I just finished reading an article by CUA sociologist Dean Hoge
in the OSV publication 'The
Priest' (I can't find the article on-line, chances are it'll show up sometime). Hoge is at the forefront of modern sociological studies of the American Catholic Church (without the leftist spin of folks like Greeley); his recent studies have shown up recently in Zenit
, and his data is supported by another recent survey
from the Official Catholic Directory
, which shows the number of priests in this country rapidly shrinking. This article, entitled 'The Priesthood in the Year 2020,'
paints a fairly harrowing picture of where the priesthood is going. Even taking into account the steadily-increasing number of American vocations, and the importing of priests from abroad, Hoge predicts that, by the year 2020, we will see (1) a decrease in the number of priests by approximately 20%, (2) an increase in the number of Catholics, and hence, in the laity-per-priest ratio (from 1,305 per priest to 1,500 per priest), (3) an increase in average parish size (from 3,086 to 3,700), (4) an approximate doubling of the number of 'lay ministers' involved in parish work, (5) an increase in parishes with no resident priest (15% to 25-30%), and (6) a much better-educated laity.
His general predictions, aside from the obvious ones of fewer priests who are more in demand - 'a smaller priesthood serving a larger Catholic community,' include a greater amount of ministry being performed by deacons or laymen (note that the ranks of the permanent deaconate, paradoxically, are swelling out of control), and what he calls an adjustment to a 'style of Catholicism in which sacraments are less central.' Before you jump the gun on accusations of heterodoxy, this is simply a reality for many Catholics, who simply do not have regular access to the sacraments (Mass, confession, last rites, etc.). It may be hard to imagine a Catholicism which has adjusted itself to more or less infrequent access to sacraments, but it's even harder to imagine any other scenario, given the data.
Of course, this is no time for despair, and things can always turn around. A rapid influx of vocations could change things (although Hoge claims it would take a tripling of vocations to keep the number of priests steady). Hoge's proposal - rather bizarre, I think - is invite back to the active priesthood those who have previously left it for marriage (apparently there are up to 16,000 of these men out there), as an irregular measure to keep the numbers up; others have proposed inviting members of the permanent diaconate to priestly ordination, permitting them a limited extent of priestly ministry. I don't think either are particularly workable ideas, but the numbers are pretty dreary, either way you look at them.