Vatican 2 and the Shortage of Priests

A blog dedicated to promoting vocations in the Catholic Church has this post which chronicles the devastating shrinkage in the Catholic priesthood and religious orders in the USA. The numbers represent a reduction of about 90% since the mid 1960s.

What’s up? There are so many different reasons for the seminaries and religious houses reducing as they have. The favorite scapegoat among conservatives is the Second Vatican Council. “The Council was a disaster!” they cry. “See what the result has been? You only have to check the statistics. Since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church went right down the drain.”
I’m not sure they’re right. It could be that if the Council hadn’t happened things would have been even worse. The fact of the matter is, Western civilization experienced a cataclysmic revolution in the second half of the twentieth century. Along with a quantum leap in technology came a huge leap forward in prosperity among Americans and Western Europeans. With the increased prosperity came a perceived lack of need for God. (if it’s difficult for a rich man to get into heaven its just as difficult for a wealthy society to know its need of God) Added to this was in increasingly secular, humanist educational system, and the cherry on top was the invention of the contraceptive pill. Society was (and still is) reeling from the absolutely huge impact of women gaining control over their reproductive system. All of these factors are contributory to the decline in the priesthood and the decline of religious orders.

What we have seen is not simply the decline of the traditional Catholic Church in the USA, but a decline of a whole culture. The “aw shucks” American culture typified by Andy of Mayberry and the Dick Van Dyke show and Ozzie and Harriet disappeared. The Catholicism of Fulton Sheen and Bing Crosby’s priests went with it. Along with this has been the gradual disappearance of cultural Catholicism. The great grandchildren of the Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants were more intersted in being Americans than Catholics, and the old Catholic cultures simply petered out.

The Second Vatican Council was part of this revolution, and rather than being the cause of the decline, it will prove to be the very salvation of the Church. The English scholar Fr. Ian Ker observes that it has taken about fifty years for a council to really get into the bloodstream of the Church. We’re getting to the point now where we will see the” reform of the reform” really start to kick in. A whole new generation of Catholics (the John Paul the Great generation) have grown up not knowing the pre-Vatican 2 church. All the weird and extreme liberal reactions that grew up in the wake of the Council are unknown by them. They don’t understand what their Catholic grandparents went through in the 70s.

The Church in the United States, and around the world will be different in the 21st century. The old cultural Catholicism will have finally died, and from the ashes a new, leaner, more vigorous, more orthodox and more vibrant church will emerge.

Remember the old prophecy that the 20th century was the century in which God allowe the devil to try to destroy the church? Maybe part of that was not only the terrible revolutions and wars of that century, but the final revolution we experienced in the second half of the century. Within God’s providence that proved to be a time of cutting back in the church.

The vine has now been pruned. Let’s work and pray for the new growth to bear much fruit.
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  • Dear Father, surely the shortage of priests had to do with the way recruiters were ‘screening’ candidates, looking for those more amenable to the various liberal causes that dominate the diocesan curia? Michael Rose chronicled this in his book Goodbye Goodmen. Surely there is some merit there as I have seen this kind of thing happening even here.Perhaps the Council was not at fault. Perhaps, the council was hijacked by the liberals and twisted to fit their agenda in a hermeneutic of discontinuity. But the Bishops, who had attended the Council and voted on the documents, they are surely to blame for letting it come to this? Most were appointed by Pius XII. How did they let their guard down and let liberalism run wild within their dioceses?The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, but so is the price of orthodoxy.Perhaps the way the Vatican upheld Church discipline, such as not reining in dissident theologians and not imposing Humanae Vitae or allowing communion in the hand because of the open rebellion of the Dutch bishops contributed in some measure.Liberalism does play a role, in watering down Catholic teaching and the sacrificial and supernatural character of the priest. If someone just wants to be a glorified social worker, then the priesthood would not be his first choice. Let’s face it, the pay is lousy and you can’t get married. But social work became a major thrust in recruiting priests and many priests I know see themselves as social workers rather than teachers of the word and ministers of the sacraments.Perhaps it is the selection of bishops. We have got to admit that there are some really really bad bishops out there and the Vatican does nothing to remove them even when they openly defy Canon Law and liturgical norms. Some remain for decades, causing untold damage to souls.Many priests in that generation were also very unhappy people, criticizing the Church, Rome, the Pope, the priesthood, etc for not allowing contraception, women’s ordination, married priests or whatever. Is it a wonder then, that when the priesthood is lived out and enfleshed by people so unhappy to be who they are, that we do not have priests?The local parish priest is the greatest recruiter of vocations, by his life and practice and how the priesthood is experienced through him. Happy priests, joyful priests who are happy to be priests. These are the people who recruit more priests, like themselves.The Council, throwing open the windows of the Church as it was going through a tunnel full of noxious gasses, gave the impression, however untrue, that everything was up for grabs. That is its contribution, at its most minimal, to the shortage of priests.On a personal note, the first time a member of the clergy asked me directly about considering the priesthood was when I was in my early twenties and had already graduated and was working as an engineer. And he was the Archbishop Emeritus of a neighbouring diocese! None of the priests I have worked with for so many years, including my own parish priests, nor the local ordinary who I also encounter frequently, nor the priest from the seminary who teaches me Sacred Scripture, nor the rector of the seminary where I attend Mass weekly and pray Vespers had asked me the question.We do pray for vocations, but unless the priests ask, there will be no one responding.

