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.
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.
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.”
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.