This has been the headline in several Argentinian media sources lately.
Those who follow this blog regularly know that we've been devoting considerable bandwidth to the marriage of Fr. Gumersindo Meiriño, a Spanish priest who was working in the Argentinian Diocese of San Tomé. Since his December marriage, Fr. Gumersindo has been suspended from his priestly functions.
However, in light of recent data from the Argentinian Bishops' Commission on the Ministry, perhaps the Argentinian Catholic Church -- and the Vatican too, of course -- should reconsider their position towards married priests like Fr. Gumer.
In an article on InfoBAE.com dated 1/23/2007, the president of the Commission, Msgr. Carlos Franzini, is quoted as saying that there is a chronic shortage of priests in the country. And indeed the Commission estimates that it has fewer than half as many priests as it needs to attend to its 8,800 parishes in more than 60 diocese. While Buenos Aires still enjoys an adequate ratio of one priest for every 4,000 people, in some poorer and/or more rural diocese such as Gregorio de Laferrere, Lomas de Zamora or Merlo-Moreno, the ratio is one priest to every 14,000 inhabitants. This has meant that there are places where Mass is only celebrated once a month and many priests are covering two and even three parishes at a time. This is a serious problem in a country like Argentina which is rural and spread out and where the distances within a diocese can be vast.
And the future doesn't look much brighter. Seminary enrollment has decreased about 5% annually since 1996, largely due to the sexual abuse scandals and the celibacy requirement. At the moment there are fewer than 1,600 candidates per year, with a 35% drop-out rate prior to ordination. A further 19% of those who do get ordained leave the priesthood, mostly to get married.
In an interview on Rafaela.com, Ricardo Mauti, the rector of the Seminario Mayor de Santa Fe, states pointedly that the lack of willingness of young men to make a commitment has led to fewer and fewer priests but he adds that "Asegurar tener una vida de celibato y los votos de la vida consagrada son cosas que tampoco ayudan a los jóvenes a tener una vida consagrada" ("the certainty of having a celibate life and the vows of the consecrated life are things that also don't help young people to have a consecrated life").
And the consequence, as the bishops warn plainly and Rafaela.com dutifully reports, is that in the rural areas of Argentina where churches may not see a priest for weeks, the Catholic faithful fall into the hands of the evangelicals who have an effective presence in those regions.
I hope the Argentinian and other Latin American bishops (because this is NOT a strictly Argentinian problem) will raise these issues loudly and clearly at the 5th CELAM Conference when it meets in Brazil later this year. Pope Benedict XVI will be present, the loss of both priests and faithful to the evangelicals is a topic on the agenda, and it's time for someone to connect the dots for the Vatican.