Future of Priestly Ministry
Optional Celibacy
Facts about Priest Shortage, Optional Celibacy and Women's Roles in the Church

Facts about the Priest Shortage, Optional Celibacy, and Women's Roles in the Church

Fact: There is an acute worldwide shortage of priests.

  • According to Vatican statistics, between 1975 and 2008 the world's Catholics increased by 64% from 709.6 million to 1.166 billion, but the number of priests increased by only 1% from 404,783 to 409,166. (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University)
  • In 2008, nearly 49,631 of the world’s 218,865 parishes did not have a resident priest. (CARA)
  • According to a 2008 Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate study, half of the 19,302 active diocesan priests in the U.S. plan to retire by 2019. We are ordaining about 380 new diocesan priests each year. In just eight years, we will have only 13,500 active diocesan priests to serve our 18,000 parishes, presuming ordinations remain constant, as they have for over a decade.
  • Eighty percent of all Sunday celebrations in Brazil are led by laity because there are not enough priests to celebrate Mass. Brazil has 50,000 parishes but just 17,000 priests  (New York Times, 2007)
  • The French Church has closed half of its parishes in recent years with numbers of priests shrinking from 41,000 in 1965 to 20,500 in 2006. Only 100 new priests are ordained each year and numbers of baptisms, confirmations and church marriages are all declining. Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, who is the head of the French bishops’ conference, recently said many French priests had “the feeling of being drawn into a vortex where neither the direction nor the purpose are clear -- and still do not see the generation of successors on the horizon.” (The Tablet 4/12/05)
  • If current trends continue, Ireland could lose two-thirds of its priests by 2028, according to the 2008 Irish Catholic directory. Currently there are about 4750 priests in Ireland but by 2028 there could be fewer than 1500. “It will mean parish amalgamations, it will mean some parishes not having daily Masses… and it will probably mean some parishes not having a Mass every Sunday,”  said Fr. Eamonn Bourke, Dublin diocesan vocations director. (National Catholic Reporter 3/7/08)
  • The number of priests in England and Wales has fallen from 7,000 in 1980 to 5,500 with  half of all priests 60 or older.
  • Between 1975 and 2008, the number of U.S. Catholics increased by 32% from 48.7 million to 64.1 million. In the same time period, the U.S. Church suffered a 31% decrease in the number of priests from 58, 909 to just 40,580 in 2008.
  • The number of U.S. graduate level seminarians decreased by 38% from 5,275 in 1975 to 3286 in 2008 (CARA)
  • For every 100 U.S. priests who die or leave the ministry today, only 30 or 40 replace them, according to Dean R. Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America.
  • Nearly half of the world's parishes and missions do not have a resident priest (Vatican statistics).

Fact: Dioceses in the U.S. and worldwide are closing parishes because of drastic declines in numbers of priests.

  • Nearly 800 U.S. parishes closed between 2000 and 2008. Four hundred of these closed between 2005 and 2008 (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate)
  • Worshipers in England and Wales are being asked to travel miles to neighboring parishes and to do many of the parish duties currently handled by the priest.  Already, the Catholic Church has started to merge parishes and close churches with the number of parishes in Liverpool having been reduced from 60 to 27. The diocese of Lancaster currently has 108 parishes and estimates by 2020 it will have just 53 priests. Consequently, a new plan has been proposed to reduce the number of parishes from 108 to 70 over the next twelve years.  (Nicholas Pyke, UK Independent News and The Tablet 6/28/08)
  • In one northern French diocese one priest serves 27 parishes, dropping by only rarely to celebrate Eucharist and consecrate hosts for communion services when he leaves. The rest of the time, lay people run their own churches. The newly created parish of Notre Dame d l’Esperance has just one priest, yet all five village churches are flourishing.  Each has an appointed lay leader who celebrates communion services, presides at funerals, conducts parish visitation, counsels parishioners, gives pre-marriage instruction, brings communion to the sick, and provides chaplaincy services to hospitals, retirement homes and youth groups. Other lay leaders accompany catechumens through a two-year program and see to the financial oversight of the parish church. (The Tablet 7/12/08)
  • In 2004, the Boston Archdiocese closed one out of every five parishes, in part to pay bills resulting from the clergy sex abuse scandal.  This led to widespread public outrage resulting in 24-hour vigils in many parishes.  The diocese reversed itself in a few instances but five parishes have been vigilling for over four years and ten have appeals pending at the Apostolic Signatura in Rome.
  • In 2007 the diocese of Syracuse announced will close about 40 of its 170 parishes over years but by 2010 it will still have only 100 priests to serve the remaining 130 parishes. Forty of those priests will be 75 or over.  (media reports)
  • In 2008, Bishop Joseph Galante announced he would close half of Camden's 124 parishes, Bishop Joseph F. Martino announced he would close 91 of the 209 parishes in Scranton and Bishop Edward Cullen announced the closure of 41 of the 151 parishes in the Allentown Diocese. (media reports)
  • In  2009 Bishop Richard Lennon announced his intent to close 52 of Cleveland's 235 parishes. Fourteen parishes appealed. Two succeeded in obtaining a reprieve Cleveland diocese pension projections estimate that by 2027 there will be only 76 active diocesan priests serving 820,000 Catholics in 235 parishes. This presumes 4 ordinations per year. (media reports)

