I think there is a common misconception in the Archdiocese of Detroit that there is a priest shortage! When I compare the number of priests to the number of parishes in the Archdiocese, it seems clear to me that there is not a priest shortage. If I am right, sociologists would call “the priest shortage” a mythic fact, myth in the sense of statistically not true. Let me explain.
When the vicariate planning process began in the mid-1990s in the AOD, to be sure, “priest shortage” may have been a more accurate description of the Detroit parish situation. Beginning in 2001, however, the USCCB asked dioceses to stop using “priest shortage” to describe the church’s situation and to begin using the phrase “fewer priests,” mainly because Catholics per Priest Worldwide statistics show North America is Priest Rich (e.g., in South America the ratio is 7,094:1 and in North America it is 1,229:1; the current ratio in the AOD is 1,329/1).
In the AOD, however, the mythic fact grew because for years we were only considering the “number of priests IN PARISHES” rather than the total number of priests. For example, in 2014 there are 259 priests in 237 parishes. Given the average age of priests is 63.6, these numbers have been interpreted (reasonably we might add) as indicative of a priest shortage because many priests will soon be retiring. But if one examines the total number of priests in the AOD, at this same time, one discovers there are 588 priests, which raises some eyebrows.
First of all, with 588 priests, the AOD could assign 2 priests to every parish with some to spare. So, who are these 329 non-parish priests? Well, 131 of these priests are retired, which leaves 198 others in ministries that supposedly make these priests unavailable for parish work. This total includes bishops, those engaged in provincial work, campus ministers, chaplains, faculty/teachers, those in central service, etc. Now, if we examine more closely the 198 priests who are not retired, 143 are religious and 55 are diocesan. Of the 143 religious priests there are 64 who are 70 years of age or younger (average age = 56), and 49 of the 55 diocesan priests are 70 years of age or younger (average age = 55); leaving a total of 113 priests who could possibly be pastors.
So, there are 457 active priests (259 in parishes and 198 in other roles), raising the question that if there are only 237 parishes, then what are the other 198 or, more realistically, the other 113 (non-parish) priests doing that precludes them from being a pastor? Granted, I am not privy to whether these 113 priests are equipped for parish ministry, but it seems to me that probably most of them are. Obviously, they are doing something other than being pastors/associate pastors. All things being equal, therefore, I argue the AOD faces a priest distribution problem rather than a priest shortage problem.
I also conclude, all things being equal, that it appears that parishes are not a top priority, if my figures are correct. Why? Because otherwise the AOD would not be closing/clustering/merging parishes based on the unavailability of priests (which has not always been the only reason but often the predominant one). I reiterate, I am not privy to the background information on these 113 priests, but it is hard to believe that all of them are in one way or another unable to be pastors. Consequently, it is reasonable to conclude, I suggest, that in the allocation of priests – parishes are not a priority – something else must be.
I must add, however, that as far as I know AOD priest statistics have never been interpreted in this way, that is, comparing the number of priests to the number of parishes. A particular rationale for interpreting priest statistics as above, then, is to first clarify the situation and secondly raise consciousness about it. The raising of consciousness is particularly important because as Mike Vlasic (Chair of the restructuring committee for the AOD in 2009) stated at the AOD Central Services day in September 2009, and to which everyone appeared to agree, the health of AOD parishes determines the health of the AOD. If that is true, then it seems to me that parishes should be the top priority in terms of priest assignments and not something else.
Finally, now that the AOD has only 237 parishes today compared to 313 in 2000, with more closings anticipated; it appears that the numbers of priests are aplenty. Then again, I could be missing something in this analysis. If so, please enlighten me. Otherwise, I agree with the USCCB, we should stop using the term “priest shortage” in that it seems to be more of a priest distribution problem than a numbers problem.
There IS indeed a severe priest shortage. In the world today, we have half the number of priests per 10,000 Catholics right now compared to 1970.
I’m not sure where you are getting your data, but you can view the statistics yourself online at the CARA website – center for applied research in the apostolate (which is the research/ data institute that even the Vatican uses).
See frequently requested church statistics at the website
Married priests currently confer thousands of sacraments, validly and legally since canon 1335 allows even irregular priests to minister when there is just cause.
