Bishops Ponder Priest Shortage

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gather for their annual general assembly, Monday, Nov. 14, 2005 in Washington.
Faced with a serious and continuing decline in the number of Roman Catholic priests, the nation's bishops are acting on new guidelines for more than 30,000 lay employees who help fill the gap.

These workers are known as "lay ecclesial ministers," though some bishops worry that this undercuts the ministry of ordained priests. The guidelines distinguish lay workers from the bishops and priests who supervise church work.

In a last-minute change before Tuesday's action, the drafting committee dropped a statement that the shrinking ranks of U.S. priests make "lay ministers even more needed today." But there's no doubt that's so.

In the U.S., the Roman Catholic church has 30,632 salaried lay ministers who work at least 20 hours a week, a 53 percent increase since 1990. By comparison, since 1985, active priests have dropped from 57,317 to 42,528. By all measures, the lay numbers will continue to rise while clergy numbers fall.

Lay women make up 64 percent of these ministers, laymen 20 percent and nuns 16 percent. Though many are educators or musicians, one-quarter of them fulfill pastoral work of the type traditionally linked with the priesthood.

The priesthood shortage is also alleviated by the 15,027 men ordained as permanent deacons to assist priests.

As permitted by church law when priests are not available, deacons or lay ministers are responsible for pastoral care in 556 U.S. parishes, compared with 268 in 1993.

Foreigners make up 16 percent of priests serving in the United States, according to a report this month by Dean Hoge and the Rev. Aniedi Okure of Catholic University of America. That ratio is bound to rise since foreigners make up nearly one-third of recent seminary graduates.

Catholics who believe the celibacy rule worsens the shortage cannot expect change. Last month's international synod of bishops at the Vatican acknowledged "the serious lack of priests" in some regions but insisted that the celibacy tradition is an "inestimable gift" to Catholicism.

In their final public session Tuesday morning, the bishops are hearing a report on response to Hurricane Katrina, and reasserting their opposition to the death penalty.

Starting Tuesday afternoon, the bishops are holding closed-door executive sessions for another day or two, which has provoked complaints from lay activists who champion open meetings.

The official explanation is that public business took up less time than usual this year so the bishops are spending the rest of their scheduled gathering in private.

Monday's deliberations showed a split among bishops over drafts for a revision of the 1970 English Mass, which was translated after the Second Vatican Council had eliminated mandatory Latin worship.

A summer survey of 107 bishops showed 52 percent considered the new translations excellent or good, versus 47 percent who called them only fair or poor. That could spell trouble since the final text needs two-thirds approval.

The survey included hundreds of harsh comments from bishops ("often garbles," "ponderous and often turgid," "awkward"). Some want a Mass that sticks close to the Latin, others favor more idiomatic English and many fear that changes will perturb lay parishioners at a time when Mass attendance is already declining.

"I'm not quite sure where this whole thing is going to go," said Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, who represents the U.S. hierarchy on the international translation panel.

The bishops also approved a 2006 national program budget with a $1.8 million deficit to be covered by reserve funds. Much of the shortfall results from the bishops' programs to deal with the scandal over priests who molested minors.
By Richard N. Ostling