Desperately seeking seminarians
A shortage of priests is forcing the Catholic Church to consider major changes
By Dorie Clark
On the day in 1962 when Father Richard McBrien was ordained, there were four priests assigned to his church. But today — despite an increase in the parish’s population — the number of priests serving Our Lady of Victory in West Haven, Connecticut, is down to two. For Catholic churches nationwide, this shrinkage is neither surprising nor unusual. It is a fact of life. Currently, there is a shortage of priests so dire that many are calling it a crisis. The results of the shortage strike at the very core of the Catholic faith: because some priests are now called upon to serve as many as six parishes apiece, traditional sacraments such as the Eucharist, or Communion (in which wafers and wine believed to be the body and blood of Christ are consumed), are being offered less frequently. The statistics are shocking: 15 percent of parishes nationwide lack even one resident priest. More than 20,000 clergymen have left the profession over the past 30 years. During the same period, the number of men entering the Catholic priesthood has declined. And the priests who have remained in the fold are aging. In fact, the average age of a parish priest is 59, and more Catholic clergymen in the United States today are over 90 than under 30. This means that as old priests retire and die, no one
is coming up in the ranks to take their places. And because of a rash of bad publicity — pedophilia scandals, financial improprieties, and ideological battles over sexuality and gender — the Church, entering the new millennium at a crucial point in its history, is having a hard time recruiting new, young candidates.
This earthly law of supply and demand — in a country where there is one active parish priest for every 2200 faithful — is forcing the Church to learn Marketing 101. “Before, vocational offices would just wait for people to ring the doorbell,” says Father Daniel Greenleaf, who is in charge of recruiting priests for the Diocese of Portland. Now, in addition to church bulletin notices and poster programs, some dioceses are even taking to the airwaves, placing commercials on MTV and Comedy Central to entice young men into the vocation.
But even that may not be enough to bulk up the roster. The Catholic Church may finally be forced to take a hard look at candidates it previously ruled out. Liberal advocates insist the only way to keep the Church going is to admit women, married people, and maybe even partnered gays into the priesthood. The 2000-year-old Catholic Church — which claims lineage from Jesus’s original disciples — is about to enter a new era.
In the 1960’s, amid social upheaval and various campaigns for sexual freedom, many traditional social institutions lost the status they previously enjoyed. The Catholic Church, which underwent profound change from within, was chief among them. From 1962 to 1965, Pope John XXIII convened a conference of Church officials to update and re-examine Catholic traditions. These deliberations, known as Vatican II, drastically altered many aspects of Church practice, from its worship service (replacing Latin with parishioners’ native tongues) to its philosophical outlook (declaring a new openness toward other faiths and traditions).
Perhaps the most notable change of Vatican II was to increase lay participation in the life of the Church. That decision, in effect, demystified the role of priests and ended their elevated status. “We were very important people at one time,” says Father Don Whipple, a 72-year-old priest in Cocoa Beach, Florida, “but we’re not anymore. You’d go into a restaurant, not having reservations, and the maitre d’ would say, ‘Father, Father, over here.’ That’s gone.” Whipple himself is untroubled by the change, but the feeling is not universal. “That kind of prestige was very important to some people,” he says.
This loss of prestige took from the priesthood one of its biggest selling points. In the past, few things made a Catholic family prouder than having a son become a man of the cloth. But gradually the enthusiasm for the profession has dampened, among both potential recruits and their families. According to a 1997 study sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 67 percent of Catholic parents would not encourage their child to become a priest or a nun.
Widespread reluctance to enter the priesthood has other roots as well. Today’s modern, birth-controlled Catholic families have fewer children, and are less willing to subordinate their desire for grandchildren to the Church’s demand for clerical celibacy. And Catholic men have more opportunities outside the Church. Equipped with college degrees and facing less discrimination than in years past, they have a greater array of careers open to them. Priesthood is not the only path to the middle class nowadays — and high-tech careers pay a lot better.
Just as alarming to the Church as the shortage of new priests is the advancing age of today’s clergymen. Only 298 priests in the entire country are under the age of 30 —and current seminarians are, of course, only getting older. Sure, this year’s Keeping the Faith starred hunky Edward Norton as a priest, and made Catholicism look downright sexy. But the reality is closer to what you’d find at the Pope John XXIII National Seminary just outside Boston. The 75 future priests playing ping-pong in the rec room or checking their e-mail in the library are graying on top and getting a bit paunchy. Some have full white beards; one was spotted walking outside wearing a fedora. They are all friendly, cheerful, and accommodating — but not exactly young. The seminary doesn’t even try to attract young men, and in that way it is somewhat nontraditional. Instead, it’s geared toward men aged 30 to 60 who are entering the priesthood as a second career. The ranks of older students are increasing at traditional seminaries as well. Although they are helping to stem the shortage of manpower, the fact remains that they, too, are aging along with the priests who joined years ago as young men. And, according to professor Dean Hoge of the Catholic University of America, the Church is replacing only 40 to 50 percent of the priests it loses each year to death, retirement, or resignation.
