A Shortage of Parish Priests?

The Question: When I was young, my parish, and every other parish I knew about, was served by two priests. Now I understand that it is common that a parish has only one priest and some only have a deacon to look after the spiritual needs of the Catholic faithful. How can this be? I have also read that the number of Catholics in America is growing. Why aren't there enough priests?

The Response: It is no secret that, in America at least, the number of Catholic priests has been declining for some time. There are a number of reasons for the decline, among them is the unwillingness of parents to encourage their children to become priests or nuns. This becomes evident when one considers the results of a Cara report sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops;

When asked to react to the statement: “You would encourage your child to pursue a career as priest or nun,” parents’ responses fell into the following four categories: Agree: 25 percent; Strongly agree: 8 percent; Disagree: 48 percent; and Strongly disagree: 19 percent. A staggering 67 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. Only 33 percent agreed or strongly agreed…In light of this report, one in five Catholic parents would strongly resist a child pursuing a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. Evidence that two-thirds would withhold encouragement to a son or daughter considering a vocation underscores the challenge facing vocation directors and seminary recruiters. It also reveals an important factor in the vocation crisis that is regularly overlooked. Catholics, in stark contrast to parents of previous generations, are no longer likely to see priesthood and religious life as a healthy way of life for their children. – Donald B. Cozzens, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, © The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., pp. 134-35

One of the factors certainly contributing to the resistance of Catholic parents to support their children’s interest in pursuing a vocation to the priesthood or religious life must involve the growing perception that such vocations involve living as a homosexual.

Vicars of priests and seminary administrators who have been around awhile speak among themselves of the disproportionate number of gay men that populate our seminaries and presbyterates. They know that a proportionate number of gay priests and seminarians would fall between 5 and 10 percent. The extent of the estimated disproportion, naturally enough, will vary depending on general perceptions, personal experiences, and the frequency of first-hand encounters with self-acknowledged gay priests.

The general perceptions, in turn, are often shaped by various studies and surveys which attempt to measure the percentage of priests who are gay. An NBC report on celibacy and the clergy found that “anywhere from 23 percent to 58 percent” of the Catholic clergy have a homosexual orientation (Timothy Unsworth, The Last Priests in America, New York:Crossroad, 1991, p. 248) Other studies find that approximately half of American priests and seminarians are homosexually oriented. Sociologist James G. Wolf in his book Gay Priests concluded that 48.5 percent of priests and 55.1 percent of seminarians were gay (James G. Wolf, Gay Priests, San Francisco:Harper and Row, 1989, pp. 59-60). Moreover, the percentage of gay men among religious congregations of priests is believed to be even higher (Unsworth, Op. cit., p. 248). Beyond these estimates, of course, are priests who remain confused about their orientation and men who have so successfully denied their orientation, that in spite of predominantly same-sex erotic fantasies, they insist that they are heterosexual. – Cozzens, Op. cit., pp. 98-99

Some who reject the information provided by Cozzens may be surprised to learn that he is an ordained priest who was Vicar of Priests for the Cleveland Diocese for more than six years. Formerly President-Rector and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Clevelan, he currently is Writer-in-Residence at John Carrol University He is editor of the best-selling The Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest (The Liturgical Press, 1997) and a number of other books dealing with the priesthood and the Catholic Church. He also is an associate editor of Emmanuel magazine.

Another reason for the decline in the number of Catholic priests, especially priests in pastoral posts, has to do with the number of parish priests who have been defrocked or had their faculties removed or restricted as a consequence of having acted as sexual predators of those over whom they exercised pastoral authority. The Boston Archdiocese provided fertile hunting grounds for a number of priests who violated their promises of celibacy with boys and adolescents. As I was writing this paper (2002), district attorneys in the five Massachusetts counties served by the Boston Archdiocese were working on cases involving 80 priests from that archdiocese.

The Catholic Church considers the failure to obey so many of its precepts and teachings to be mortal sins that disqualify lay Catholics from receiving the sacraments or, if unconfessed before dying, deny access to the Beatific Vision. On the other hand, when her priests violate the commandments of God, they are not disqualified from receiving or celebrating those same sacraments. It is clear that, within Catholicism, there is one law for priests and another for the laity.

Home | More Questions | Catholic Stuff | PTG Forum
(C) 1991-2010 Ron Loeffler