The Graying of the Priesthood

I’ve written several times before about the decline of the Catholic church in the West. But today, I want to shine a spotlight on one corner of the world to study a lesser-known but extremely important symptom of that decline. This was brought to my attention by the journalist and atheist Dick Gross, author of the amusingly and aptly titled column Godless Gross, in an essay commenting on this article from the newspaper The Age.

Unlike most First World countries, Australia’s Catholic population is growing (mainly because of immigration), now approaching 6 million. But at the same time, the ranks of the priesthood are dwindling. There are about 1,500 priests for the entire country, and the average age of a priest in Australia is 60 and rising. Already, despite the consolidation of almost 200 parishes since 1994, one in four Australian parishes doesn’t have a full-time priest. If these demographic trends continue, by 2025 there will be as few as 600 priests for a population of over 7 million faithful – in other words, one priest for every 11,600 Catholics. Something tells me those men are going to be pretty busy.

For the moment, the church has been bridging the gap by importing priests from countries like Nigeria, India and the Philippines. But this strategy (described as one of “despair and desperation” by ex-priest Peter Wilkinson) may not be viable for much longer. As Gross points out, the lack of priests isn’t just a First World problem. Some countries already have it even worse:

The Latin American Churches are similarly sclerotic. Brazil has one priest for every 10,000 believers and Mexico one for every 9700!

This is a slow-motion catastrophe for the Catholic church. It’s not just that parishes are closing and merging and churches are being shuttered; it’s not just that the increasingly few numbers of people willing to be priests are being spread increasingly thin all over the world. It’s also that the church’s strategy for addressing the crisis, shipping in priests from Third World countries, is bound to make things even worse. Many of these foreign priests exemplify the kind of patriarchal, illiberal culture that’s out of step with the population they’re called on to serve, which will further widen the chasm between Catholic believers and their own hierarchy:

Catholics for Ministry co-founder Paul Collins shares that concern. “Many of these foreign priests are inexperienced and come from cultures that are tribal and patriarchal. They have little or no comprehension of the kinds of faith challenges that face Catholics living in a secular, individualistic, consumerist culture that places a strong emphasis on equality, women’s rights and co-responsibility between clergy and lay people,” he said.

Now, there’s one blindingly obvious solution staring the church in the face: change the rules to allow ordination of married men and even (gasp!) women as priests. As Gross says, it’s not even as if married priests would be a new thing for Catholicism; priestly celibacy didn’t become a universally observed rule until the Lateran Councils of the 1100s. But not only has the Vatican rejected that proposal out of hand, it’s forbidden the Australian bishops to even mention it in public. Rarely in the history of religion has so sensible a solution to such a pressing problem gotten such a knee-jerk rejection from the very people who would benefit the most from it.

And while the hierarchy refuses to even discuss the issue, the priesthood is still dwindling. Blinded by its own delusional sense of infallibility, the Vatican is marching proudly into extinction. It remains to be seen whether the world’s Catholics will obediently follow their leaders off the cliff, or if we may yet see schisms and new sects form as some of them rebel against Rome’s hidebound insanity. I wouldn’t be surprised if progressive groups like Catholics for Ministry ultimately end up breaking away from the church and striking out on their own.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BJ Marshall

    Catholic priests can be married men under a loophole. When I was Catholic, we had one of these rare birds.

    He and his wife were Lutheran when they got married. Then he became a Lutheran priest. Then he converted to Catholicism and became a Catholic priest. The loophole here is that one does not need to re-take a sacrament like baptism or marriage. If you were baptized non-Catholic, and convert, the Catholic Church will recognize the baptism. The same goes for marriage. And so you get some married priests.

    And, I dare say (harking back to my Catholic days) that this priest was MORE effective because he could relate better to the congregation. His homilies related his personal family life to the readings, and those were stories that other families could relate to.

  • jemand

    well I wrote a big comment and lost it.

    Basically I was talking about the similar situation among US nuns, from over 180,000 in 1965 to less than 58,000 today. Also, the age breakdown in 2004 was median age of 70, so I’m sure it’s even older now. And in the face of all this? the Vatican launched an investigation to determine if nuns were sufficiently orthodox and sufficiently following orders. Obvious problems with recruitment, and the decide what they need to fix are insufficiently subservient women.

    But I guess… when you consider it was a nun who saved the life of that one woman earlier this year by approving an emergency abortion, their priorities make sense. They CANNOT allow women into ministry, the entire structure revolves around not having empathy or compassion for family or female experiences.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    Can we get the same loophole for women, if the priest has a sex change? :)

  • Rollingforest

    Actually, there are branches of the Catholic Church today that allow married priests. Eastern Catholic Churches are churches that historically broke away from the Catholic Church, but then rejoined some centuries later. They were allowed to keep some of their practices, including married parish priests.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Catholic_Churches#Clerical_celibacy

    It is true that married men who are priests of other denominations and then convert to Catholicism are allowed to keep their wives as well as join the priesthood. But very few priests from other denominations are converting, nowhere near the numbers needed.

