Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


When Parishes Outnumber Priests

The Official Catholic Directory 2015 indicates that the shortfall between the number of active diocesan priests and the number of parishes in the United States remains entrenched despite 515 new ordinations in 2014 (...up from 494 in 2013). Nationally (including the Diocese of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and all Eastern Rite arch/eparchies in the U.S.), there are 16,462 active diocesan priests and 17,324 parishes. Thus, there are currently 862 more parishes than active diocesan priests. You would have to go back more than a decade, to 2004, to find a year in which the total number of these clergy was larger than the number of parishes.

Of course not every parish needs an active diocesan priest (...It is also the case that not all priests are called to parish ministry). Religious priests serve as pastors and significant numbers of international priests have come to the United States to minister in parishes in recent decades. Priests from other U.S. dioceses (externs) and retired priests often help out as well. When no priest is available, bishops can utilize Canon 517.2 and entrust the pastoral care of a parish to a permanent deacon, religious sister or brother, or other lay person. These parish life coordinators (PLCs) minister, manage, and arrange for priests to come to the parish for Masses and sacraments.

Which dioceses have the most parishes relative to their number of active diocesan priests? Nine of the top ten are in the Midwest. For example, the Diocese of Green Bay reports 64 active diocesan priests and 157 parishes. In all, 81 parishes here are without a resident pastor. Forty-five of the diocese’s parishes have a non-resident pastor and in 36 parishes pastoral care has been entrusted to a deacon or lay person. Nineteen of these parishes are entrusted to deacons, ten to religious sisters, and seven to other lay persons.

Why would Midwestern dioceses be more likely to have fewer active diocesan priests than parishes? This region of the country used to be a population center for American Catholicism. However as many industrial parts of this region began to transform into the “rust belt” many moved to where the jobs were in the “sun belt.” In other words, the Catholics moved and the parishes remained. They still serve a sizable Catholic population but it is one that is aging. Many young adults raised in the region leave for the coasts or the South. Over time, smaller populations will lead to fewer ordinations. 

Geography is important in other ways as well. In rural America it can be difficult to use multi-parish ministry where a pastor or other ministers work in multiple parishes. In urban areas, a priest may find it possible to be a resident pastor in one parish and a non-resident pastor in another (…or more). When you are dealing with parishes separated by vast fields of corn or soybeans things become a bit more difficult. Closing a parish may also be undesirable if it still serves a community who may not easily travel to the next nearest parish. In some dioceses, bishops use PLCs to keep parishes open and in others they are less likely to do so.

Nationally, there are 369 parishes entrusted to PLCs under Canon 517.2 (note there are statistical discrepancies in the OCD regarding parish administration. See the note at the bottom of this post. This total represents CARA’s corrections to these data). The number of parishes entrusted to deacons or a lay person peaked at 566 in 2004. This came fifteen years after the number of parishes overall peaked in the U.S. at 19,705 in 1989. Since that time the Church in the United States has reduced its total number of parishes by 2,381 nationally (a decline of 12%). 

Which dioceses have many more active diocesan priests than parishes? Half are in the Northeast and the rest are scattered about. The Archdiocese of Chicago has 579 active diocesan priests and 353 parishes. Yet even here, 26 parishes are without a resident pastor.

In the United States, there are more priests retiring or passing away each year than there are new ordinations. The decline in active diocesan priests is expected to continue for some time as are net losses of parishes each year. These two trends are not unrelated.

Currently there are 3,448 U.S. parishes without a resident pastor. Most, 89%, are administered by non-resident pastors. Four percent of parishes without a resident pastor are entrusted to a deacon, 3% to lay men or women, and 2% to a religious sister. Less than 1% each are entrusted to multiple individuals on a pastoral team or religious brothers. At any time a few parishes are vacant—a total of eight parishes when the data used here were collected.

In previous research for the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project, CARA identified that the most important factor in determining how a diocese balances the equation of active diocesan priests and parishes is the bishop’s preferences. When necessary, some entrust parishes to deacons, vowed religious, or other lay persons; others rely on non-resident priest pastors; and some find closing parishes to be the only option.

The dioceses of Green Bay (WI), Superior (WI), and Albany (NY) have more than ten parishes where pastoral care is entrusted to deacons. The Diocese of Green Bay also has ten parishes entrusted to religious sisters. Albany, Indianapolis (IN), and Toledo (OH) each have seven parishes entrusted to women religious. Fairbanks (AK) has 15 parishes entrusted to lay men and women. Albany has nine parishes entrusted to lay people and Green Bay and Jackson (MS) have seven parishes each entrusted as such. In other dioceses like La Crosse (WI), Richmond (VA), and Winona (MN) there are numerous parishes without resident pastors but no Canon 517.2 parishes.

Note: The parish administration data for a number of dioceses do not “balance” in The Official Catholic Directory. This analysis has used all available information to provide accurate counts. For example, The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has 125 parishes. Ninety-seven of these parishes has a resident pastor. Additionally, 17 have a non-resident pastor. This totals 114 parishes meaning 11 other parishes must be entrusted to others under Canon 517.2. However, the Archdiocese reports that 20 parishes are entrusted to deacons, vowed religious, or other lay persons. Among these, nine parishes are reportedly entrusted to religious brothers. Yet, the diocese reports only one professional minister who is a religious brother and none of the parish listings indicate a religious brother is entrusted with a parish. CARA has made corrections to the OCD data in this post to be as accurate as possible.

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