While the Church faces serious demographic and geographic challenges that have required parish closings in urban cores of cities in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, there is reason for optimism among Catholics in the U.S. As bishops have had to consolidate parishes and close churches in New York City, Cleveland, Hartford, and other urban areas, there have been major expansions and new parishes emerging in Catholic-rich suburban sunbelt areas in the South and the West.
Although last year’s Pew Research Center’s study “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” was used by some pundits as evidence for a steady decline in Catholicism, the evidence points to differing trends. As I noted last May, “the Northeast losses for the Catholic Church are attenuated by gains in the southern part of the country where Catholics have increased from 25% of those living in the South in 2007 to 27% of the population today, and in the West where the percentage of Catholics has increased from 23% in 2007 to 26% in 2014.”
Even more significantly, in 2015 there was a 25% increase in ordinations to the priesthood as 595 men were ordained last year, up from 477 the previous year. According to Mary Gautier and Thomas Gaunt, authors of The Class of 2015: Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood, commissioned by the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the average age of those ordained in 2015 to the priesthood is 34—continuing a pattern of younger men entering the priesthood earlier than in previous decades.
More than half (60%) of those ordained in 2015 have completed college before entering the seminar, and one in seven (15%) entered the seminary with a graduate degree. One in three entered the seminary while in college. Most respondents to the USCCB survey reported that there were about 17 years old when they first considered a vocation to the priesthood and were encouraged to consider their vocation by an average of four people. Seven in 10 of them said they were encouraged by a parish priest, while 46% were encouraged by friends, 45% were encouraged by parishioners, and 40% were encouraged by their mothers.
It is a very positive report, but a close reading reveals some concerns surrounding a culture of negativity within the Church that manifests itself in the fact that almost half (48%) of those who were ordained to the priesthood in 2015 indicated that they were actually discouraged from considering the priesthood. Some of them were discouraged by their own parents and priests. Indeed, the USCCB study reveals that nine percent of all ordinands reported being discouraged from considering a priestly vocation by a priest or other clergyman, and 12% report that their fathers, and nine percent of their mothers discouraged them from the priesthood.
Mary Gautier, the co-author of the USCCB-commissioned study, published an article in Commonweal entitled “Tall Orders: As Ordinations Drop, Challenges Rise” (Feb 17, 2015) which erroneously claims that “the total number of priests in the United States reached a peak in the late 1960s and has been decreasing steadily since then.” While Gautier is correct in writing that “the number of men being ordained each year is only about a third of the number needed to replace priests who are retiring, dying, or leaving,” her own data indicates there have been positive trends in vocations for more than a decade. Yet Gautier seemed unable to acknowledge the optimistic trajectory that Christopher White and I documented in our book, Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops is Revitalizing the Catholic Church (Encounter, 2013). We provide data indicating the positive trends that began in the 1990s in dioceses including Lincoln, Newark, Chicago, Bridgeport, Denver, and others that are led by charismatic bishops who are inspiring young men to follow them.
But this positive news is often rejected by progressives. Today, the renewal is most pronounced in Madison, Wisconsin under the inspiring leadership of Bishop Robert Morlino. Last spring, the Diocese of Madison announced a vocations initiative intended to raise funds to support the tremendous surge in vocations in that Diocese. There are now 33 seminarians, up from just six in 2003 when Bishop Morlino arrived. The diocese needs $30 million to educate current and future seminarians—and they distributed pledge cards—asking parishioners to dig deep—and they more than met the challenge.
Priestly ordinations are on the uptick nationally, no matter how much Commonweal would like to deny that fact. And that is because certain bishops have made priestly vocations a priority. Bishop Morlino increased the position of director of vocations to full time and consistently promotes the priesthood at functions. But, more importantly, Bishop Morlino is unambiguous about Church doctrine and does not tolerate dissent—and faithful Catholics are grateful for such clarity and courage. Unfortunately, members of Madison’s Call to Action—the aging dissenters from the 1970s (they call themselves “Revolutionaries in Rockports”), have called Bishop Morlino “rigidly doctrinaire and lacking in pastoral empathy.” The dissenters claim that the seminarians recruited under his tenure will be carbon copies of Bishop Morlino.
Undeterred by the negativity of the dissenters, The Wisconsin State Journal newspaper positively profiled some of these new seminarians—including Dr. Clint Olson of Madison, age 36, a current seminarian who is a family physician switching to the priesthood. He told a reporter that he believes God will find applications for his medical expertise because both priests and physicians provide compassion to people during their most difficult moments.
The success in Madison and elsewhere shows that faithfulness and orthodoxy are compelling and attractive. Meanwhile, progressivism relies on a tired and sterile rebelliousness. Cardinal Francis George, the longtime leader of the Chicago archdiocese, once gave a homily that startled the faithful by pronouncing liberal Catholicism “an exhausted project . . . parasitical on a substance that no longer exists.” Declaring that Catholics are at a “turning point” in the life of the church in this country, the cardinal concluded that the bishops must stand as a “reality check for the apostolic faith.” Bishop Morlino knows this.
An aging generation of progressives continues to lobby church leaders to change Catholic teachings on reproductive rights, same-sex “marriage” and women’s ordination. Many of them continue to be contributors to Commonweal. On the same day Mary Gautier published her article in Commonweal describing the continued declines in the number of ordinations, Fr. Paul Blaschko—a proponent of removing the mandatory celibacy requirement for priests—published “Inside the Seminary: Is there Reason to be Worried About Formation?” decrying the Church’s “failure to provide adequate sexual formation, since the very attempt to form sexually normal celibate men poses an impossible task.”
And, in that same issue, Barbara Parsons published “Spiritual Assault: How Not to Run a Parish”, in which she described how difficult it was for her as an 81-year old woman to have to deal with the “young priests” who are “accepting of Catholic teaching.” She is especially critical of Monsignor Stephen Rosetti’s book, Why Priests are Happy?, stating that Rosetti’s conclusion that “young priests today are happier, more optimistic about the priesthood, accepting of Catholic teachings, and personally committed to priestly celibacy than the cohort before them” is worrisome to her: “What does Rosetti mean by it…he tips his hand when he commends the quality of seminary education today, praising seminary faculties for being well trained and faithful to the Church.” Being faithful to Catholic teachings is a problem for Parsons as she wonders, “which Catholic teachings?” She further states, “Catholics are looking for a church grounded in Scripture and animated by mutual respect and cooperation, one in which baptism, not ordination, has preeminence.”
This indicates a deficient understanding of the completely harmonious relationship that exists among the sacraments, all of which flow from Christ and impart, by the work of the Holy Spirit, the grace and power to grow as sons and daughters of God. “The ministerial priest,” states Lumen Gentium,
by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity. (par 10)
For decades, progressives and dissenting Catholics have undermined the ministerial priesthood—and then demanded changes based on the dwindling numbers of vocations to the priesthood. Now that those numbers are climbing, many are attacking the “masculine spirituality” contributing to the incrase as too “authoritarian and intransigent” (in the words of Parsons). What we have, ultimately, are two visions of Catholicism: one orthodox and growing, the other dissenting and declining.
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