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The Dying Catholic Priesthood

by Christopher A. Ferrara

If present trends continue, the number of Catholic priests in England will drop by 50% over the next 10-15 years. According to Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who addressed the House of Commons, “For three decades, the Church has been losing about 130 priests a year. Most die or retire (at 75), and a fifth quit for personal reasons. In 1999, only 122 were recruited. This year, the diocese of Liverpool, for example, has no one going forward at all. And the English province of the Jesuits, for the first time in its 400-year history, does not have one single new novice.” [London Times Online]

Not one new English Jesuit novice for the first time in 400 years! The nation which gave us Edmund Campion, S.J., now gives us nothing at all. The “renewal of Vatican II” marches on.

Of course, the situation is not much better in the rest of the Catholic world. According to the Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican’s annual compilation of Church statistics, the total number of priests in the world increased in 1999 by a whopping 418. That’s right: for the entire Catholic Church of 1 billion souls, we had a grand total of 418 new priests. Given the total number of priests in the world in 1998 — 404,208 — that’s an increase of exactly of 1/10 of one percent. And this was the first increase after more than 35 years of uninterrupted declines in the number of priests (except for a small surge in 1978). If this is a “renewal”, then words have lost their meaning.

Now, when one considers the rapid “graying” of the priesthood, with the great majority of diocesan priests now approaching retirement age and departure from their parishes (as we can see in England), one must wonder where the priests for “the Church of New Advent” are going to come from. There simply aren’t going to be any.

We are looking, then, at the worst vocations crisis in Church history. And this is not even to mention the almost daily reports of sexual misconduct among priests who are still wearing the cloth. Yet in the midst of this crisis, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy relentlessly hounds Father Nicholas Gruner, devoting an amazing amount of its resources to an attempt to persuade the Catholic world that the “Fatima Priest” is some sort of grave threat to the good order of the Church. Out of 404,626 priests, Father Gruner, who has kept his vows, is the only one who has been publicly threatened with “excommunication” by the ever-vigilant Congregation. A priest who has enrolled about 400,000 people in the Scapular of Mount Carmel, who has distributed more than 1,000,000 Miraculous Medals, is threatened with excommunication when he has committed no offense against faith or morals. Yet notorious heretics and child molesters among the priesthood face no such threat. Think about that.

If only we had 10,000 more priests like Father Gruner. If only the men who now control the Vatican apparatus could recognize an asset when they see it, and do something about the Church’s clerical liabilities instead. But things are not as they should be in the “springtime” of Vatican II. One could even say that they are entirely upside-down. This is no doubt what Sister Lucy meant when she spoke of “a diabolical disorientation” in the Church today.