The long-term future of any organization, human or
divine, cannot be predicted with any precision. The near term, however, is somewhat predictable, since social scientists can project present-day trends a few years forward. For this reason, the state of the
priesthood in the United States in the year 2020 is partly predictable.
Here I will outline several predictions, divided into two categories?certain and less-certain.
Seven predictions are certain enough to bank on. First, in 2020 there will be fewer active priests in service. The number in service in parish ministry (not counting
retired) is now about 27,000. This number has been declining about 12 to 14 percent per decade, which means a 20 to 22 percent decline from 2004 to 2020. That is, for every 100 active priests in 2004, there will be
about 79 in 2020. An increase in seminarians, if there is one, would ease this decline, but only slightly. An increase in the number of international priests would also ease the decline, but only moderately.
At present the number of annual ordinations is far too low to maintain the American priesthood at a constant size. Recently someone calculated that ordinations are
between 30 and 40 percent what is needed to keep the number of priests constant. I agree. We need a tripling of ordinations within a few years to keep the priesthood at its present size. But this is impossible, so
we simply need to prepare for a smaller priesthood.
Second, the number of Catholic faithful will grow. Recently it has grown at about 9 to 11 percent per decade. The main sources of growth are immigration and the
relatively large size of families of immigrants. The greatest growth will be among the Hispanics. As a result, the laity-per-priest ratio will be much higher in 2020 than in 2004. Now (if we include all priests,
active and retired) it stands at 1,305 laity per priest. In 2020 it will be about 1,500.
Third, parishes will be larger. This is because the total number of parishes in the nation does not change from decade to decade, while the total number of Catholics
grows. In 2000 there were 3,086 Catholics per parish; in 2020 the number will be about 3,700.
Fourth, the number of lay ministers will grow. This will be the number-one answer to the priest shortage. Parishes which now have one professional lay minister will
have two in 2020; those with two today will have four, and so on. This will be good news and bad news for priests.
The good news is that many burdens of parish leadership can be delegated to lay ministers, thus lightening the priest’s load. The bad news is that relationships between
priests and lay ministers could worsen in some places, as lay ministers (who are 80 percent female) take on more and more of the parish leadership, leaving the role of the priest less distinct.
Fifth, the number of parishes without a resident priest will increase. In 2003, 16 percent of all parishes had no resident priest; by 2020 it will be 25 to 30 percent.
From recent research on lay men running priestless parishes, reported by Ruth Wallace in her book They Call Him Pastor, we learned that the job of a priest responsible for two or three parishes is generally an
Being a pastor to two or three parishes requires spending hours driving from one to the other, attending meetings in both, and having less opportunity to bond with
parishioners in either one. The priests were so unhappy, Wallace found, that in her opinion the present system cannot go on as it is now.
Sixth, the level of education of Catholic laity will rise. With it, the expectations which laity hold of their priests will be higher. Today 29 percent of Catholic
young adults up to the age of 40 have college degrees. Future Catholic laity will be more acquainted with non-Catholic religions than ever ever (and less critical of them), not only due to the high interfaith
marriage rate now about 45 to 50 percent), but also. due to the amazingly high levels of international travel today.
Seventh, religious feelings and religious needs will be as strong as ever. Nobody should expect that religious motivations will go away, or that churches will be
supplanted by some other kind of institution. Religion is here to stay, and the theories about secularization in America which we have heard recently are wrong. Religion is permanent. Its specific institutional
forms, however, are not.
Now I am stepping into uncharted terrain, and I need to be cautious. I will make three less-certain predictions for the year 2020. The first is lower Mass attendance
per 1,000 Catholics. The rate of Mass attendance went down in the 1970s and 1980s, but recently the downward trend has been slight. (In addition, research on the trends is not very reliable.)
Will the drop-off continue? We can only guess, but a reasonable conjecture would be that the percentage attending Mass weekly will not continue at its present level.
This guess is based largely on research showing that the younger generation today is less parish-involved than the older generation was at their age.
Meanwhile the total number of Catholics ,will grow by about 15 to 17 percent by 2020, so the total number of Catholics attending Mass weekly will not change much. An
unknown factor is that new future spiritual movements, as yet unborn in 2004, may have an effect on Mass attendance; it has happened in the past. Another unknown factor is the effect of the 2002-2004 sexual abuse
crisis; I am guessing that it will not have much long-term impact.
The second is more parish-shopping. I believe that this will occur, because young adult Catholics are more inclined to do it than the last generation was, and because
young adults feel entitled to make their own decisions on matters religious as on other matters.
They will feel more empowered and permitted to choose parishes that they like. It would follow that certain parishes in a metropolitan area will slowly acquire distinct
identities, as opposed to a uniformity or standardization of parishes. Pastors of parishes located near to each other may feel competitive.