IN 1962, WHEN Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council with a resounding call for aggiornamento, few of the bishops in attendance imagined that the work of "updating" the Roman Catholic Church would become a constant preoccupation. Today, however, the "always reforming church" finds itself once again at a dramatic turning point in the U.S.
Gone are the halcyon days when priests staffed every parish, sacramental theology made sense to most laity, and an abundance of nuns educated and formed 5 million parochial school students. In 1960 U.S. Catholicism enjoyed the low-cost, labor-intensive dedication of 52,689 priests and 164,922 nuns. More than 30,000 young men filled diocesan and religious order seminaries. In addition to the 10,000 Catholic elementary schools and 2,400 high schools, there were 223 Catholic associations, movements and societies with an explicit educational purpose.
Since 1960 the Catholic population has grown from 40 to 60 million, but the number of priests and women religious has declined to 45,000 and 90,000 respectively as a result of resignations, retirements and thinning ranks of new recruits. The number of seminarians has dropped to about 5,500-hardly enough to replace the many who will soon retire, much less to keep up with the increasing size of the laity. Communities of women religious, who built and sustained the church's infrastructure for decades, are also aging dramatically and face an uncertain future.
Numbers and size alone do not guarantee the vitality or sanctity of a religious community, of course. Nor is the brick-and-mortar emphasis of the "golden age" of the Catholic parish, which extended roughly from 1920 to 1960, the norm for succeeding generations. Nonetheless, Catholics seek to share word, sacrament and God's reign in justice with as many people as possible, and therefore they ponder with dismay any signs of atrophy in their work. The elementary and secondary school system (to name just one Catholic institution affected by the drop in vocations) serves approximately half the number of students it did in 1960, despite the greater presence of lay teachers and administrators. Catholic hospitals and charities rely increasingly on professionals drawn from the secular world. Perhaps most disconcerting of all is the rapid increase in the ratio of parishioners to priests and nuns.
"The next five years is crunch time," warns Father Eugene F. Hemrick, director of research for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Unless we address the personnel crisis effectively, we will lose our best chance to influence the direction of change." Significant change is occurring already in the 2,000 Catholic parishes without a resident priest-10 percent of the total, and growing. Hundreds of these parishes are administered by women religious who act, in effect, as pastors without portfolio. In such settings the proclamation and preaching of the scriptures replaces the consecration of the Eucharist as the primary act of communal worship, thereby threatening the centrality of the sacramental tradition. Although considered a stopgap measure, the introduction of parish administrators means that Catholics are becoming accustomed to compassionate, gifted women acting in quasi-priestly roles. When the parish phone rings in the middle of the night, bearing news of a family crisis, the church still answers faithful but the bedside prayers and communion may be offered by Sister, not Father. In time the laity may not care to observe the distinction between the new Christ-bearers and ordained priests, despite the Vatican's "infallible" teaching that the former are forever excluded from the ranks of the latter.
THE SHIFTING CATHOLIC demographics are documented in Full Pews, Empty Altars, a controversial study of the priest shortage by the late Richard Schoenherr. Whether or not the trend is irreversible, as Schoenherr argues, it has begun to transform the relationship between priests, women religious, the new pastoral administrators, permanent deacons and lay ministers. …