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Special Report
January 23, 2012
Researchers seek to understand disparities in diocesan ordination rates.
In a 2009 address celebrating the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, a day traditionally devoted to prayer for the sanctification of the clergy, Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated a “Year for Priests” in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of John Mary Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests worldwide. Pope Benedict reminded those gathered that St. John Vianney often said, “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.” Pope Benedict continued, “How can I not praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests who, even amid difficulties and incomprehension, remain faithful to their vocation as friends of Christ, whom he has called by name, chosen, and sent?”

Pope Benedict had reason to celebrate during the Year of the Priest. Despite the media hype about the projected shortage of priests and its negative effect on the sacramental life of the Church, the reality is that the number of priests is growing worldwide. According to the 2009 almanac prepared by the Vatican’s Central Office of Church Statistics, there were over 5,000 more Catholic priests globally in 2009 than there were in 1999. 

Although there have been declines in Europe, many dioceses in the United States report dramatically increasing numbers of candidates and a growing number of priestly ordinations. According to the Official Catholic Directory, there were 442 men ordained to the priesthood in the United States in 2002. Ordinations rose to 454 men in 2005, and in 2011, there were 467 priestly ordinations. Some dioceses experienced much greater increases. While these numbers show a decline from the peak ordination years prior to the close of Vatican II (994 ordinations in 1965), there is reason for optimism. 

Still, there are some dioceses that continue to experience low numbers of ordinations—despite large numbers of Catholics living in these dioceses. It is difficult to understand why ordinations in some dioceses are increasing, while other dioceses have few to none. One might be tempted to look for an easy explanation of the disparity by simply considering the percentage of Catholics living in a diocese and concluding that those with large numbers of Catholics will have large numbers of ordinations. This would be wrong. In fact, some researchers have found that when there is a greater percentage of Catholics living within a diocese as compared with the total population in the diocese, there are fewer ordinations.

Market forces?

This counter-intuitive finding is given more meaning in the work of sociologist Rodney Stark. In an article titled “Market Forces and Catholic Commitment,” published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Stark and his co-authors suggest that the lower ordination rates in dioceses with high percentages of Catholics stem from a lack of competitive pressure from other religions. According to this theory, competition from other denominations for church membership forces a diocese to be more innovative and vigorous. Stark and his co-authors propose that in those dioceses where there are greater proportions of Catholics, there is less competition for Church membership, and fewer signs of institutional health, such as ordinations.

There is some anecdotal evidence for this market view of ordinations. For example, in 2010, there were no ordinations in El Paso, Texas, where there is a Catholic majority of 649,648 Catholics (79 percent) living in a diocese with a total population of 825,611. In contrast, there were seven priestly ordinations in 2010 in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, where Catholics constitute a much smaller percentage of the total number of people living in the diocese. In Lincoln there are only 95,445 Catholics (17 percent) living in a diocese with a total population of 580,275. In the Portland, Oregon diocese there were nine ordinations to the priesthood in 2010, in a diocese where Catholics number only 409,864 (16 percent) out of a total population of 3,269,195.

Even so, the Stark theory of competition may not be adequate to explain the great variation in ordination rates by diocese, because there are dioceses in which Catholics are a large percentage of the total population and which also have large numbers of ordinations. In 2010, the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey—in which Catholics are 47 percent of the total population of 2,784,183—ordained 13 men to the priesthood. Likewise, the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey had nine priestly ordinations in 2010, in a diocese with 424,722 Catholics (38 percent) out of a total population of 1,129,405.

Some researchers have suggested that rather than looking simply at population differences, the real explanatory variables for the disparity in ordinations by diocese are socioeconomic and demographic—including ethnicity. In Full Pews and Empty Altars, authors Richard Schoenherr and Lawrence Young suggest that dioceses with large percentages of Hispanic residents report significantly lower rates of ordinations. There is some support for that assertion in the recently released 2011 Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, this survey found that although Hispanics/Latinos constitute approximately 34 percent of adult Catholics in the United States, they only comprise 15 percent of ordinands in 2011. In contrast, Caucasian/European American/Whites make up 69 percent of those ordained in 2011, and 58 percent of adult Catholics nationally. Asians/Pacific Islanders constitute only 4 percent of United States Catholics overall, but make up 10 percent of those ordained in 2011, and African/African American/Blacks comprise 3 percent of all adult Catholics nationally, but make up 5 percent of ordinands in 2011.

