CBS discovers the Catholic priest shortage

I am reaching back a bit into my guilt file — stories I want to cover but for one reason or another have not touched. But the recent flurry of news stories about women priests and the Catholic clergy shortage led me to pull this item out of my bag.

The CBS Evening News reported earlier this year that there is a shortage of Roman Catholic priests in the United States. This may be news to some, I suppose, but the story has been getting a bit long in the tooth. However, the news “hook” CBS used in its segment was that the church was using Anglicans to plug the gap — hence the title: “Catholic Church turns to Anglicans to fill U.S. priest shortage.”

Yes, there is a shortage of Catholic priests in the United States.

No, the shortfall is not being met by using Anglicans.

Catholic dioceses in the U.S. and Europe are importing priests from India, Africa and Asia to meet pressing pastoral needs — this story has been told hundreds of times over the past few years in the secular press. A recent example of such stories is this well written piece in Der Spiegel reporting on an Indian priest’s acculturation to Germany.

The article begins with a recitation of the problem, profiling a Milwaukee priest who has the pastoral charge of seven congregations.

Sunday is anything but a day of rest for Father Tim Kitzke. On the Sunday we followed him, the priest said Mass at three different Milwaukee churches, held a luncheon for dozens of parishioners and baptized a baby. Kitzke and one other priest are in charge of seven churches in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. There used to be a time when 14 priests covered the seven churches. “It’s not only — maybe not the old model … but it’s the old reality,” he says.

The number of Roman Catholic priests in the United States has steadily dropped from nearly 59,000 in 1975 to just under 39,000 last year. But the number of Catholics in the United States has increased by 17 million. Asked if he worries, Kitzke says, “Definitely, yes, we obviously need more priests — that goes without saying, we need more vocations.”

The segment offers facts and figures on the priest shortage and then transitions to a former Episcopal priest who joined the Catholic Church and has since been ordained a Catholic priest.

So the Catholic Church is doing something once unthinkable: expanding the pool of priest candidates to include former Anglican priests, like Mark Lewis, who converted to Catholicism. He’s married with two children.  “We knew that this was the right way to go,” Lewis says.

In 2009, Pope Benedict issued an order allowing Anglican priests who disagreed with the teachings of the Church of England to convert to Catholicism. One-hundred-twenty former Anglicans have been ordained Catholic priests.

The way this is presented is rather unflattering and infelicitous. It likens the Catholic Church to the girl you picked up on the rebound after a bad relationship ends. Perhaps there are some new Catholics whose desire to join the Catholic Church was motivated by dislike of the changes in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England over the past 40 years. But the Ordinariate is not a consolation prize, but a place for those who are convinced of the truth claims of the Catholic Church.

It is also important to stress that the reordination of Anglicans has been going on for some time — John Henry Newman being an example. And Eastern Rite Catholic clergy are also permitted to marry. But it was Pope John Paul II who in 1980 began allowing Anglican clergy who converted to Catholicism who were married to be reordained as Catholic priests.

In sum, married Catholic priests are not unthinkable and not new. They are the norm in some Eastern rite churches and ex-Episcopalian married Catholic priests have been functioning in the Catholic Church in the U.S. for 33 years. They are an exception to the Roman rite, but are not “unthinkable.”

Perhaps it is the limitations of the medium — there is only so much one can say in three minutes — but this CBS report does not do justice to the issue.

The premise of the CBS report is that the 2009 Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus was promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI to address the clergy shortage. That is untrue. The Anglican Ordinariate, as it is commonly called, was a response by Pope Benedict XVI to 20-plus years of petitions made by Anglicans (lay and ordained) who accepted the Catholic faith, but wished to have a community within the Catholic fold that preserved some of their Anglican liturgies and traditions.

It was not a fishing expedition for clergy.

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  • stpetric

    I am a Catholic priest who formerly served 12 years as a priest in the Anglican church. I was not recruited by the Catholic Church, nor was I spared any of the hoops Catholic ordinands must jump through. My period of Catholic seminary formation was abbreviated in view of my previous seminary study and years of ministerial experience, but the demands on me were by no means attenuated. If the Church *really* wanted to ransack Anglicanism for warm clerical bodies, she could do a much more aggressive job of it!

  • Thinkling

    I am glad you mentioned the origins of Anglicanorum Coetibus as being driven by Anglican initiative, and being a response to that initiative. The poor coverage of its origins has been a staple of religion news pieces since its promulgation.

  • FW Ken

    In addition to ignoring the 1980 Pastoral Provision (which itself brought only 80-100 priests), CBS also failed to mention the slow rise in seminarians over the past 20 years. Moreover, the Catholic population has grown more than 21 million, or 33 million, depending on how you count us.

    http://cara.georgetown.edu/CARAServices/requestedchurchstats.html

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Anti-Catholic Wesley Mcgranor

    Send all the anglo-Catholics to do Rome’s dirty work. However they do not bear their Mark; so will they really be adequate clergy for them? Spiritually a Protestant is incapable of functioning in a Catholic manner. Shows how phony they and their pawns are.

    • FW Ken

      I’ve had three former Episcopalians as Catholic priests. They were more than adequate. They were wonderful pastors.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    While the Der Spiegel piece you mentioned was good overall, I had a problem with the descriptors used for how a Catholic priest functions, to wit: “holds sermons” “whose members preach in churches worldwide” “evening church service” “mass is read eight times a day” “reads the mass ‘very piously’”, etc. Unless there’s some strange translation issue, these phrases simply are not adequate descriptors for a Catholic priest’s function. It seems to me the writer is thinking in Protestant categories rather than Catholic ones. Perhaps they should have asked someone how they should describe things Catholic, like “celebrates Mass” (yes, capitalized so as to distinguish it from a “mass of jello”) “leads the Eucharist”, etc. The translation might be an issue since they stated that Father Gaspar said, “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”: “Holy Ghost” is not used in English anymore, just “Holy Spirit.”

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    There is one part of the Catholic ordination-vocations situation rarely mentioned at all in stories like this about overworked Catholic priests. Catholic married ordained deacons are empowered to carry out about 80% of what a Catholic priest is ordained to do.
    This is important for the media to pay attention to because the number of ordained Catholic deacons is growing by leaps and bounds and at the current rate there will soon be more married clergy (deacons) serving in the Catholic Church than celibate clergy (priests,bishops).
    Deacons are already helping the Church increase its ministering to Catholics (and others) in many places and parishes heretofore not reached while at the same time taking some of the pressure off overworked priests.


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