    But Rome has another Ace up its sleeve: Deacons. Deacons are sort of proto-priests who, important for our discussion here, can be married. Deacons are allowed to lead most parts of the Catholic Mass, including giving the sermon. The only thing they aren’t allowed to do is implement the sacraments. For the most part, that isn’t a problem (how many people really go to confession anymore?). The only major issue is that communion can only be transubstantiated by a priest. But that’s easy enough to get around. Just have the few remaining priests spend all of their time transubstantiating the communion and then shipping it out to every parish. I’m betting that in 30 years time, almost all Catholic parishes will be led by deacons.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deacon#Catholicism

  • Rollingforest

    It’s funny because the parish my parents go to spent an entire year recently praying each Sunday that more men would enter the priesthood. Somehow, I don’t think it worked.

  • assclown

    Great news! Less priests to molest our children!

  • http://www.politicalflavors.com MissCherryPi

    Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest. There’s a reason my college chaplain taught everyone who was willing this ceremony. Partially because they see what is coming and know things are not going to change with regards to the ordination of women.

  • Stephen P

    @jemand: I’ve given up typing comments directly into my browser, if they’re more than one line. They all go first into NoteTab (though Notepad would do just as well) and then I copy them into the browser. Saves a lot of frustration.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    I’m not sure if your suggestion will actually work. It depends on what the issue really is.

    Ultimately, all that your suggestions as a whole do does is open up a larger population to draw from: women and men who want to get married. Yes, this is a pretty large additional population, but we don’t really know how many in that population are likely to want to become priests. If it’s just a matter of, given competition, a certain percentage will be drawn to the priesthood, then this may help and might even stabilize things long term. But that’s not generally what’s going on when numbers are declining badly, even when in some areas the population of, say, men in general is increasing. That would suggest a more fundamental problem, in that even those in the allowable population for some big reason don’t want to become priests.

    Now, it might be credible to say that some men don’t want to become priests because they don’t want to be celibate or unmarried, and that since that desire is on the rise it would put pressure on the numbers of those who willingly sacrifice that to become priests and through that the number of priests. So that might work.

    But adding women priests doesn’t seem to do that. That’s just about adding potential numbers, not about fixing some problem that’s stopping people who might have joined in the past from joining today. Whether it is a good idea or not seems independent of this except as a strict numbers increase, but if there are reasons why people do not want to become priests there is no reason to think that those reasons will not apply to women as well. And no reason to think that, then, that move will be anything other than a stop-gap while the overall numbers continue to fall off due to the more fundamental problems.

    I suspect that there are other underlying reasons for the decrease that are not directly related to priests not being able to get married, and so neither of these solutions, then, would solve the actual problem. But this is something that evidence can be provided for, so I’d love to see more evidence that these would solve an actual fundamental problem or that there is no such problem.

  • Verimius

    What would you prefer: A Catholic church relenting on celibacy, and growing, spreading, and thriving? Or, a Catholic church sticking to its celibate guns and slowly dying out?

    Frankly, as an atheist I’d rather see the latter.

  • Doug kirk

    I agree, Verimus. Many (lower-case)catholics I know (my family being some of them) are fairly laid back, live and let live types but who routinely tithe. If they absolutely have to be religious, I would love to see them support a different, less rape-y, institution.

    Have the hierarchy go off and follow some fundamentalist baptists somewhere, but leave the mildly sensible ones to start donating to the United Methodists or (one can hope) UU churches.

    At least then I wouldn’t have to deal with my family supporting an organization that enables and covers for pedophiles and has the death of millions of Africans on its hands.

  • Jon Jermey

    Along with a general decline in attendance I suspect we will also see schisms and fragmentation as the Vatican loses power and authority. And remember that a decline in recruits also means a decline in the competence of the people who get promoted to fill higher positions. The collapse when it comes may be quite dramatic.

  • colluvial

    Rarely in the history of religion has so sensible a solution to such a pressing problem gotten such a knee-jerk rejection from the very people who would benefit the most from it.

    The Catholic Church might be in the running for a Darwin Award!

  • Richard P.

    You make it sound as if they are doing nothing to solve the problem.

    However you seem to be overlooking the fact they are busy praying. One day this god of theirs will hear their prayers, and poof, an army of priests with no genitals will appear.

    Both problems solved.

  • Dan

    I’m guessing that a substantial number of Catholic priests and their followers will be pretty disgruntled in 2011 as the church rolls out new language for the liturgy in English. They’re moving away from anything that sounds vaguely like contemporary language to a literal translation of the rites of Pius V (1570) from Latin into English. The new liturgy reads like a really bad Victorian-era writer with a case of subjunctive jitters. This is being done at the behest of Benny16, to reinstate the awe and majesty of the Mass.

    Count on more non practicing Catholics going forward from here.

  • lpetrich

    I’d once researched the question of US nuns becoming “none”. From some numbers from the 1990′s, I’d predicted about 50,000 nuns for this year, which is close to jemand’s figure of 58,000.

    As a result of this lack of nuns, many Catholic schools nowadays hire lots of lay teachers, and even lots of non-Catholics. So how long will they remain “Catholic”?