  • Anonymous

    Blaming it all on the culture and the world is an easy way out. The Catholic Church was in opposition to the culture and the world in various parts of Europe from the French Revolution onward, and never have we seen the disastrous results we see now.The Problem is not the culture, the problem is that the Church has opened herself to that culture, something she had refused to do ever before.It should also be noted that a priest shortage was intentionally fostered by certain people in order to push through the end of celibacy and women priests further.And let’s be honest, the way a priest is presented (even by the Church unfortunately) today, that is as a better social worker, there’s hardly any sense in being celibate. Every Austrian seminarian is forced through this for one year (the first year is together for all seminarians as there are so few of them). Be honest, no normal man can endure this for one year.

  • Thank you for your comments. There were certainly abuses of the council. Some people honestly misunderstood and sincerely went wild with their new freedoms. Others misunderstood and misinterpreted on purpose for their own end. I do not wish to dispute that, and I share the criticisms with my fellow orthodox Catholics.Surely turning priests into social workers is another contributing factor to the priest shortage. We can identify specifics til the cows come home. I am considering the larger trends.Was the church never before contaminated by the Spirit of the Age? Sadly, the Church has always been containated by the Spirit of the Age. Consider the venal, power hungry, corrupt church leaders in ages past. They were not only personally corrupt, but used their ecclesiastical power to promote their corruption.But in every age she has also stood up against the spirit of the age. She still does so today. In fact, the Church today stands against the Spirit of the Age far more effecively than in many ages past.It is wrong to see the Second Vatican Council as a wholesale capitulation to the Spirit of the Age. Some may have hijacked it to do just that, but the Council Fathers themselves did not intend that to be the case.Those who reject V2 wholesale have to ask themselves some serious questions about authority. Do they believe in the Authority of the Catholic Church or not? Can they do so if they reject a council of the church? If we believe the Holy Spirit upholds and guides the Church, then we must admit that times the Spirit will guide the church into new ways.The primary example of this is the very first council recorded in the Book of Acts. There the Spirit led the Church into a radical change–admitting Gentiles. Everyone was shocked, but it went through. Similarly, we may think that V2 has led the Church into strange new departures from age old tradition. (like the Jewish believers at Jerusalem Council)Hindsight will show that the Spirit was right and those who rejected the council out of their own authority were wrong.

  • Sage

    Something is being left out of this discussion, which is the marginalization of the role of the priest in liturgical, and therefore parish, life. As the priest’s exclusive and specially authoritative relationship to the Mass and even to the Eucharist itself has become ever more encroached upon by cantors, lectors, “extradordinary” ministers, and a whole host of other lay participants eager to elbow their way onto the altar, and as a vast majority of these people have been women, even the discipline of celibacy seems increasingly superfluous. The reasons for this are deep and not at all obvious at first blush, but then, that’s how the actual truths ebedded in symbolic ritual function play themselves out. There is an outstanding article on this subject entitled “The Emasculation of the Priesthood,” at Latim Mass magazine’s site. It explains the problem in much more detail and erudition that I might. You can read it here: have to be frank, here. Having once taken a very long look at the priesthood, and having spoken with any number of young men who have done the same, I can honestly say that the devolution of the priesthood to a club of sacramental providers and glorified guidance counselors had more to do with my moving on than any other single factor. That, and I couldn’t find a vocations direction outside the Traditionalist orders that wasn’t either gay, or trying to appear to be.In short, yes, the culture had something to do with it, in that it was the “aggressor”. But to say that the people who needlessly surrendered to the aggression were just caught up in forces beyond anyone’s control is more generous than I’m willing to be.

