Within the next 60 years, the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide will have no priests left if current trends continue. In the Archdiocese there are currently 145 priests, three of which will retire on average each year.
However, numbers are not being steadily replenished, with only one priest ordained every three years. If this rate continues by 2068 the Catholic church will be running in deficit. Dr Paul Whetham, lecturer in clinical psychology at Uni SA, said that priest ‘burn out’ was common.
‘There are a whole lot of things happening within and without the church, all social organizations are struggling with people and volunteers, as people get older and drop off,’ he said.
The effects of the priest shortage is already being seen in Adelaide, with the Catholic church starting to cancel services at some of its parishes. The mass cuts have brought up deeper underlying issues concerning the future of the priesthood and the Catholic church as a whole.
According to the official directory of the Catholic church, there are 3,134 priests in Australia and 89 deacons. This compares with the Catholic population, which is over 5 million, that’s more than 1,600 Catholics for every priest.
This is by no means isolated to Adelaide or even Australia. In fact, priest shortages are an emerging trend worldwide. The Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, found that from 1978 to 2004, the number of priests across the world decreased by more than 3.5 percent.
However in 2004, there were more than 32,000 permanent deacons, 55,000 non-ordained professed religious men and 767,000 religious women active in the church hierarchy. The numbers show that there is a need to utilize the laity more efficiently to take pressure off priests.
‘Church trends are reliant on a few knowledgeable experts, god men, but that’s totally unsustainable,’ Dr Whetham said.
Dr Whetham added that, ‘God’s welfare plan’ meant collaboration and involvement could help improve the current ‘few crew, many passengers’ system.
‘I think we are all asked to be crew members, not just some of us,’ he said. Despite the dwindling numbers, there are still men willing to dedicate their life to the Catholic church.
Father John Flynn, xt3 and Ask A Priest contributor, entered into the congregation when he was 26 years old. ‘I always felt drawn to religious life… it seemed clear to me that this was what God was calling me to,’ he said.
Father Flynn had his own theories as to why priest numbers were declining. ’I think that some of the factors behind the drop in vocations stem from all the difficulties in the Church… the huge changes in culture and society, and also the dramatic trend to much smaller families,’ he said.
Many people, Catholics included, believe that priests should be allowed to marry and that the celibacy rule has no biblical standing. While the Catholic church may be against changing the rules, even they can not deny the facts.
‘As we know, the vow of celibacy is not essential to the priesthood. Priests in the early centuries of the Church were married; priests in Eastern Rite Catholic Churches can be married and even now in dioceses in Australia we do have priests who are married by way of a special dispensation. However, I think that it is important to reflect on the positive value of celibacy,’ Reverend Philip Wilson, Archbishop of Adelaide said.
Father Flynn confirmed these positive values, stating that having more time at their disposal was not the predominant reason that priests remained single.
‘The point is really an existence that stakes everything on God and leaves out precisely the one thing that normally makes a human existence fulfilled,’ he said.
The Catholic Church is an institution, steeped in centuries of history and tradition, and as such is set in its ways. ‘I think it is extremely unlikely that there will be a change to allow married priests,’ Father Flynn said.
There are also some who believe that women should be included into the church. According to the Statistical Yearbook of the Church, female religious participants are almost double the number of priests, and 14 times that of non-ordained male religious participants.
However, allowing women into the priesthood goes against all biblical teachings, going back thousands of years.
The Catechism, a summary of Christian doctrine says, ‘the Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord Himself. For this reason, the ordination of women is not possible.’
Pope John Paul II acknowledged in his apostolic letter, the necessity of women in the life and the mission of the church. The Catholic community is in agreement on this issue at least ‘Women have made very important and vital contributions to the Church in the past and continue to do so today,’
Father Flynn said. However, the Vatican are fiercely opposed to female priests.
Just last month, the Vatican reaffirmed a ban on ordaining women as priests, with any such ordination punishable by excommunication.
The opposition to female ordination is common throughout the Catholic church.
’The call for them to be priests is based on an impoverished view of equality and so-called liberation that thinks women have to become some sort of carbon copy of men,’ Father Flynn said.
There are other contributing factors to the decrease in priest numbers as well, including the solitary lifestyle they live.
‘They are often working when people aren’t and they have time off when people are at work.Their relationships suffer,’ Dr Whetham said.
The role of a priest is also not as glamorous as it might seem, with clergymen always on call, and their ‘holy’ status causing further isolation.
‘It’s a very complex story, perception of the role is a nice one but the reality of it can be a difficult one… It’s a roller coaster and they work alone…it’s hard to sustain,’ Dr Whetham said.
The organization structure of the church also makes it hard for newly ordained priests who often work alone as soon as they finish their training.
‘It’s like going from an apprentice to a CEO,’ Dr Whetham said.
With churches being amalgamated, priests working at more than one church and services being cut, the future looks dim for Catholicism. However, there is still interest in the priesthood, despite all the drawbacks.
’A number of orders, including my own, continue to receive many vocations, so it is clear that God is still calling, but perhaps in today’s world it is more difficult for young people to hear that call or know how to respond,’ Father Flynn said.
While the future of the religion may seem uncertain, with 17.3 percent of the world’s total population made up of Catholics, the church still has a place in the 21st century.
‘People are fooled that the church is going to die, it never will…we are on a winner… the church’s history is a resilient one,’ Dr Whetham said.