The lower rates of ordination by Hispanics might help us understand the low rates of ordinations in a diocese like El Paso, Texas. But when looking at the rates of ordinations throughout the 178 dioceses in the United States, there are some dioceses with large numbers of Hispanics in the population and large numbers of ordinations as well. In the Corpus Christi, Texas diocese, for example, there were seven ordinations to the priesthood in 2010. Corpus Christi is a diocese where Catholics—the majority of them Hispanic Catholics—comprise more than half of the total population of 558,831 (70 percent).

It is clear that the disparity in ordinations by diocese has a more complex cause than ethnicity. Some researchers like Schoenherr and Young have tried to explain diocesan disparities by suggesting that higher levels of educational attainment and socioeconomic status by potential ordinands within dioceses would contribute to declines in rates of ordination. Implying that the seminary is a solution for those who have fewer choices, these researchers predicted that more affluent dioceses with more highly educated populations would experience lower ordination rates. However, the most recent diocesan data on priestly ordination contradicts their 1993 predictions, as some of the most affluent dioceses in the country have experienced some of the highest rates in ordination.

Although the USCCB study of the class of 2011 ordinands found that their education level prior to entering the seminary is somewhat lower than the education level reported a decade ago, there are other explanations for this disparity. Educational differences are more likely due to the fact that a larger number of 2011 ordinands entered the seminary at the college level—at a younger age—instead of waiting until they completed their undergraduate studies. In 1999, 25 percent of responding ordinands had less than a college degree before entering seminary, compared to 40 percent of ordinands in 2011. Forty-five percent of all those who were ordained as diocesan priests in 2011 are ages 25-29. Overall, the ordination class of 2011 is slightly younger than in 2010, following a pattern in recent years of lowering the age of ordination from a decade ago.

One sociological variable that seems to provide some understanding of the disparity in diocesan ordination rates is the level of urbanization of a diocese. Given the sociological fact that residents of urban areas demonstrate weaker attachments to religion, one might expect that urban areas would produce fewer ordinations. But the opposite is true. As other researchers have found in the past, a review of ordination rates for the past few years reveals that the more urban the diocese, the higher the rates of ordination. In 2010, the dioceses with some of the highest rates of ordinations include the urban areas of Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Bridgeport, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Newark, New York, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC. Still, this theory of urbanization and ordination rates cannot explain why a rural diocese like Lincoln, Nebraska has experienced such high rates of ordination.

Do bishops matter?

In 1996, Archbishop Elden Curtiss, then the leader of the Omaha, Nebraska diocese, published an article titled “Crisis in Vocations? What Crisis?” in which he asserted, “When dioceses and religious communities are unambiguous about the ordained priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines these calls; when there is strong support for vocations, and a minimum of dissent about the male celibate priesthood and religious life, loyal to the Magisterium; when the bishop, priests, religious, and lay people are united in vocation ministry—then there are documented increases in the numbers of candidates who respond to the call.”

In his article, Archbishop Curtiss cited “The Churching of America, 1776-1990,” a sociological study published by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, which points out that the more a religious organization compromises with society and the world, blurring its identity and modifying its teaching and ethics, the more it will decline. Archbishop Curtiss writes: “Religious organizations are stronger to the degree that they impose significant costs in terms of sacrifice and even stigma upon their members…I am convinced that shortages of vocations in any part of the country can be reversed by people who share enthusiastically in the agenda of the Church. We have to learn from the dioceses and communities which are experiencing an increase in vocations.… Young people do not want to commit themselves to dioceses or communities that permit or simply ignore dissent from Church doctrine.”

For Archbishop Curtiss, “the vocation crisis was precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church’s agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines the ministries.”

In 2001, Andrew Yuengert, a Pepperdine University professor, attempted to quantify Archbishop Curtiss’ observations that the disparity in diocesan ordination rates is due not to changes in the sociological characteristics of the dioceses but rather to the characteristics of the diocesan staff, including what he called the “theological attitude” of the bishops. In a study titled “Do Bishops Matter?” Yuengert drew upon theories of motivational leadership from business management literature to explore the role of the bishop in fostering vocations. Using diocesan ordination data collected from the years 1986-97, Yuengert investigated the extent to which the characteristics of diocesan bishops can explain the variation in ordination rates across dioceses. Statistically controlling for population density and the socioeconomic characteristics of the diocese, Yuengert found that the year in which a diocese’s bishop was ordained to the episcopate had a large effect on priestly ordination rates within the diocese.

