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.

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About Adam Lee

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


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