By Elizabeth Scalia
There is a certain undertone of hysteria that accompanies the almost daily doomsaying we hear about the precarious future of Catholicism. The Church, we are told, is dying! The seminaries are empty! Europe is post-Christian and there are not enough priests to serve the growing church!
Well, which is it, is the church dying, or is she growing?
The latest Pew Forum suggests that while the number of Catholics in the United States has remained fairly stable, the Church has immigration to thank for it; America does not seem to be threatened with unmanageable growth. America is not the world, however, and numbers released by the Vatican in February of 2010 showed 1.7 percent growth, worldwide, since 2007.
So, the church is growing, moderately. Are worries about a priest shortage valid? Are the seminaries really empty?
Some of them, sadly, are. In Europe and some parts of United States, the footsteps of the few men strolling the halls of seminaries must leave a lonely echo in the stillness. In New York, the Diocese of Rockville Centre is considering closing its beautiful seminary, from which only three new priests were ordained in 2010.
Seminaries in other dioceses, however, are not so empty. In Emmitsburg, Maryland, Mt. St. Mary's Seminary has had to construct new housing, due to growth. The same is true in Colorado and, surprisingly, in the American South, where Catholicism is making inroads into formerly Protestant strongholds. But can a few growing seminaries replace the dying and retiring priests ordained in the heyday of the post-war 20th century?
Some perspective on that heyday is helpful. The press and others weigh the current number of seminarians against that era, but it might be a poor comparison; the high vocation numbers in the mid-20th century were actually an aberration that perhaps owed as much to the effect of a fairly sympathetic and increasingly available press -- and the heroic portrayals of priests and religious in books and movies -- as anything else. Media hold wide sway over the culture and can genuinely promote or denigrate a life-choice to powerful effect. Post-war prosperity and opportunity helped to empty Western seminaries, and irony-saturated media gave assist by making a celibate (or even faith-filled) life seem sad at best, and something sick or unsavory at worst.
Materialism and cultural cynicism has worked like a one-two punch to the solar plexus of the priesthood, but -- after decades of gasping -- priestly vocations seem to be slowly regaining some wind, and getting up from the mat. The 2010 report has the worldwide total of priests rising by 1 percent.
Historically, most of our priests have come from poorer cultures, and that is still true, today.
In 2004, Hungarian Archbishop Csaba Ternyak presented some surprising numbers to the Congregation for Clergy, and those numbers painted a somewhat rosier picture of new priestly vocations than we usually get. Ternyak reported that while the number of Western seminarians is depressing, the overall numbers were not: In 1961, he found, there were 404,082 priests worldwide, while in 2001 there were 405,067. In 1978, when John Paul II was elected, there were 63,882 major seminarians in the world. By 2001 that number had nearly doubled to 112,982. These new priests are coming from Africa, Asia, and Oceania, where in 2010 their numbers have increased by anywhere from 3.6 percent to 6.5 percent. The future of the Church will depend a great deal on how effectively these priests can evangelize the self-saturated, tuned-out West, which has transitioned from a missionary culture to a mission.
Europe and the United States have long enjoyed a first-world conceit that their values, energies, and sensibilities would be forever-definitive. Their post-Christian progression has led to much hand-wringing by those who have bought into that mindset. They imagine that if the Church is no longer dominant in Paris or Dublin or Madrid, or even New York, that it is "dying out." In truth, cultures are dying and changing, but the church is not.
Demographically, it seems native-born Europeans are no longer reproducing in numbers sufficient to continue, and among many ardently secular communities in American this is also true. It is possible that within a few decades we will see minarets and mosques where now stand spires and shrines. But in the history of the church, this is not unusual. The church began with a star, followed from the East, and with writings to the Hebrews and the Ephesians and the Galatians and Thessalonians. There were churches, back then, where there are none now.