I’m guessing that Mike is well aware of the fact that we have a lower number of priests per 10,000 Catholics today than in 1970, as he readily acknowledged the fact that we have fewer priests. But that is not what Mike’s post is exploring. Indeed, I think Rosanne’s comment usefully highlights Mike’s key question–How do we define “priest shortage?”
Obviously, we have fewer priests per capita worldwide than we did a few decades ago. But what constitutes a priest shortage? Mike’s argument is that in the AOD, they have defined “shortage” by comparing the number of parish priests to the number of parishes, but have excluded other non-parish priests from this count–with Mike’s underlying message being that this approach makes parish closings more likely to occur. Instead we should compare the full number of non-retired priests to parishes to determine if a “shortage” exists.
As Mike notes, if we look comparatively, we see that North America is still priest rich compared to other parts of the world. But what Mike doesn’t note is that we also need to view this historically, and here we see that the numbers of priests per Catholic in the U.S. (and I’m sure in the AOD) has been on the decline since at least the 1960s as well.
This explains, to me, why the “priest distribution problem” is more complex than it might at first appear. Ironically, my sense is that the “priest distribution problem” of previous eras was managing expectations for advancement to “pastor” status because the opportunity for all priests to be pastors did not exist. This fits with Mike’s basic assumption is that all non-retired priests are meant to be pastors, unless they are “unfit” for that duty. Yet, I’m guessing that this was not the understanding of many of these priests when they entered ministry. For many priests in religious orders, especially those devoted to education or other evangelical ministries, being a pastor may NOT have been their expectation–and even if they imagined it at one time, their vocational careers may have taken a very different turn. And certainly, Bishops’ means of persuading religious order priests to serve as pastor are more limited than for diocesan priests. Anyways, this is what I wondered about first in reading this post.
Finally, I wondered what the age distribution of priests looks like 10-20 years out–even if the AOD does not have a “priest shortage” currently but simply fewer priests today, are they expected to have “even fewer priests” in the years to come; it sounded like it from the numbers that Mike mentioned–I’d be interested in knowing at what point demographic models tell us the numbers of priests in the AOD will stabilize (or turn upward)…these would only be estimates, of course, but they would certainly suggest something about the “parish carrying capacity” of a diocese.
Excellent comment and questions. I will examine what the situation would like like 10-20 yrs out and if the situation will stabilize.
My argument is that given the number of priests and the number of parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit there is a priest distribution problem not a priest shortage. I am not arguing that the CARA data is misleading or wrong.
I can acknowledge the value of considering the term “priest distribution” rather than priest shortage and I appreciate the ‘analysis’ of looking at number of active priests vs. number of parishes. My main concern with Mike’s analysis is the assumption that “parishes are not a top priority” when he clearly acknowledges that he has not investigated what the active, non-parish priests are doing. I would challenge you to do some investigation into this before making this claim. I personally think priests in non-parish ministries (hospital and prison chaplains) are a ‘priority’ and we need to acknowledge that ‘some’ priests need to serve in administrative roles. I will acknowledge that the numbers “kind of suggest” that there are “a lot” of active priests in non-parish ministries, but if you are going to make a claim of “statistical analysis” then I think you need to be more thorough in your investigation.
Your second assumption is that all of these active priests are “fit for being pastors.” While we all might want to think this is true, this is not a particularly valid assumption. I’d suggest that some of us might have experienced situations where a current pastor was not necessarily suited for it.
To sum up – I think you raise a good question, and you ‘might’ be right, but I am not satisfied with the depth of your analysis.
Yes, Katie, excellent comments. I do need to investigate more thoroughly, especially the 113 priests that I mentioned. I’m sure some of them, for example, are not fit to be pastors – and that is an assumption. And, yes, priests are in other roles that are priorities like hospital chaplains. I acknowledge you are right about my lack of thorough investigation. The value in the blog, however, as I see it anyway, is that it might raise some questions about the relationship between numbers of priests and number of parishes that some have not thought about. This relationship is seldom, if ever, discussed in the open in the Archdiocese. Nevertheless, maybe it will raise some questions for priests assignment boards to consider. Thank you for your comments Katie.
Point taken about the nature of a blog. And, I completely agree that you are raising a good question that needs to be talked about, not just in Detroit.
Priests , laity, and the hierarchy of the church need to communicate the importance of evangelization and preaching the gospel one person at a time.