Yuengert found that bishops ordained and installed as bishops in the 1960s and 1980s had significantly higher priestly ordination rates in their dioceses during the years 1986-1997 than did bishops ordained in the 1970s. Yuengert used this variable to “capture any differences across time in the criteria for bishop selection, and differences in the priestly training of bishops across generations.” Of course, it must be acknowledged that Yuengert published his article more than a decade ago, and drew upon ordination data that is more than 20 years old. The years of episcopal ordination and installation of most of today’s bishops fall in the 1990s—with many recently installed since 2000. In looking at the episcopal ordination of today’s diocesan leaders, the only bishops left from the cohort of bishops who were installed in the 1970s include the recently retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles archdiocese and Bishop Howard Hubbard, currently the leader of the Albany diocese.

The influence of theological attitude

In an attempt to quantify the effect that “theological attitude” may have on priestly ordination rates, Yuengert attempted to define orthodoxy or progressivism by identifying the publication vehicle used by the bishops. Those bishops who published articles in America were defined by the author as more likely to hold progressive or liberal attitudes about Church teachings—because America’s editorial positions are more likely to be in favor of an open discussion of several topics, including female priests, married priests, the relaxation of Catholic moral teachings on sexual matters, and the relaxation of papal authority vis-a-vis the bishops. Those who published in The Catholic Answer were defined by Yuengert as more likely to hold orthodox or conservative perspectives because the editorial positions of this periodical favor a closer adherence to the teaching office of the pope, an acceptance of traditional Church teachings on sexual morality, and a conviction that the individual conscience, well-formed, will never contradict Church teaching.  

Although Yuengert found that bishops who published in The Catholic Answer had significantly higher ordination rates in their dioceses—supporting Archbishop Curtiss’ contention that bishops who support the traditional teachings of the Church will inspire priestly ordinations—it is clear that more research needs to be done to confirm this relationship. Using these publications as indicators of the theological attitude of bishops may not have captured the bishops’ characteristics as well as Yuengert would have liked. He even acknowledged that several of the bishops he studied had published in both America and The Catholic Answer. Just a few months ago, for example, New York’s Archbishop Dolan, a leader who is often described in the media as a “more conservative” bishop than his predecessor published an article in America.

A more comprehensive analysis of “theological attitude” would require going beyond a review of the places bishops publish their articles, to a comprehensive content analysis of the actual writings, including the bishops’ letters to the faithful and their public pronouncements.

A simple correlation of the most recent data on diocesan ordination rates with one indicator of “theological attitude” reveals that future research in this area may yield some answers about whether bishops may indeed have an impact on ordination rates. The indicator we used is the listing of the names of the 83 bishops who signed the bishops’ formal statement expressing disapproval of the University of Notre Dame’s 2009 invitation to President Barack Obama to give the commencement speech and receive an honorary law degree. The bishops protested the honors given to President Obama because of the president’s support for legislation designed to expand access to abortion both here and abroad. 

Many of the 83 bishops who signed the 2009 statement also lead dioceses with the highest ordination rates in the country. Among the signers are the leaders of the following ordination-rich dioceses: Austin, Bridgeport, Camden, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Ft. Wayne-South Bend, Indianapolis, Lincoln, Newark, New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Rockville Center, Rockford, St. Louis, St. Paul-Minneapolis, San Antonio, Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Toledo, and Washington, DC. 

This measure of theological attitude is certainly not comprehensive, and cannot be considered as offering anything more than preliminary, anecdotal evidence supporting Archbishop Curtiss’ contention that bishops who lead dioceses which promote loyalty to the Church, and total fidelity to her teachings, are successful in encouraging young men to commit themselves to the priesthood. The correlations, however, should encourage researchers to pursue a systematic testing of this relationship in the future.
 
About the Author
Anne Hendershott 

Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).
 
About the Author
Christopher White 

Christopher White is the Director of Education and Programs at the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church (Encounter).
 

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