Fact: Many married priests are willing to return to ministry and women are asking to restore the female diaconate.

  • Worldwide there are an estimated 125,000 priests who left the active ministry to marry. In the U.S. an estimated 25,000 priests have left to marry. Some observers believe 50% of married priests would be willing to return to active ministry if invited. (Estimates by CORPUS)
  • On October 15, 2008 representatives of Women’s Ordination Worldwide petitioned the Vatican to restore the female diaconate at the Synod on the Word. The petition was supported by 26 international organizations and more than 1700 individuals. (The Tablet, 10/25/08)

Fact: Priests support discussion of mandatory celibacy, expanding women's roles.

  • The May 4,2009 issue of the Jesuit weekly America openly called for the “recruitment and training of married men” as priests, ordaining permanent deacons to the priesthood, and welcoming back married priests.
  • Research conducted by professor Jozef  Baniak at Poznand University in Poland in 2009 found that 54 percent of Polish priests support an end to mandatory celibacy. Nearly one third are in relationships with women with 12 percent admitting they are living with a woman.  Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, a senior Polish bishop, said he distrusted the survey.  (The Tablet 2/14/09)
  • In 2008 groups representing 18,300 priests in Brazil and Austria, lobbied for changes in celibacy rules.
  •  Irish priests surveyed anonymously in April 2004, support optional priestly celibacy (69%) and women priests (58.1%). (The Tablet, 5/22/04)
  • A report commissioned by the Australian Bishops found that 55% of Australian priests believe celibacy should be optional and another 16% believe obligatory celibacy had had a negative impact. (CathNews.com)
  • A massive survey of priests in 53 U.S. dioceses found 67% of responding priests (2,589 of 3,846) support open discussion of mandatory celibacy. Many spontaneously commented that women's roles should also be discussed (Survey spearheaded by FutureChurch with help from regional Call To Action chapters January- August 2004). View survey results).

Fact: Lay vocations to church ministry are increasing.

  • In the United States:
    • in 1986 there were 10,500 students enrolled in lay ministry education programs. In 2008-2009 there were 17,538 enrolled. (CARA)
    • there were an estimated 65,000 lay Catholics serving as chaplains and lay ecclesial ministers in 2008 compared with virtually none in 1963. (FutureChurch estimates derived from National Association of Catholic Chaplains and National Association of Lay Ministry).
    • an estimated eighty percent of all paid lay ministers are women (1997 National Pastoral Life Center Study).
    • most U.S. lay/women ministers already have qualifications (and more) to be ordained deacons.
  • Worldwide:
    • the number of lay people (catechists, nuns, members of secular institutes, lay missionaries) and deacons giving pastoral care increased from 3.2 million in 1998 to 3.8 million in 2002. (An estimated 50% of these lay ministers are women).

Fact: Catholicism's ministerial crisis cannot be solved without expanding women's roles

  • Presently women/lay ministers are the "glue" helping to hold the Church together both in the U.S. and worldwide. Worldwide, there are 783,000 women religious serving the church's 1.15 billion Catholics compared to 406,411 priests. Add the nuns to the 2.9 million lay catechists, missionaries, and members of secular institutes (at least half of whom in all categories are likely to be women), and it becomes clear that Catholicism's ministerial crisis cannot be solved without expanding women's roles. Most women ministers in the U.S. (conservatively, an estimated 80% lay pastoral ministers) already have qualifications (and more) to be ordained deacons. As deacons they can preach, baptize and witness marriages. This constitutes large new pool of ministers who could be immediately available to meet the growing sacramental needs of an expanding church.

This resource was prepared by FutureChurch for the Optional Celibacy: So All Can Be At the Table project.  www.futurechurch.org,  216-228-0869 Permission granted to photocopy upon receipt of emailed or written request to FutureChurch.