The debate on the priest shortage and attitudes is hotting up!
Both Sentire cum Ecclesia and a Priest Down Under blogs have also commented on the Wilkinson material on the priest shortage, both with rather different takes to each other and to mine.
A survey of opinions...
Fr Pearce of A Priest Down Under disputes that the problem is as bad as Wilkinson paints it - and points to the increasing number of seminarians in the Melbourne Archdiocese. And it is true that vocations seem to be rising at last. But the question is, are they rising quickly enough?
David Schütz of Sentire cum Ecclesia, if I'm understanding him correctly (and I'm probably not, so please do correct me David if I'm misunderstanding), is advocating that we just pray and hope without engaging our powers of reason on the subject.
And over at Eureka Street, having run Paul Collins' anti-overseas priests rant on Friday, today we have an editorial from Andrew Hamilton. Hamilton's thesis is that yet another recent study of Australian priests', by Chris McGillion and John O'Carroll, is perhaps misleading in suggesting that many priests hold erroneous opinions as the survey questions were ambiguously worded, and really things aren't as bad as they seem on the orthodoxy front. Well, one can hope I guess, but his argument seems to involve a lot of unnecessary dependence on subtle nuances.
So can we just pray and hope?
The Church, it seems to me, has two objectives. The first is to get the individuals within it to heaven; the second to spread the Gospel so that there are more people within it!
The means for both ends are grace and the working of the Holy Spirit.
But God spreads his grace in part through human agents, especially priests in the sacraments; the Holy Spirit works through us. And for that purpose God gave us the gift of reason, to deploy to help realise his plan in union with his will. So yes we should pray. Yes we should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We also though, have to take up St Ignatius' maximum of working as though everything depends on us, even while knowing that everything depends on God.
And that means working (including praying) to ensure we have enough priests; working to promote orthodoxy; working to engage with the directions the Church is taking, and challenge them if needs be.
Priests to people ratios
And when it comes to the availability of priests, the problem here is recent history.
One can debate what the ideal priest to Catholic ratio is.
But if you want there to be enough priests to say mass, to get to know and lead their congregations, and even more importantly, enough priests to hear the confessions of the people regularly, it probably does need to be something like that much criticised 1950s, where on average there were something like 700 catholics to a priest in dioceses across the country.
An interesting comparison: Lincoln, Nebraska vs Hobart, Tasmania
Indeed it is a ratio that still holds in some places (such as many dioceses in Asia and Africa) and in the famously conservative dioceses of the US, such as Lincoln, Nebraska where the mass attendance rate is still around 60% each Sunday. Lincoln has a similar number of catholics to Hobart Archdiocese, but has around 139 diocesan priests and a priest to people ration of 1:604. Hobart had 34 priests, on last available figures, resulting in a ratio of 1:1,634.
The two dioceses have very different recent histories. In Lincoln after Vatican II the bishops resisted many innovations, and maintained a staunchly traditional approach to the liturgy. In Hobart, by contrast Archbishop Guildford Young proudly claimed to anticipate Vatican II by implementing the ideas of Rahner and others, and his successors followed through on this radically liberal vision.
Now of course the two dioceses are in different countries with different cultures and many other factors may have impacted as well. Still, both countries experienced the same overall dramatic decline in vocations and mass attendance. And in both countries the sheer size of the differences between individual dioceses in terms of both priest numbers and ratios cannot be readily explained by anything other than episcopal effectiveness and what 'strategies' or approaches were adopted within those dioceses.
Is Melbourne doing better?
A priest down under highlights the recent increase in Melbourne seminarian numbers. Unfortunately, the priest:to people ratio in Melbourne (including religious priests), in 2004 at least, was actually even higher than Hobart's, at 1:1,765 (Catholic hierarchy site).
And behind this ratio is the uncomfortable truth that the absolute number of priests has trended sharply downwards since 1980, from 415 to 321 in 2004. And of course that means that there is also a demographic crunch coming as more and more of those older priests retire and/or die.
Across Australia, the story is pretty much the same. Like Melbourne, in 1950 the priest to people ratio was generally around 1:700 or better. But in most dioceses (the exceptions being Sydney, Perth, Parramatta, Canberra and Wagga Wagga) the number of priests has continued to fall in real terms. And even in those dioceses, the net additions haven't kept pace with population growth.
So more vocations will certainly help. But there have to be a lot more just to counterbalance the declines in the number of priests of recent decades and get back to a ratio of priests to people that could actually sustain better mass attendance rates, compensate for likely future losses, and keep up with future population growth.
Mr Schütz disdains the idea of strategy when it comes to things to do with the Church. But in reality the problem is not that our bishops have had no strategy, at least over the last decade, but rather that isn't working well enough (unless of course your entire agenda is congregationalist in nature, which may indeed be the case for one or more of our bishops, in which case it is working very well indeed).
As Wilkinson points out, the strategy of many (though certainly not all) dioceses has been to recruit priests and seminarians from Africa and Asia to help make up the shortfall. I don't have a problem with that, indeed I agree with Fr Pearce that the objections to it seem essentially racist in nature, sprinkled with a good dose of 'the last thing we need is enthusiasm and orthodoxy'.
Others claim, with rather less success, to be focusing more actively on fostering local vocations.
But either way, the bishops still aren't gaining nearly enough vocations to even counter the ageing of the priestly population, let alone do more, which is why many bishops are looking at options such as amalgamating more parishes and developing lay leadership models.
To turn the trend around, in my view we do need some serious effort at re-evangelization. And many would agree with the words.
But just how to go about that - what strategies to adopt, how to deploy resources effectively for maximum results, is rather more disputed, and does actually require conscious decisions.
The missal reform will help. But as Michael Gilchrist of AD 2000 argues in a recent editorial, much more is needed by way of strategy.
We can and should pray on the choices to be made. But we also have to act.