  • Sage

    The link in my about site was cut short, so just look at their site under “Articles” if you’re interested. It’s very good. His thesis is bulit on the premise that, “If the priesthood is reserved to men, as has been taught by the Church, then what does harm to the masculine nature of the ordained weakens the priesthood itself.”

  • Sage, I was not saying that people were just innocently swept along.I’m simply making the point that what happened at V2 was part of a much larger revolution in society.I agree with your observations about the emasculation of the priesthood, but this also makes my point. This emasculation is part of a much larger social trend involving contraception, the breakdown of the family, increased mobility, increased affluence, feminism, homosexualism, and beneath that secularist relativism.It’s all connected and no one person, movement or event can be blamed on it’s own.

  • Sage

    I think we agree more than not, Father. Where I think the firction lies is in to what extent V-II was an expression or a manifestation of the forces of revolt. But your larger point– that “no one person, movement or event can be blamed on it’s own”–is in my view unassailable. I don’t think the shortage of priests can be called the “Vatican II Shortage,” nor are all the problems we face merely the “Fruits of the Council.” But the Council is an excellent place-holder, and the distinction betwen pre- and post-Conciliar Church is an intuitively obvious one for a reason. There seems to be a desire on the part of many people to judge the Council on its own terms, which is a mistake–it must be viewed in light of the recieved wisdom and traditions of the faith, which preexisted it and without which we can have no real understanding of it.If the picture of the Council that emerges as a result of this lens is discomfiting, then that is a negative reflection on the Council, not on tradition. And it must be said that while the Fathers had no intention of effecting a communist-style “Year Zero,” they did do a wonderful job convincing almost every breathing Catholic on the planet that they had done so.I’m saying too much, as usual. We basically agree. When everyone is interested in locating authentic orthodoxy, there is bound to be some disagreement that arises over points of emphasis or, more likely, over-emphasis.

  • Let’s work and pray for the new growth to bear much fruit.You and the Holy Father are apparently of one mind (which is a good thing!). . . see his apostolic prayer intention for April! 🙂

  • Thanks for the good post, Father.

  • Something is being left out of this discussion, which is the marginalization of the role of the priest in liturgical, and therefore parish, life. As the priest’s exclusive and specially authoritative relationship to the Mass and even to the Eucharist itself has become ever more encroached upon by cantors, lectors, “extradordinary” ministers, and a whole host of other lay participants eager to elbow their way onto the altar, and as a vast majority of these people have been women, even the discipline of celibacy seems increasingly superfluous.I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Erase the distinctions between clergy and laity, such that young boys can’t see what’s so special about being a priest, and you’ll see vocations nosedive — which they have. But let priests take back the turf that is rightfully theirs, and you’ll see vocations skyrocket. Isn’t it about time to try it and see?

  • As I converted to the Catholic Church, from 20 years as a Protestant minister, I opened my heart to the Lord and said I would gladly be his priest. However, as I was to learn, as a married man who was not a former Anglican or a former Lutheran but a former Pentecostal, the gap I’d have to cross was apparently wider than the Tiber itself. I received the Bishop’s No as from Christ in obedience and have resigned myself to the truth that I am not able to mend the shortage by giving myself to the priesthood.I work in a Catholic bookstore for just above minimum wage which I appreciate after a year of he unemployment that resulted from becoming Catholic and loosing my pay-cheque. I marvel at those whom the Lord has raised up as priests and apologists and traveling speakers and I go to work four days a week trusting that in humble obedience I am receiving from the hand of the Lord what he has given me to do for what else can I do?O::thriveluminousmiseries

  • Forgive me, but I can’t remember the exact document. However, I was taught at an “Adult Education” course at a local parish, that one of the first documents of JP2 said, in essence, “we need to actually make the changes proposed by V2.”The Church, as pointed out by Fr., has always been influenced by and influenced directly the “spirit of the age.” But it must. Otherwise it cannot possibly hope to reach those caught up in it. I’ve consistantly heard the verse quoted “be in the world, not of it” – but it’s that first part that is so commonly ignored.There are a lot of things that could be pointed out as a reason for the decline. Certainly we see a dramatic drop after V2. But remember, the hula hoop was invented just prior to that… should we also blame the hula hoop for the decline in vocations? Perhaps it played some insidious background role…But most, I’ve heard that culture itself changed. The Holocaust, two great wars, the civil rights movements (race and gender), the cold war, the space race… all of these can be attributed to our spiritual ennui. Partly to our disbelief that man could be so cruel and the structures that allowed him to be that way (Battle of Verdun, the concentration camps, etc), the politicization of the masses (war protesters, civil rights marches – if you don’t like it, change it), an extreme xenophobia (Communism is wrong… and anything that doesn’t come from the USA is wrong), and a renewed interest in direct physical science (a “show me the evidence” view). Some of these things were good, but all have led to an increased humanistic perspective.Society did change and directly led to this disinterest. But I agree that the Church needed to change to address it – rather than just get involved itself. Not that doctrine is altered – but the words used to convey the message need to fit to the audience. People don’t understand why they do what they do at Mass (genuflect, crossing themselves, etc.) they just know what to do. The cultural shift and the Church’s lack of education of ALL laity (not just the pious ones that can make it at 10am on a Monday) are what’s led to this. In my opinion.