    That’s also happening to nuns in various European countries, including long-time Catholic strongholds like France and Italy.

  • Eurekus

    I wonder if the Catholics for Ministry will have their own Pope if they do break away. Maybe even have a female Vicarious De Christi with 15 children and a husband.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    What would you prefer: A Catholic church relenting on celibacy, and growing, spreading, and thriving? Or, a Catholic church sticking to its celibate guns and slowly dying out?

    That’s an interesting question, Verimius.

    Would I rather see the church relent about celibacy and start to grow again? That depends. If they say “okay, married men and women can be priests now” and otherwise change nothing, then no. I’d rather see the church wither and die than continue to promulgate its vicious bigotry against gays and lesbians and its life-destroying, woman-killing dogmas about abortion and condom use.

    That said, I think those dogmas all grow from the same root as its refusal to ordain women, and I can imagine a scenario where they all change together – some sort of progressive church council, like a modern version of Vatican II. (It’s not going to happen under this pope, of course.) If that took place, I’d be much more ambivalent about it. I might even grudgingly admit that their moral views were improving.

    The Catholic Church might be in the running for a Darwin Award!

    colluvial wins the thread for that one. :)

  • jemand

    @Ipetrich, do you remember which year did you get to “none” in the US? I was going to put a projection of about 60,000 for this year based on some 2004 numbers and actuarial tables, so I was pretty happy to then find the 2009 number so close to it. Your prediction off of 1990 numbers is even more impressive… I just wish I knew the current age breakdown, (and 2011 numbers as opposed to 2009 numbers wouldn’t be bad, either) so I could know what will happen in the next decade or so better.

  • Orion

    It seems more likely to me that ordaining women would lead, over the next 50 years, to a gradual improvement on other issues than that everything would change at once.

  • http://www.politicalflavors.com MissCherryPi

    As a result of this lack of nuns, many Catholic schools nowadays hire lots of lay teachers, and even lots of non-Catholics. So how long will they remain “Catholic”?

    As long as they teach required religion classes about Catholicism, and have students attend Mass and have encourage them to attend Pro-Life rallies, for a long time.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    MissCherryPi: If I may quote a comedian relaying a conversation he frequently has:

    “Didn’t you go to Catholic school?”
    “Yeah…”
    “Then why are you such a bad Catholic?”
    “…… because I went to Catholic school”

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    This reminds me of this post I wrote nearly 3 years ago!

    http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com/search?q=sweeney

    Verbose Stoic, men aren’t entering the priesthood like they used to because it’s not “cool” anymore. They have to restore the “coolness” factor!

  • Verimius

    As a follow-up to my previous comment, here’s a quote from Napoleon:

    “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake.”

  • lpetrich

    I worked from the February 21, 1994 LA Times article: Number of Nuns on Brink of Precipitous Drop

    In 1993, there were 94,022 US nuns, with this age distribution estimated from that article:
    80: 12%
    The peak was 181,421 in 1966, dropping to 106,912 in 1988.

    Splitting 40 – 60 requires some handwaving estimates, but from an approximately linear rise, I estimate
    40 – 50: 13%
    50 – 60: 21%
    Note also, that the > 80 number is less than the 70 – 80 number by a factor of 2 — I’ll interpret that as nuns living about 85 years on average.

    From the April 24, 2005 article How can nuns survive in America?, there were 71,486 US nuns, a drop of 24% from 1993 — a number close to my calculations.

    Assuming no new nuns, I find
    2013: 47,000
    2023: 25,000
    2033: 9,000
    2043: 1,400

    With 140 new nuns per year, implied by the < 40 figure if it's for ages 20 – 40, the numbers get somewhat better:

    2013: 50,000
    2023: 29,000
    2033: 15,000
    2043: 9,200

    Nuns becoming "none" may also be called Nonnerdämmerung (twilight of the nuns, like Götterdämmerung, twilight of the gods — I hope that that isn't too horrible German).

  • lpetrich

    The less-than and greater-than signs in my previous post were misinterpreted as part of a HTML tag, so I’ll repost my estimated 1993 age distribution:

    lt 40: 3%
    40 – 60: 34%
    60 – 70: 26%
    70 – 80: 25%
    gt 80: 12%

  • Rollingforest

    I think 200 years ago Catholics were having more children, so men were more willing to be celibate priests because their brothers and sisters would have plenty of kids (which, from an evolutionary standpoint is almost as good as having kids yourself). There was the added benefit of priests being seen as the most morally pure and intellectually advanced members of the town. The reason why priests weren’t arrested for abusing children 50 years ago is that no Catholic thought that it was even possible that a priest would do such a thing.

    Nowadays the number of children in Western countries is decreasing so men see giving up marriage as far more expensive to the size of his family. Also these days when anyone says the word “Catholic priest” the word “child molester” also pops into their head, even if they remind themselves that only a small number of them actually are (this shows that the Catholic Church is horrible at media relations by the way). Men are less likely to want to join an organization with those negative stereotypes attached to them. These two trends together are spelling disaster for the Catholic Church unless they bend their rules somehow.