Anne Hendershott, professor of sociology at Franciscan University of
Steubenville, and Christopher White, director of education and programs at the Center for Bioethics and
Culture Network, are two longtime
contributors to Catholic World Report
who have collaborated on a new book, Renewal:
How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops Is Revitalizing the
Catholic Church (Encounter Books, 2013). CWR caught up with them recently to discuss their new book
and its findings.
CWR: Are you
saying that there never really was an ordination crisis in the Catholic
Church, that it was just progressive parishes that experienced low
numbers, and the leadership in those parishes seized on that in order to try to
promote unorthodox teachings?
Anne Hendershott: There has been and
there still is a shortage of priests in some
dioceses. But I agree with Bishop Elden
Curtiss that it has never been a “crisis.” We acknowledge that the total
numbers of priests has indeed declined since Vatican II. In 1965, there was one priest to every 780
Catholics. By 1980, there was one priest
to every 900 Catholics. Today there is
one priest to every 2,000 Catholics, but these numbers do not tell the whole
story. In some dioceses there are more
than enough priests a surplus of priests!
While in other dioceses, there is indeed a shortage. Our book tries to help us understand why that
Christopher White: It’s true that ordination rates to the priesthood were in sharp
decline in the years following Vatican II. In dioceses around the country, and
throughout the world for that matter, a generation of Catholics were poorly
catechized and confused as to what the Church taught and why. This problem was
only compounded by the sexual abuse crisis, where there were real lapses in
holiness, which, of course, reflected poorly on the institution of the
priesthood. Yet many of the bishops appointed by Popes John Paul II and Pope
Benedict XVI have not only been wonderfully orthodox, but have also been
tremendously instrumental in reengaging young men and stirring them to consider
the priesthood. This, we believe, has led to the surge of vocations over the
past 10 years.
CWR: According to your research, why do
progressive parishes fail to attract, grow, and nurture vocations?
Hendershott: In their research,
sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke found that the more a religious
organization compromises with society and the world, blurring its identity and
modifying its teachings and ethics, the more it will decline. Look at the Episcopal Churchit has been losing
members for decades now as progressives have taken over the leadership there,
and they really do not know what they stand for anymore. Who would want to become a priest in the
Episcopal Church today? Religious
organizations are stronger to the degree that they impose significant costs in
terms of sacrifice and even stigma upon their members. To be counter-cultural is an attraction to
holy men because as the culture becomes more degraded, it becomes ever more
important to fight against that culture.
Stark and Finke suggest that it may be better to make it even harder to
enter the priesthoodlike the Marines, who deny admission to many in their
quest for “just a few good” men.
White: The Church is at her best when she offers an uncompromising defense of
her timeless teachings. Century after century we continue to learn the lesson
that orthodoxy always wins out. Young men are being attracted to the priesthood
because they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and this
only happens in the dioceses and parishes where the Church is unambiguous about
what it teaches and why.
CWR: Can you tell us about
the study of poor ordination rates in parishes that have turned their administration
primarily over to lay people, rather than to parish priests?
Hendershott: Good and holy priests provide wonderful role
models for young men who might someday consider joining the priesthood. Conversely, in some parishesrun by
progressive pastoral administratorsyoung men are less likely to answer the
call to a priesthood that has been so diminished that the priest is a visiting “sacramental
minister” who arrives in time to consecrate the Eucharist and play a
subservient role to the female “pastoral administrator.” In those parishes, the decline in priestly
vocations will continue. Thankfully,
there is a growing awareness of this problem and there seems to be a reduction
in the numbers of these pastoral administrators. I hope that continues.
White: The role of the laity is certainly important and we don’t want to
minimize their contribution to the renewal of the Church. But we’ve also
noticed that in dioceses where there is ambiguity about the role of the priest,
young men are less likely to respond to the call of the priesthood. In a
chapter in our book titled “Blurring the Boundaries,” one of the examples we
point to is Rochester, New York. Ordination rates there have been quite low,
not to mention the number of closed Catholic parishes and schools. We believe
one of the primary reasons for this was a lack of focus on priests and,
instead, a focus on parish administrators.
CWR: Do you have any research on where
these orthodox priests and religious are coming from? (Big families? Families
who homeschool? Classical Catholic schools?)
Hendershott: As a member of the faculty at Franciscan
University I have enjoyed meeting young men and young women undergraduates who
are already beginning to answer the call to religious life. Orthodox colleges like Franciscan, Ave
Maria, and Christendom are all producing vocations. But I am of course biased toward Franciscan’s
exceptional program. At any given time,
there are 50 to 60 young men who are discerning God’s will at Franciscan
University. The Blessed Junipero Serra
Fund allows contributors to invest in the future of the priesthood through
ongoing spiritual and financial support for Franciscan Priestly Discernment
Program students. This makes a tremendous difference. It is something that should be available to
young men and young women at all Catholic colleges and universities. There was a time when Catholic higher
education saw it as their role to nurture priestly vocations. Now, most Catholic colleges and universities
seem to do what they can to inhibit them.