  • Given the poor catechesis common since Vaticanb II, is it any wonder many young men who barely know their Faith would want to given up their life to serve Chgrist in such a namby-pamby religion?Dare: find me one boy who served Mass with any regularity prior to the Novus Ordo and didn’t think at least once about becoming a priest.(What’s special about it nowadays that a boy might want to aspire to it, especially when he’s serving with Sally and Christine?)Finally, when was the last time anyone heard a homily reminding paremnts about their duty to stir up vocations in their families? Suggest that these days and you’ll have parents howling that they want grandchildren.

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  • Had to redo my post!In studying this issue carefully I must say that the cause of the problems seem to be collective.First and obvious is the culture and society’s breakdown as discussed in this blog post – excellent job of pointing that out Father. Next is of course the bad catechesis.Finally from books and sources I have about VII and its aftermath I can safely say that while the council was not a direct cause of this, it did not help to stop it. It is, in my opinion, a failure council. If a Pope can come along and clear up all the confusion and ambiguity in the council texts and interpret them in the light of Tradition and promulgate his interpretations with his utmost authority over all the Bishops and priests of the world then perhaps it will actually not be such a failure.It is well documented that the council is horribly ambiguous at times and vague and this was a result of liberals and progressives (note that liberals and progressives in the 1960s are not as severe as we perceive them today. A progressive in the 1960s can be considered a conservative today). They tried to in essence “high-jack” the council. When they ran into the small conservative resistance the result was ambiguity in the council texts. Read any book on this; The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, Pope John’s Council, In the Murky Waters of Vatican II, etc. All are well documented on what happened at the council and following it (such as the liturgical revolution that followed – the watering down of the sacrificial aspect of the Mass, the adding of protestant forms to the Mass, etc).In short it appears that the council has so far done little to help the situation as Western Civilization has gone down the toilet in recent years. And the fact that the council is laden with ambiguity and wishy-washy language does not help. We need official clarification of every single document and its problematic areas, we need strong Bishops, we need strong and fearless Popes – not he naïve or weak ones we have been having since the 1960s. And of course society’s breakdowns since the mid-20th century and appalling catechesis also contributes greatly.I do not think the “it takes such-and-such years for a council to soak in” argument is very strong anymore. Seriously if you take a look at Trent or Vatican I you will see clear and precise language– the Scholastic method. This assures the least amount of ambiguity as possible. Further during the times of these councils communications were not as fast as today – that is the reason why a council like Trent may take “50 years” to settle in.But in this day and age we have TV, Radio and of course the internet as well as paper publications. The proper and orthodox implementations of VII should have gone through long ago but they cannot because the council is soaked in ambiguity and as a result of this ambiguity people will come up with crazy interpretations and heterodox or even heretical conclusions. I don’t think you can compare the progress of how information gets around in 17th and 19th centuries to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There is no way that a modern council would take as long as a council hundreds of years ago to “soak in” when we have the technology of mass communications.

  • Sarah Schmidt

    I know why there is a shortage of priests. It has little to do with V2 or women serving or the supposed emasculazation of the priesthood. There is a shortage because the affluent parents of the 60′, and 70’s were so busy being affluent they had no time to pass on the riches and beauty of the Catholic faith to their children. Church on Sunday became a form for millions of Catholics during those decades.Knowing Jesus Christ and what he did is better than any Star Wars movie could come close to, multiplied by an infinte number, but how many parents would regularly share with their children the beauty and meaning of what they were experiencing on Sunday? How can you expect vocations to the Priesthood when Dad is driving a Mercedes Benz and belongs to the country club and therefore gives the silent message that “this is the life”. And Mom is never home because she is shopping for more stuff or working to buy it.Lay it at the doorstep where it belongs, dear people. I know I’m right. I lived it.

  • Good points, Sarah…but don’t you mean parents of the 80s? I was born in 1980, and worry at times I am older than some trying to discern their vocation.