The Priesthood in the Year 2020
By Dean R. Hoge

Priests will not feel underutilized as
fewer parishes become larger

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.

Certain Predictions

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 priests 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 unhappy one.

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.

Less-Certain Predictions

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.

The third is a feeling among laity that they are entitled to make more decisions in parish life. Already we have seen in surveys that young adult parishioners more than their elders feel they have a right to decide how to spend parish funds and to select the priests for their parishes. These feelings are destined to grow in the entire Catholic laity. In sum: tomorrows laity will be more educated, more cross-culturally aware, and more self-confident than todays.

Who Wins? Who Loses?

Every social scientist studying social change needs to pinpoint who wins and who loses in each instance. Who will win and lose between now and 2020, when fewer priests are available to serve more Catholics?

Will the laity win? No, they do not want a priest shortage. We know this from research. The laity need priests and want priests, and they are willing to pay the costs.

Will the bishops win? No, they will be hit hardest of all. Already they are tearing out their hair trying to staff their parishes with capable and effective priests. With fewer priests, a job which is now difficult will become impossible. In addition, they will have fewer energetic young priests to take new initiatives in evangelization.

Will the priests themselves win? Yes and no. In one respect, yes, since fewer priests will mean that each one is in greater demand and more appreciated. In the future no priests will feel useless or underutilized, and priestly identity will thereby be enhanced. In another respect, no, for two reasons.

First, fewer priests mean overwork, and it will take some years to educate the laity to lower their expectations about the availability of priests for traditional priestly services. (No, Father is not available for any weddings for the next six months.)

Second, priests will increasingly be asked to pastor more than one parish, and this situation, as noted above, is not an attractive one.

Possible Institutional Changes

The picture painted above, of a smaller priesthood serving a larger Catholic community, is inevitable. We can count on it. What then should we do?

First, we need to educate priests and laity that the future will be unlike the past. Priests cannot be expected to do it all. They cannot be expected to attend all functions, all social gatherings, all committee meetings. They cannot be expected to officiate at all baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Someone else needs to do these things.

Ecclesial lay ministers and deacons will handle much of this. They will arrange the liturgies, direct the religious education, manage the youth programs, and administer the finances. The transition is underway now.

But lay ministers cannot administer the sacraments, and here a big problem remains. In this regard, the most likely scenario is that the communion service will become more widespread as a substitute for the Mass, and Catholics will adjust to a different style of Catholicism in which sacraments are less central.

Is there no way to keep the sacraments available to the faithful, as they have been in the past? I dont see how, unless the number of priests can be expanded. Expansion could come in one of three ways.

First, more international priests could be imported to serve the sacramental needs of Americans. At present, 16 percent of all priests in the United States are foreign-born, and this figure is destined to rise. By 2020 it could be 25 or 30 percent. Importing priests is an idea which needs scrutiny, since it has good aspects and bad aspects?which I cannot go into here.

Second, more married Episcopalian priests could be invited to become ordained Roman Catholic priests. The policy of inviting those Episcopalian priests (plus a few from other Protestant denominations) exists, but the numbers are very small. In two decades only about 150 have come.

Why not make the transition less cumbersome so that many more would come? Why not raise the number from 150 to 1000 in the next decade? In a recent survey, 72 percent of all Catholic priests said they favored continuing the program of inviting married Episcopal priests.

Third, married men could be ordained to the Catholic priesthood. If this were done, the size of the priesthood would soon expand and the priest shortage would be over. But until the Vatican approves of this move, nothing will happen, and nobody in the Vatican ventures to talk out loud about this topic.

One intermediate first step would be to design a protocol whereby Catholic priests who have left to marry could be re-invited to serve as active priests again, even though they are married.

If married Episcopal priests can minister, why not married Catholic priests? An estimated 12,000 to 16,000 such men exist, and researchers found that at least 30 percent would be interested in coming back, either full-time or part-time. This would seem like a prudent first step. In a 2001 survey, 52 percent of all Catholic priests were in favor of this idea.

The year 2020 will not be like today. Yet we are committed to worshiping God and serving the faithful like we have always done. It is time for an open discussion at all levels of Catholicism to discern how we can best minister in the new circumstances.

DR. HOGE is a professor of sociology (Ph. D., Harvard University, 1970) and director of Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. His specialty is in the sociology of religion and values. He has carried out numerous studies of clergy, church trends, finances of religious bodies, and attitudes of members of various denominations. Two of his books are Money Matters: Personal Giving in American Churches (co-authored) and Young Adult Catholics. He has published over 100 journal articles and chapters of books.

Ũҡ : The Priest, September 2004, p. 7-9

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