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Fewer priests, more Catholics: bishops drop study when reports show bleak projections.

Bishops drop study when reports show bleak projections

CHICAGO - The recent publication of Full Pews and Empty Altars: Demographics of the Priest Shortage in United States Catholic Dioceses makes generally available for the first time the results of an exhaustive, nine-year study of the declining priest population.

The book, a dense sociological analysis, presents the hard evidence of a 40 percent reduction, in the number of diocesan priests from 35,000 in 1966 to 21,000 in 2005. It also projects the Catholic population expanding from 45 million to 74 million during that 40-year period.

The authors are sociologists Richard A. Schoenherr of the University of Wisconsin and Lawrence A. Young of Brigham Young University. The data contained in the book's 437 pages (including 81 tables, 36 graphs and seven appendices) have already aroused considerable discussion and some controversy.

The study was originally sponsored by the United States Catholic Conference through a grant from the Lilly Endowment. But as its findings were gradually released through private interim reports to the U.S. hierarchy in recent years, several bishops became irate over the gloomy projections and reportedly sought to squelch the project.

In 1990, after the third private interim report was sent to the bishops, the USCC ceased sponsorship of the study. Schoenherr said the unexpected cutoff left him and his fellow researchers "high and dry."

"We had been counting on continued support," he said, "and we were shocked when it just stopped." The book is now published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Fr. Eugene Hemrick, National Conference of Catholic Bishops director of research, acknowledged that the bishops had originally intended to sponsor the project all the way through to the book's publication but withdrew further support because of exorbitantly long delays in processing the data and the necessity of rewriting and reediting substantial portions of Schoenherr and Young's material for the interim reports.

Besides, said Hemrick, the private reports contained all the relevant information on U.S. priestly decline, so there was no need for further funding.

Thus, sponsorship was terminated before the information was publicized to an audience larger than the bishops. Hemrick said he is unaware of any organized effort to halt the study prematurely and believes the findings in ther final form are "as good a handle as we're likely to get on the priest situation."

Fred Hofheinz, program director for religion for the Lilly Endowment, which allocated some $400,000 for the study, said he was aware that some bishops were unhappy but added, "That's to be expected on research as hot as this." Hofheinz said he was not alarmed when the NCCB did not request continued funding after 1990 because "the real research was completed at that point." He praised the book as the result of "vigorous demographic research."

"It's not a political document," he added. "These are numbers that can serve as an early warning system to illuminate the current religious landscape as to what?s coming. It's up to the church then to decide what to do about the information."

There is no question, however, that efforts to discredit and downplay Schoenherr and Young's research began in 1990 soon after the bishops received the third private interim report. In a lengthy article published in Our Sunday Visitor and widely reprinted in diocesan newspapers, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony declared, "I reject that pessimistic assessment and feel that the Catholic church in our country has been done a great disservice by the Schoenherr report."

Mahony claimed that Schoenherr, a former priest, was using the study to push his "personal agenda": optional celibacy for priests. In particular, he called the study's projections for ordinations within the Los Angeles archdiocese erroneous and "egregious."

The study, said Mahony, "presumes that the only factors at work are sociology and statistical research. That is nonsense. We are disciples of Jesus Christ. We live by God's grace, and our future is shaped by God's design for his church - not by sociologists."

Schoenherr responded that sociology does not claim to provide whole truth or give final answers, only to state something that is true and worth consideration. The cardinal's disagreement on the Los Angeles ordination rate was based on Mahony's misunderstanding of the sociological data, said Schoenherr, adding, "Correctly understood, our data are right,on the mark."

Though the figures and projections in the study have not been challenged by sociologists to date, critiques similar to Mahony's have appeared with some regularity in diocesan and other church publications.

In a 1990 letter to their fellow bishops, the chairmen of three NCCB committees concerning the priesthood (Bishops Elden Curtiss of Helena, James Keleher of Belleville, and Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh) cautioned against overemphasizing the significance of the findings. (Keleher now heads the Kansas City, Kan., archdiocese.)