White: The best data on this really comes from the Center for the Applied
Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown. Their 2013 survey on last year’s new
priests reveal that 20 percent of them come from families with over five
siblings, and very often they’re the oldest. In addition, these priests have
strong backgrounds in the liberal arts, philosophy, and theology and are very
likely to have attended a Catholic college or high school. We’ve also seen
evidence that World Youth Day serves as an important impetus for young men
considering the priesthood or young women considering religious life.
CWR: Can you
give an example of an orthodox bishop who came into a struggling
diocese and made a difference?
are many transformational bishops throughout the country. Some have had more dramatic results than
others Boston’s Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley recently told the National Catholic Register that when he
arrived in 2003 to lead that archdiocese, he was advised to close the seminary.
Now there are 70 men in Boston studying to be priests, and the seminary has had
to turn away candidates for lack of space. Cardinal O’Malley in Boston has
revitalized that dioceseso much so that he has had to create more space to
accommodate all of the young men who have answered the call.
White: One of my favorite examples is that of Archbishop Robert Carlson (now
of St. Louis). Previously, however, he was bishop of Saginaw, Michigan. Shortly
after being appointed bishop, one of his first moves was to name himself vocations
director as well. This signaled to the entire diocese that vocations were a
priority to him and that he was committed to recruiting new priests. He didn’t
do this by lobbying to change Church teachings or relax the requirements for
priests. Instead, he preached the Gospel, defended the Church boldly and
truthfully, and made sure his flock was also committed to doing the same.
studies show that
religious organizations are successful to the extent that they distance themselves
from, rather than blend with, the rest of society. In what
ways have successful dioceses “distanced” themselves from the world?
Hendershott: Same Call, Different Men, a new book by
Mary Gautier, Paul Perl, and Stephen Fichter, of the Center for Applied
Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown, helps to support our contention that
priests today are more orthodox and happier than priests of the past. Their
research found that not only are today’s priests satisfied with their lives and
ministries but priestly satisfaction with their vocation has been increasing
over time, even in the midst of the decline in the total number of priests and
the sexual abuse scandal. Today’s young
priests are more satisfied than young priests were in years past. In 1985, only 44 percent of full-time
associate pastors said they would “definitely not leave” the priesthood. By 2009, this proportion had risen to 93
percent of young priests who said that they would “definitely not” leave the
priesthood. Today’s millennial priests
find affirmation for their beliefs from the Church’s hierarchy and this
translates into a feeling of greater support from Church leadership. In the Gautier study, 73 percent of priests
under 40 reported receiving strong support from the Vatican. In 1993, this was the case for just 33
percent of young priests. Likewise,
these young priests are also more likely to report strong support from their
own bishops79 percent of those under 40 in 2009, compared to 52 percent of
those under 40 in 1993.
On page 186 of our
book, we suggest that the priests who are most satisfied with their vocation
view the priesthood from a “cultic” modelone that tends to place more emphasis
on maintaining a distinctive priestly identityconcerned with maintaining the
view of the priest as a man set apart.
We argue that it is important to view the priest as a man set apart
because he has indeed been set apart through the laying on of hands at
ordination in his distinctive ministry as a representative Jesus Christ here on
White: As you mention, it’s a sociological fact that the more a religious
organization compromises with society and the world, blurring its identity and
modifying its teachings and ethics, the more it will decline. Successful
dioceses are led by bishops who are unafraid to be countercultural through
their defense of the dignity of all human life, their support of traditional
marriage, their efforts to protect and promote religious liberty, their
willingness to live faithful and celibate lives. The goal for priests as they
lead their dioceses isn’t to alienate or fully remove themselves from the
world, but instead, to be willing to be a sign of contradiction to the world
around them. That, I believe, is an even more challenging task.
CWR: If this
trend continues, what do you predict the Church will look like in 25 years?
I look at the improvements in catechesis throughout the country I am very
encouraged. After four decades in the
darkness of poor catechesis, we are now realizing the importance of orthodoxy
in our teaching of the faith. And the
orthodox Catholic colleges and universities are training students to teach the
truth of the fullness of the faith to this next generation. For example, the Catechetics Program at
Franciscan University is the largest in the country, and probably one of the
finest in the world. Franciscan graduates are prepared to “cast out into the
deep and bring the light of Christ to a darkening world.” Faculty members who
teach in the Catechetics program at Franciscan are guided by a spirit of “dynamic
orthodoxy.” They teach the unchanging truths of the faith. Recently they implemented an online master’s degree
program in catechetics which will reach even more students. Graduates of the
undergraduate and the graduate programs will be trained to bring that orthodoxy
to parishes throughout the country. They
will understand their place in the New Evangelization and will inspire and
nurture vocations. So, yes, I have
reason to be optimistic.
We’re optimistic that this trend will continue
and we have good evidence on our side. The uptick of vocation rates to the
priesthood is on track to continue to improve and the average age of men
ordained to the priesthood is getting younger. This is happening at the same
time that a number of Church ministries are also flourishing, such as the
Fellowship of Catholic University Students, Fr. Robert Barron’s Word on Fire
program, orthodox Catholic colleges and universities such as Franciscan
University and Ave Maria, and countless other examples. A Church that continues
down this road will find both its pews and altars full and will be attractive
to the world around it!