US Catholic Faith in Real Life

How many priests does "the church" have?

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Catholic News Service reported last week that the overall number of priests in "the church" has increased by 5,600 over the past 10 years, and by just under 900 in the past year. Good news, right?

Well, how would we know? The numbers seem to suggest that the priest shortage at least isn't getting any worse, but there is another number, not reported in the CNS story, which we need: how much the Catholic population has grown over the past 10 years. I have a feeling that if the two figures were put together, we would see the clergy crisis deepening. Sure, there is a handful more priests (an increase of 5,600 out of more than 410,000 priests), but there are many handfuls more Catholics.

One problem is that the Vatican yearbook, the source of these statistics, measures something called "the church," understood to be every baptized Catholic everywhere. But while the "church universal" is a theological reality and an object of faith, the practical reality is the important one here: The church is a communion of local churches, usually dioceses, and it is in each local church that we should be looking for resolutions to the crisis in priestly ministry.

If we looked at the numbers at the local level, we would find a different story about the number of priests. They would be more concentrated in urban areas than rural; there are a great many more of them in the global North (where there are fewer active Catholics) than in the global South, where most Catholics now live. And so on.

Lumping everyone together both masks the problem--too few clergy, too many clumped in some places, and lots more Catholics than clergy--and prevents creative thinking about solutions, which must first be local rather than universal. Why must we have a one-size-fits-all approach to ordained ministry? Bishop Fritz Lobinger, the retired bishop of Aliwal, South Africa has proposed the creation of "elders"; I have argued for empowering a more robust and creative local response.

But my main question is: Does being Catholic mean we have to all be doing the same thing?