American bishops are meeting this week in Washington. And among all the stories about a document on the Eucharist and other topics that they will discuss, you would be forgiven if you had not heard of the results of a clergy survey released on November 2; he found that more than half of American priests are pessimistic about the state of the church. Fifty-one percent said the church was “not so good” and 13 percent described it as “poor.” While the study also revealed a growing rift between younger priests, who are more politically conservative and less supportive of Pope Francis, and their older counterparts, both groups share a similar degree of pessimism.
That morale is down for priests across the country is not exactly press shutdown material. But I wonder if it’s not the canary in the Catholic Church’s coal mine today – or perhaps more accurately, the polar bears trying to survive on weaker and weaker patches of ice. In 2018, there were more than 17,000 Catholic parishes in the United States and 37,300 priests to lead them, just under half of which were 70 years or older. Many of those over 70 are retired or part-time. And of the total number, 11,600 are priests of a religious order, many of whom do not serve full time in parishes.
That morale is down for priests across the country is not exactly press shutdown material. But I wonder if that’s not the canary in the Catholic Church’s coal mine today.
We are at or very near the time when there is at best only one full-time priest for each parish in the United States. And at the same time, in many places, these priests operate without much support available from the larger institutional structures of the church. Twenty-six American dioceses or archdioceses have so far filed for bankruptcy following cases of abuse; four of them are among the 25 largest dioceses in the country. And according to Catholic Extension, parishes across the country lost 40 to 60% of their weekly collection on average during the Covid-19 pandemic, and continue to decline by 15 to 30%. Meanwhile, the poorest 86 dioceses in the United States are down 50 to 90 percent.
The current reality of revelations of abuse in the United States also presents other challenges for priests. In a recent survey of young Catholics, more than 40 percent pointed to cases of abuse and the church’s stance on homosexuality as important reasons for their lack of involvement in parish life. Only 13% say they attend mass once a week, and among them, a third felt they would go less after the pandemic. Meanwhile, in a study commissioned by America earlier this year, 34% of Catholics said they were embarrassed to identify as such because of the church’s handling of sexual abuse. Only 37 percent of those who attend weekly Mass found Catholic priests to be “very trustworthy” in matters of faith and morals (although more than half found their own parish priests to be.)
I can’t speak for any other priest, but whenever I introduce myself as a priest, I personally expect people to be suspicious. I think this answer is quite understandable given the enormity of the sexual abuse crisis, but it is very boring. Whenever a new round of revelations comes out, such as in 2018 following Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s announcement of child abuse and seminarians and the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the personal impact deepens. . What is this institution to which we have given our lives, the priests ask themselves, and to what extent are we ourselves complicit in abuses and cover-ups?
I can’t speak for any other priest, but whenever I introduce myself as a priest, I personally expect people to be suspicious.
Meanwhile, it appears that since the 2020 presidential election many bishops have launched a personal crusade against President Joe Biden and, in some cases, Pope Francis. Certainly, the question of who is eligible to receive Communion is an important one. He speaks not only of the sacred character of human life and of the place of the Church in the world, but of the very meaning of the Eucharist. And disagreement on such issues should not be a cause for despair. Time and again during his papacy, Pope Francis insisted that honest sharing of opinions and experiences is essential to the deeper fellowship we all seek.
But where is the same energy to support the increasingly small group of men on which these bishops rely? How exactly do the leaders of the American church expect it to function 10 years from now with these dwindling numbers and growing burdens?
How exactly do the leaders of the American church expect it to function 10 years from now with these dwindling numbers and growing burdens?
While one might expect bishops to try to bridge the gaps between different groups of priests (and Catholics), some today seem determined to lead the charge on “their side.” This too increases the division and tension in the priesthood.
Amidst these many burdens, no change is on the horizon. Pope Francis has set up a commission to review women deacons, and a third of American bishops think it’s a good idea. But the personnel problems of the American church require much more immediate and dramatic solutions.
There are always many questions that bishops have to discuss. And I think many priests would insist that there are much bigger issues unfolding in our world and in our church to consider. But at some point, if not already, we will reach a tipping point in terms of the ability of the American church to simply provide the sacraments to Catholics.
Ironically, there is a sense in which this could be a good thing. It could force change. But it also means that many good men who have given their whole lives to church will have fallen through the cracks.