Anne Hendershott and Christopher White have a piece in The Wall Street Journal today, citing CARA, which notes the number of new ordinations to the priesthood in the United States and that some seminaries are at capacity and have had to turn away applicants.
All good news. However, the Catholic Church in the United States still faces significant challenges when it comes to vocations. As we have discussed here previously there is no shortage of Catholic men who say they consider the priesthood. Yet there still are too few who decide to follow through and become priests.
The WSJ piece notes there were 467 ordinations last year. These data are listed each year in The Official Catholic Directory (OCD) for the United States and worldwide in the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae (ASE). The 2011 OCD lists 467 ordinations in the U.S. (as well as 13 others in U.S. territories), yet these ordinations occurred in the year previous, 2010. These include both diocesan and religious ordinations. There are no official numbers out yet for 2011, but CARA estimates these to be very similar to 2010 (possibly exceeding 480).
The ASE provides detailed information for every country on the annual changes in the numbers of diocesan priests (those most likely to be in parish ministry). Of the 467 ordinations in 2010, 402 were diocesan. That is a bit above the average of 391 diocesan ordinations during the 1999 to 2009 period but not by much. As shown below, one of the most stable trends in U.S. Church data since the mid-1980s has been the annual numbers of diocesan ordinations.
Despite this rather predictable inflow each year, it is still not enough. The number of diocesan priests dying or departing the priesthood annually is larger than the number of new priests ordained. What results is a net loss in the numbers of diocesan priests. In 2010, this resulted in a net change of -301. These losses accumulate each year creating a running deficit in the number of diocesan priests (for more see my piece on this topic in Our Sunday Visitor). These losses are dealt with, in part, by bringing in international priests who have been ordained outside the United States. When too few priests have been available, bishops have also utilized Canon 517.2 to entrust the pastoral care of parishes to permanent deacons or lay persons, clustered parishes, or merged and closed parishes.
What can we expect for the future? As the WSJ piece notes, there are seminaries in the United States that are at capacity and new seminaries are being built. But this is related more to realignment than a groundswell of new seminarians. Seminaries have closed and others have reduced their capacities. Since the mid-1990s the number of seminarians has remained about as stable as the number of new ordinations. There is not much change here either—which is also good news. There have been few, if any, indications of declines in priestly vocations for two decades. Yet the challenge remains because the Church doesn’t just need stability it needs growth to keep up with a growing Catholic population and an aging clergy.
In many ways the Catholic Church is coming to terms with an important period of its history (for more see: Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood since Vatican II). The number of ordinations in the mid-20th century was extraordinary. Many of the surviving priests ordained in that period are now in their 70s or even older. Replacing them all is a big challenge. It cannot be done with less than 500 diocesan ordinations per year. In fact, the Church needs more like 700 per year to establish stability in the numbers of U.S. diocesan priests overall.
Is that possible? Yes. As I noted in a previous post: “We can roughly estimate that about one in 100 Catholic men who say they ‘very seriously’ considered becoming a priest are likely to follow through and be ordained. If the Church could just increase that to two or three in every 100 who ‘very seriously’ consider this, concerns over priest shortages would end.”
The WSJ piece indicated that “renewal is coming.” Take a look at the green line in the chart for the seminarians above. This represents those enrolled at the post-baccalaureate level of priestly formation for dioceses. This line has been on an upward slope since 2005. The totals are growing by about 20 individuals per year. That is something to cheer (and study more). At the same time Catholics should not go away from reading the WSJ piece thinking “great, problem solved!” Significant challenges remain to close the deficit that we have accumulated. Getting 700 ordinations per year would simply level off the current downward slope in the number of diocesan priests. Turning U.S. trends positive will require significantly more.