What’s more, men are leaving the priesthood in droves. Hoge notes that the number-one reason is the celibacy requirement: heterosexual men are leaving to get married. This is changing the face of the Church — it is both grayer and gayer. Exact figures are impossible to come by, but professor Mark Jordan of Emory University, the author of The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (University of Chicago Press, 2000), says that “the low end of the scale for [estimates of] gay priests is around 30 percent, the high end between 70 and 80 percent.” Indeed, a new book by Father Donald Cozzens, The Changing Face of the Priesthood (The Liturgical Press, 2000), has attracted a great deal of notice inside the Church for its assertion that “the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession.”
This increasingly gay reputation is having a dramatic effect on the priesthood. It drives away some heterosexual candidates; others enter the seminary and find the environment alienating. “It’s like someone wandering into a café and suddenly you realize you’re in the wrong place because it’s a gay bar,” says Father Richard McBrien, now a professor at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s not that you’re surrounded by evil people, but it’s just not your place.”
It’s true that the priesthood has long provided cover for homosexual men wishing to conceal their sexual orientation. “For some very closeted young men, the priesthood seems like the perfect closet, the perfect protection,” says Emory University’s Mark Jordan. “It’s a way to be gay and not come out.” It certainly filled that role for Father Don Whipple, who finally came out six years ago at age 66 and knows “lots and lots and lots of homosexuals” who are priests. But the contradiction of having a gay identity in the midst of an institution that has taken a stance against homosexuality, calling it “objectively disordered,” sometimes has damaging consequences.
Father Whipple says that gay priests’ unique needs are often left unmet. “They have to be trained,” he says, “on how to get the intimacy you need as a human being and still live your vow of chastity, especially if you’re a member of a male community.” Without this training, the results have been disastrous. Jordan estimates that, of gay priests under 45, perhaps 40 percent are sexually active. The Kansas City Star, in a survey of 14 states, revealed that more than 300 Catholic priests have died from AIDS, and that priests are more than six times more likely to die from the disease than the general population in those states.
Ironically,in the midst of such a strong gay presence, many observers have noted an increasingly conservative turn in the priesthood. (Jordan speculates that this is not coincidental, for many gay men embrace conservatism as a way of deflecting suspicion about their sexual identity.) This conservatism, in turn, is also driving some men away from the priesthood. At a minimum, clerics who disagree with the Vatican’s official stance on such issues as homosexuality and abortion are forced to keep silent or pay a substantial price in terms of career prospects. Says James Carroll, a former priest and current columnist for the Boston Globe, “You have to surrender your freedom of conscience and your freedom of basic thought to be a Catholic priest today.” Father McBrien of Notre Dame agrees. To become a bishop, he says, priests “have to be 100 percent for the Church’s teaching on birth control, which a great majority of Catholics don’t accept, and be 100 percent against the ordination of women. What they’re looking for is loyalists.”
Recent examples of the Church’s crackdown on perceived unorthodoxy include last year’s US bishops’ vote requiring Catholic theology professors to seek approval for their teachings (although the mandate was significantly watered down last week), and the October decision to remove Sister Jeannette Normandin from her work at Boston’s Jesuit Urban Center for aiding in a baptism. (The head of the Jesuit Urban Center also removed Father George Winchester for allowing her to participate in the sacrament.)
But many Catholics opposed these crackdowns, and some think that conservative moves like these — while shoring up the Church’s hierarchical authority — turn off exactly the type of independent-minded candidates the Church most needs. And while this year’s support by the Catholic Diocese of Portland of Maine’s gay-rights referendum represented a progressive step for the Church, the referendum was voted down on election day, and exit polls show that a majority of Catholics voted against it.
So what is the Church doing in the face of a diminishing clergy? The same thing it’s done for hundreds of years in times of waning power and influence: fighting back. It’s redoubling its recruitment efforts and, in the short term, hiring more laypeople to handle religious education, music, and administration — duties that formerly fell to priests. It’s also importing priests from Europe and the Third World to the United States to fill gaps in clerical manpower. Indeed, 16 percent of active parish priests in the US are foreign-born, though statistics aren’t available on what percentage moved to this country as adult priests (as opposed to coming with their families as children). Irish priests are the largest foreign-born contingent, followed by clerics from India and the Philippines. The lure of American-style easy living and the opportunity for professional advancement is appealing to many in developing countries, priests included.
But drawing priests from overseas has serious drawbacks. For one, the shortage of priests is even more acute outside North America. In Asia, there is one priest per 2551 Catholics. The disproportion is even worse in Africa (one per 4483) and in South America (one per 7094). Eventually this priest-borrowing will catch up with the Church unless it becomes much more successful at drumming up recruits in the Third World than it is in the States. In addition, some view it as a distasteful form of imperialism. “The developing world already has major difficulties,” says Sister Christine Schenk of FutureChurch. “This is another example of rich countries taking advantage of poor countries.” Whether or not the practice is exploitative, some argue that, in any case, it is less effective in reaching the American faithful. Cultural differences and language barriers can make it difficult for foreign-born ministers to reach out to the laity. Perhaps the biggest disconnect is theological. Says Jordan of Emory University, “We’re getting a kind of time-shift backwards as priests come in from Poland or Central Africa. They’re bringing in a Catholicism that’s in some ways 40 years old.” Even if these priests aren’t old, it seems their mind-set is.
