Where do priests come from? No, really, where do they come from? Well, they don’t fall like manna from heaven. They don’t grow on fiery shrubs. They do grow though. They grow from young men, who were earlier young boys, who were earlier born into a family. That’s where priests come from — families.
But, of course, not all families yield priests (and not just because some parents [like me] yield only girls). If you were to survey a couple dozen priests in your area, you’re likely to find that the probability of a young boy becoming a priest is astronomically greater if he is raised in a Catholic family, one that celebrates the sacraments and honors their grave obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days.
What does this have to do with the purported crisis in priestly vocations? Everything!
When I think about what would constitute a shortage in the number of priests in America, I have to consider it as a function (in the mathematical sense) of the number of Catholic families in America. After all, it is the function (in the pragmatic sense) of Catholic families to produce Catholic priests. If we have fewer priests today than 50 years ago, it’s not a shortage if the number of Catholic families has decreased at an equal rate.
So, if we used to see 1 priest per X number of Catholic families, then we know we have a shortage when X gets bigger — that is, when there are fewer priests per family. Trouble is, we don’t have a solid way to measure the number of Catholic families. What we do have though are a few metrics that are closely tied to Catholic family life. If we pay attention to these measures, we can stitch together a pretty clear picture of how our priests are doing in number.
What metrics do we have to paint the picture of Catholic families in America? There are two big ones: the event that starts a family, and the event that indicates growth of a family. In other words, marriages and baptisms. But we can’t just look at raw numbers; we’re looking at a (mathematical) relationship after all. So, let’s see how the number of diocesan priests compares to the number of weddings and infant baptisms that took place in the years from 1965 until 2015.
It’s important first to bear in mind that this chart does not factor in the help provided by retired priests. In 1965, the average number of infant baptisms handled by a single priest was nearly 39. Last year, that number was shy of 41. Not a significant increase, and one that we might see doesn’t actually exist if we could accurately include the baptisms celebrated by retired priests. Moreover, once we consider the contribution of permanent deacons, the number of infant baptisms celebrated by priests has decreased 50% over fifty years.
If that seems substantial, that’s because it is. Now, let’s look at what has happened with weddings (all weddings witnessed in the Church).
What you don’t see in this chart is that in 1965, 19.6% of weddings in America were handled by the Catholic Church, but by 2015, that number had declined to a scant 6.9%. What you do see in the chart is that the average number of weddings witnessed by a priest has decreased from 10.4 to 8.7 over fifty years, a number which has been steadily declining for 25 years. Once deacons are included, the average falls to a mere 4.2.
Whether you look at infant baptisms, weddings, or even adult baptisms (which fell from 3.7 to 2.5 per year), the reality is that the average priest today is celebrating fewer baptisms and witnessing fewer weddings than the priests of decades past, and that’s before you ever consider the role of deacons and retired priests. A shortage of laborers manifests itself in a greater workload for those in the field, but here the workload is clearly less. (Understand that this is not indicative of the practical workload of parish priests who are today handling an inordinate amount of administrative duties compared to years past.)
Still, there is one more metric that is worthy of attention. The median age at ordination for Catholic priests hovers around 32 years. So, if we look at the number of infants baptized thirty years prior to an ordination year and the number of priestly ordinations for that year, we get a close approximation of the concentration of will-be priests. In other words, we can answer the question, “What percentage of our boys are we raising to be Catholic priests?”
BOOM! For 1965, approximately 1 in every 1282 boys baptized in the Catholic Church would become a priest. That ratio improved greatly over the next 20 years, so that for 1985, 1 in 926 baptized boys would become a priest. That is excellent news! Over time, the likelihood of any given Catholic family producing a priest has increased. Catholic families have become more fruitful. If the Church is an apple orchard, and priests are apples, then God has blessed us with a bountiful harvest.
Unfortunately, along with that good news comes some bad news as well, and you’ve already seen a bit of it in the stats above. Baptisms are down. Wedding numbers are down. Also down: Mass attendees per priest. The average number of Sunday Mass attendees per priest has fallen from its 1965 high water mark of 709 down to 632 last year. God has given us fruitful trees, but our orchard is smaller. We don’t have as many Catholic families as we once did. We simply don’t have as many Catholics as we once did.
You can look at the raw numbers of “self-identifying Catholics” or even the number of “parish-connected Catholics” and see that the numbers have grown year over year for half a century. But as soon as we account for those who aren’t being baptized, who aren’t being married in the Church, and who aren’t showing up to Mass, then we get a far clearer picture of the Catholic Church in America. And that picture is small. (On the average Sunday in 1965, 25.5m Americans went to Mass; in 2015, only 16.3m.)
Rumors of a crisis in priestly vocations have been greatly exaggerated. And rumors of growth in the Catholic Church in America have been exaggerated even more. We aren’t missing priests; we’re actually producing them at a better rate. What we’re missing are Catholics! Don’t stop promoting vocations, but for the love of God and neighbor, please, evangelize! Evangelize the lost sheep, and evangelize the self-identifying-pseudo-Catholic who is spurning the grace of God.
Stats are calculated or directly from CARA data.