherine Meyer and Charles Zech) is Lay Ministers and Their Spiritual Practices. [For references to studies o

Comments

Rev. Gino Dalpiaz, C.S. | 12/2/2003 - 4:07pm
In his Dec. 1st article, "Fewer and Fewer," James Davidson compares the clergy shortage of the Catholic Church in the United States to that of some of the Protestant denominations. He should also have compared it with the clergy shortage among those of the Jewish faith and come to some conclusions.

In an article entitled "The Rabbi Crisis" in the May 2003 issue of Commentary, the highly regarded monthly journal published by the American Jewish Committee, Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, stated that there is a shortage of rabbis serving congregations. "Ever-growing numbers of rabbis" are leaving their congregations to serve as teachers, administrators, or chaplains in a variety of Jewish institutions, even at a "lower remuneration than the pulpit rabbinate," even though "in keeping with the rising demands, compensation [for rabbis] has reached impressive levels."

What if the Catholic Church had women priests? Here's Wertheimer's answer: "While all rabbinical schools except those within the orbit of Orthodoxy now ordain women ..., the supply side [for rabbis] looks very poor."

Clearly, having married Catholic priests is not nessarily the answer to a shortage of vocations to the priesthood. Could it be, as Cardinal George of Chicago suggests, that the Catholic Church as a whole is lacking the deep faith that used to characterize Catholics. St. Luke's words are apropos: "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Lk 18:8).

Henri Fromageot | 1/4/2004 - 7:26pm
In response to Dr. Davidson's article Fewer and Fewer, I would like to point out that statistics may not be a useful analytical tool to find out the root of the vocations drought within the Catholic Church. Instead I suggest reading about "The vocations drought that need not be" in "The Four Marks of a Vocation" by Michael S. Rose, in the November 2003 issue of New Oxford Review. There one finds out how, "by the year 2000 the average age of priests in the Arlington Diocese was 42, twenty years below the national average!" One learns that the formula for Fr. Gould's success as vocations director includes "Unswerving allegiance to the Pope and magisterial teaching; perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in parishes, with emphasis on praying for vocations; and the strong effort by a significant number of diocesan priests who extend themselves to help young men remain open to the Lord's will in their lives." I hope and pray this tried and true formula becomes that of all vocation directors everywhere.

Chuck Hannan | 11/26/2003 - 3:00pm
The comparison by Prof. Davidson of Catholic clergy and 10 Protestant denominations omitted the 13,000 permanent deacons in the United States. As permanent deacons can and do all the functions of Protestant clergy this omission seriously distorts the comparison of clerical shortages. Permanent Deacons are "clergy" in the Church and the misuse of the term is not in keeping with the high editorial policy of this magazine.

While no one can deny the lack of available priests is a challenge to the Church, the presence of a growing group of clerics within the Church should not be ignored. The Holy Spirit was present and active in the restoration of the Order of the Permanent Diaconate during and following Vatican II. The many fine ministries of the diaconate keep alive the mission of the Church to the world.

(Deacon) Edward J. Melton | 2/7/2007 - 4:38pm
James D. Davidson’s article was an insightful attempt to quantify an issue that American Catholics have sensed for many years. I agree that there should be no doubt that the declining number of priests is creating a “spiritual gap” in our community that can be closed only by increased responses to the call of this vocation.

At the same time, Mr. Davidson is not comparing “apples to apples” and has also omitted thousands of U.S. Catholic clergy, since he did not take into account the fact that many ministers in other denominations work in secular jobs full time and ministry part time. This is rare among Catholic priests. So while a “head count” might indicate growth in the number of clergy in some churches, I wonder if the increased use of part-time clergy might confirm, rather than refute, the claim that the clergy shortage is not confined to the Catholic Church.

I also take exception to his limitation of Catholic clergy to those in priestly orders, ignoring the rapid growth of permanent deacons in our church. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there were over 13,000 permanent deacons in the United States in 2001 (the last year for which worldwide statistics are available), an increase of 10 percent since 1998. Worldwide, there were approximately 28,238 permanent deacons serving in 135 countries. This is an overall worldwide increase of 17 percent. Of these deacons, approximately 27,720 belong to the diocesan clergy and approximately 520 are religious. The diocesan clergy were incardinated in 1,300 dioceses or prelatures. Since 1981, the number of permanent deacons in the United States has grown by nearly 10,000, with hundreds more being added each year.

To be clear, I would never say that the “average” deacon is an even replacement for the “average” priest. Most permanent deacons have family and job responsibilities outside of their ministerial responsibilities. But so do many of the non-Catholic clergy referred to in Davidson’s article. If we are to compare “apples to apples,” the entire U.S. Catholic clergy should be included.

Rev. Gino Dalpiaz, C.S. | 12/2/2003 - 4:07pm
In his Dec. 1st article, "Fewer and Fewer," James Davidson compares the clergy shortage of the Catholic Church in the United States to that of some of the Protestant denominations. He should also have compared it with the clergy shortage among those of the Jewish faith and come to some conclusions.

In an article entitled "The Rabbi Crisis" in the May 2003 issue of Commentary, the highly regarded monthly journal published by the American Jewish Committee, Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, stated that there is a shortage of rabbis serving congregations. "Ever-growing numbers of rabbis" are leaving their congregations to serve as teachers, administrators, or chaplains in a variety of Jewish institutions, even at a "lower remuneration than the pulpit rabbinate," even though "in keeping with the rising demands, compensation [for rabbis] has reached impressive levels."

What if the Catholic Church had women priests? Here's Wertheimer's answer: "While all rabbinical schools except those within the orbit of Orthodoxy now ordain women ..., the supply side [for rabbis] looks very poor."

Clearly, having married Catholic priests is not nessarily the answer to a shortage of vocations to the priesthood. Could it be, as Cardinal George of Chicago suggests, that the Catholic Church as a whole is lacking the deep faith that used to characterize Catholics. St. Luke's words are apropos: "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Lk 18:8).

Henri Fromageot | 1/4/2004 - 7:26pm
In response to Dr. Davidson's article Fewer and Fewer, I would like to point out that statistics may not be a useful analytical tool to find out the root of the vocations drought within the Catholic Church. Instead I suggest reading about "The vocations drought that need not be" in "The Four Marks of a Vocation" by Michael S. Rose, in the November 2003 issue of New Oxford Review. There one finds out how, "by the year 2000 the average age of priests in the Arlington Diocese was 42, twenty years below the national average!" One learns that the formula for Fr. Gould's success as vocations director includes "Unswerving allegiance to the Pope and magisterial teaching; perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in parishes, with emphasis on praying for vocations; and the strong effort by a significant number of diocesan priests who extend themselves to help young men remain open to the Lord's will in their lives." I hope and pray this tried and true formula becomes that of all vocation directors everywhere.

Chuck Hannan | 11/26/2003 - 3:00pm
The comparison by Prof. Davidson of Catholic clergy and 10 Protestant denominations omitted the 13,000 permanent deacons in the United States. As permanent deacons can and do all the functions of Protestant clergy this omission seriously distorts the comparison of clerical shortages. Permanent Deacons are "clergy" in the Church and the misuse of the term is not in keeping with the high editorial policy of this magazine.

While no one can deny the lack of available priests is a challenge to the Church, the presence of a growing group of clerics within the Church should not be ignored. The Holy Spirit was present and active in the restoration of the Order of the Permanent Diaconate during and following Vatican II. The many fine ministries of the diaconate keep alive the mission of the Church to the world.