To stir up interest on the home front, the Church is mounting a good old-fashioned marketing blitz. Last year in Providence Rhode Island, it aired priest-recruiting television commercials in such secular and irreverent venues as MTV, Comedy Central, and ESPN. In 1998, the Diocese of Milwaukee began a recruitment billboard campaign with the tag line enjoy the ultimate benefits package. These marketing efforts have yielded interest, and even a few new seminarians.
But the secret to a sustained turnaround may be one-on-one recruitment efforts. Father Daniel Greenleaf, 34, the diocesan recruiter from Portland, was at one time a successful accountant, with a girlfriend and a sports car. But after visiting his high-school priest and realizing that his priorities had gone astray, he decided to become a man of the cloth. Today, he provides a forum to assist others going through the “discernment process” (the term for deciding if one should join the priesthood). “It’s okay if there’s only one or two,” he says. “It’s really about helping people if they feel God is calling them.” With 14 men from his diocese currently in the seminary, he’s had good luck, but he recognizes that recruitment is not as easy as it was in the past. “I’m trying to replace some of the institutions that supported the vocation, whether it was a convent full of nuns or a school full of brothers,” he says. “I’m trying to replace that with individual contact and individual support.”
But despite all these efforts, it’s hard to find good candidates. “It’s difficult to measure, but everybody close to the scene agrees that the quality [of recruits] has gone down,” says Hoge of Catholic University. “It’s not intelligence or commitment to Jesus Christ that’s gone down, but leadership has.” Jordan of Emory University worries that this leadership decline may dovetail with the issue of sexual abuse. “A lot of the dioceses are desperate to take people, even if they have qualms about them, even if they don’t do well on certain psychological tests,” he says. “There’s a real tension between needing candidates and trying to prevent future abuse scandals. Some dioceses do really well and say ‘We’d rather do without,’ but others aren’t so picky.”
As a result, the Church might be forced to consider a solution it never thought possible: opening up the priesthood. Catholic parishioners seem receptive. The National Catholic Reporter’s 1999 poll revealed that 71 percent of the laity supported opening the priesthood to married men. They also supported admitting both celibate women (63 percent) and married women (54 percent). Reflecting a growing recognition of the shortage, a 1994 Los Angeles Times poll showed that 59 percent of priests supported measures allowing priests to marry, and 44 percent would give the nod to female clerics. And though most remain silent on the matter, it seems that many Catholic clergymen share those views.
Sister Christine Schenk couldn’t agree more. “The whole issue of celibacy has to be discerned apart from the call to priestly ministry,” she says. If the Church would accept married men into the ranks (as it did until the Middle Ages), or women, she believes “there would be no priest shortage. . . . God is a God of abundance, not of scarcity.” The 30,000-plus lay ministers employed by the Church (82 percent of whom are female) are a ready pool of recruits. A good number of the men who left the priesthood to get married might return if given the opportunity. Indeed, although it is not commonly known, the Catholic Church currently does allow some priests to be married. Episcopal priests who are married, convert to Catholicism, and wish to remain in the vocation are allowed to stay wed “in the full sense of the term,” reports Father McBrien of Notre Dame.
Today’s Catholic Church is facing an uphill battle, trying to minister to 62 million American Catholics with only 45,699 priests. Despite advertising campaigns and focused recruitment efforts, it will be very difficult for the Church to muster enough candidates even to replace the ones who leave. The diminishing priesthood is wreaking havoc on a church that — unlike its Protestant counterparts — strongly emphasizes the sacraments, such as last rites and Holy Communion. “There are fewer Masses,” says Professor Dean Hoge, “and priests are less available for visiting the sick and dying, for weddings and baptisms, and for coming to meetings around the parish.” Says Father McBrien, “To some in the Catholic Church, it’s more important to maintain a celibate priesthood than to have the Eucharist and other sacraments available to the faithful.” But without priests to perform the sacraments, less emphasis is placed on them; with access to the priest for counseling or community-building also reduced, this may cause Catholic church-going to become less meaningful. And if mainstream Catholics continue to disregard the Vatican’s views on social issues, the Church may seem even less relevant to their lives.
McBrien is convinced the day will come when the Church will accept married priests. “It won’t come under Pope John Paul II,” he says, “but if for no other reason, the pressure of reality will require the Church to relax its rules regarding celibacy.” In the meantime, the Church will continue its uncomfortable grappling with a heavily gay clergy and human sexuality in general, just as it copes with its occasional scuffles over theological freedom and dissent. And Father Greenleaf of Portland and his counterparts will continue looking for the next generation of priests — men who, he says, “have an amazement for life and finding the mystery, that there’s something rather than nothing.”
Dorie Clark can be reached at email@example.com.