Week of January 26, 2009
ESSAYS IN THEOLOGY
By Rev. Richard P. McBrien
Just after Christmas, The New York Times ran a series of page-one articles on the importing of priests into the United States. Although the focus was on India and various African countries, the phenomenon is much broader than that.
In the past, missionaries were recruited from countries with a surplus of priests, such as Ireland and the United States, to minister in countries with a dire need of priests, such as the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Has something happened to reverse that situation? Is there now a higher priest-to-people ratio in the United States than in the countries from which some American dioceses are now recruiting priests?
The answer is a resounding “No.”
According to the Times and the Statistical Yearbook of the Church, in 2006 there was one priest for every 1,510 Catholics in the United States. That contrasted with a ratio of one priest for every 6,276 Catholics in Mexico, one priest for every 8,513 Catholics in Brazil, one priest for every 4,214 Catholics in Nigeria, one priest for every 4,343 Catholics in Kenya, one priest for every 6,845 Catholics in Uganda, and one priest for every 8,478 Catholics in the Philippines.
Only in India, among the countries supplying “missionary” priests for the United States, is the ratio more favorable than that of priests-to-Catholics in the United States. In India, as of 2006, there was one priest for every 786 Catholics.
So the evidence is clear: the Catholic Church in the United States is drawing down the number of priests in countries in much greater need in order to supplement the dwindling ranks of the priesthood in the United States.
Yet another point needs to be stressed: these “missionary” priests are not being recruited from Uganda, for example, in order to minister to congregations of Ugandans in the United States. For the most part, there is not a single Ugandan in the U.S. dioceses to which these Ugandan “missionaries” have been called.
Rather, these imported priests are simply replacing priests who have died, retired, or resigned, and are serving in whatever parishes need them for the celebration of Mass and the administration of the other sacraments. Is there a more pastorally sensible solution to the priest-shortage in the United States than recruiting priests from countries with far greater needs?