Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The priest shortage by the numbers

This story from Catholic News Service puts a positive spin on the data from the new 2007 Annuario Pontificio -- the "state of the Church" book that the Vatican issues every year. So we will rearrange the article's data to get some real insight into the actual state of our Church:

The priest shortage is getting worse. While the total number of Catholics has risen 1.2%, the number of priests has only increased 0.1%, though the number of seminarians did keep pace overall at 1.2%. Given the large number that drop out prior to ordination, this is not necessarily a sign that the crisis will end any time soon.

The number of priests increased in Asia (3.8%) and Africa (3.6%) but declined by half a percent in the Americas and in Europe. In Oceania the number dropped more dramatically by 1.8%.

Does this relate to mandatory celibacy? You bet it does. The largest Catholic population in Oceania is in Australia and, to refresh our collective memory, in 2004 a survey by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference found that 71% of priests in that country believed that celibacy should be optional. And further, the National Council of Priests in Australia sent a response to the Vatican asking that mandatory celibacy be reconsidered:

"We request that ... the Synod Fathers examine honestly the appropriateness of insisting upon a priesthood that is, with very few exceptions, obliged to be celibate. Priesthood is a gift, celibacy is a gift: they are not the same gift," said the statement, which was written in response to a discussion paper on the place of the Eucharist in Catholic life.

As far as seminarians are concerned, again Africa (3.46%) and Asia (2.9%) showed adequate increases while seminarians in the Americas increased by 0.6% (half as much as the increase in the number of Catholics in our continent). In Oceania the number of seminarians remained static while in Europe, seminarians declined by 1.9%.

Don't start to think too much about a reverse missionary flow from Africa and Asia to the rest of the world. Those numbers barely keep up with the demand for Catholic clergy in those continents. They won't have any spare priests to send to us.

It's time to take off the rose-colored glasses, quit spinning the numbers, and start crunching them instead. "Catholic Church growing, especially in Asia, Africa" makes a pretty headline but the underlying truth is far from attractive.

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