Though U.S. ordinations may be down, they noted, ordinations in some parts of the world are on the increase. Also to be considered, they said, are the large numbers of available deacons, the expanded role of the laity, and the growth of new spiritual movements such as the charismatic renewal, Cursillo and Teens Encounter Christ.

The study that resulted in the book involved the painstaking creation of a registry of every diocesan priest in 86 of the 180 U.S. dioceses between 1966 and 1985 - including age, year of ordination, and information on deaths, retirements, resignations and moves outside the home diocese. In all, some 36,000 priest histories were compiled.

Projections about future growth or decline were later tested for the years 1985-1990 for 20 percent of the priest population analyzed in the first wave of the study. The projections were found to be substantially accurate, said Schoenherr.

The book provides national data and projections for the U.S. church through 2005, as well as regional projections for eight geographical divisions of the country and individual projections for each of the 86 dioceses in the study. Among the findings:

* Shifts in the priest population vary widely by diocese. At one extreme, Dubuque, Iowa, will show a decline of 73 percent between 1966 and 2005, while at the other, Atlanta's priestly numbers are projected to increase by 122 percent during the same period. Overall, dioceses in the New England region win decline the most, while those in the southeast region will decline the least.

* The decrease in priestly ordinations is the most significant factor in the overall clergy decline - far more significant than resignations, retirements or other factors.

* Ordination rates continue to fall, with 47 percent fewer men ordained during 1980-1984 than during 1966-69. By the mid-1990s, the decline for the period could plunge to 69 percent, averaging a 32 percent drop per decade.

* Nationally, resignations from the active ministry peaked in the early 1970s, when 4.6 percent of the active clergy ages 29-34 were resigning annually. The rates then dropped notably: resignations were cut in half during in the latter 1970s and 1980s, yet have continued at moderately high rates. At the present time, between 35 and 40 percent of each year's newly ordained priests are needed to fill vacancies created by continuing resignations.

* The average age at ordination rose from 27.2 in 1966 to 31.5 in 1994. Assuming retirement by age 71, the average career span has been reduced from 42.8 to 38.5 years of priestly service. By the year 2000, one of every three priests in some dioceses will be retired. Yet manipulating retirement policies to extend years of service results in only short-term gain because lower retirement rates soon produce higher preretirement death rates.

* Because of steady growth in church membership, the layperson-to-priest ratio will double from 1,100 Catholics per active priest in 1975 to 2,200 in the year 2005. These ratios vary widely by region. As of 1980, Little Rock had the lowest ratio, one priest for every 599 Catholics, while Los Angeles had the highest, one priest for every 4,000.

Schoenherr, 58, a University of Wisconsin sociologist for 23 years, has been analyzing the Catholic priest decline since 1968 through a variety of studies funded or sponsored by the USCC, the National Opinion Research Center, and the National Science Foundation, as well as the Lilly Endowment.

One of his earliest projects concluded that the celibacy requirement is the major cause of the high resignation rate among U.S. Catholic priests. In Full Pews and Empty Altars, he and Young stick scrupulously to the data, reserving their personal conclusions to the last three pages of the book.

There they declare, "We believe the church is being confronted with a choice between its sacramental tradition and its commitment to an exclusively male celibate priesthood. One of the most critical aspects of this confrontation is that most church leaders have failed to accept responsibility for the choice. Instead they focus on stopgap solutions to the ever-worsening priest shortage while hoping for a dramatic increase in vocations. ...

We contend that sacrament, priest hood and control are more, critical to the organizational well-being of Catholicism than either compulsory celibacy or male exclusivity. We speculate further that, to preserve the more essential elements of Roman Catholicism, the nonessentials - first compulsory celibacy and later male exclusivity - will need to be eliminated as defining characteristics of priesthood."

Schoenherr is currently working on a less technical, more popular version of the full study to be published sometime in 1994 by the Oxford University Press. It is to be titled Celibacy, Sacrament and Control in the Catholic Church.
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Title Annotation:'Full Pews and Empty Altars' by Richard A. Schoenherr and Lawrence A. Young
Author:McClory, Robert
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Nov 5, 1993
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