The Roman Catholic Church is facing a crisis of immense proportions. In the United States, the availability of priests to provide essential religious services is being cut in half. By 2005, there will be 40 percent fewer parish priests and 65 percent more church members than there were in 1966. Colleagues and I made these alarming forecasts in Full Pews and Empty Altars, the final report of a demographic study sponsored by the U. S. Catholic Conference (USCC) published in 1993.
Besides the magnitude of the priest shortage, there is something else bizarre about the crisis: Most bishops outwardly ignore it and some publicly declare it doesn't exist. Such a dramatic imbalance in supply and demand in other critical occupations would create a public hue and cry. Imagine cutting the supply of doctors, teachers, or garbage collectors in half while the demand for services more than doubled.
Full Pews and Empty Altars was published so that all parties interested in the priest shortage could have access to the same definitive data, which they could use for their own religious, political, or scientific ends. Now that the statistics are available, my aim in Goodbye Father is to spell out how interested parties can use the information for their personal and social agendas. The earlier volume combined rigorous empirical research with a strong policy orientation. This companion volume emphasizes theoretical and historical analysis, but still in the service of practical-minded policy.
The demographics of the declining priesthood are startling, but they are only a subplot in a much bigger story. They raise more questions and stir up more conflicts than they resolve. For starters, we're left wondering how the Catholic Church can serve its growing membership. Will nuns, deacons, and laypeople be able to fill the gap left by the vanishing clergy? One spokesman says yes. Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, former chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, believes that with “the involvement and the appreciation of the gifts and talents of countless laypeople … [and] the functioning of the permanent diaconate … in parishes where we used to have three priests we find we can provide the same service with two” (Catholic News Service, July 1990). As the shortage gets worse, however, will the two dwindle to one? And will the sole remaining priest become a circuit rider? Or will the eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass become the privilege of the few—perhaps only those in wealthy parishes?