Over the past forty years, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and worldwide has experienced a steadily worsening priest shortage. At first, the process was so gradual that it was hardly noticed. But now, the rapidity of the decline is having a devastating impact on parish and sacramental life.
According to a 2008 Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate study, half of the 19,302 active diocesan priests plan to retire by 2019. We are ordaining about 380 new diocesan priests each year. In just eight years, we will have only 13,500 active diocesan priests to serve our 18,000 parishes, presuming ordinations remain constant, as they have for over a decade.
Many dioceses engage in the morally questionable practice of importing priests from the developing world despite even more severe priest shortages in those countries. Still others are accepting married priests from other religious traditions, while simultaneously dismissing Catholic priests who marry and failing to recognize the vocations of Catholic married men. Some bishops are changing priests’ retirement age from 70 to 75. Many are embracing several of these strategies simultaneously yet none will arrest the steep declines looming ahead.
We, the people of God, are regularly asked to “Pray for vocations,” and we have been praying diligently. Since Church law tells us that we have the duty to express our views about the Church’s welfare, we share with you the outcome of our prayer. It is simply this:
The slow deliberate pace of the Catholic Church, once deemed a virtue, is a luxury we can no longer afford. Delay caused by inaction threatens our Catholic life and mission. Without a viable priesthood and strong healthy parish communities, the terrible decline in vitality that has devastated the Catholic faith in Europe may well occur in the US.
Silence, blind obedience, and unquestioning trust on the part of faithful Catholics can no longer be viable options if the Church with the Eucharist as the center of its life is to survive. Now is the time to act as well as to pray.
Therefore, we call on you, our bishops and brothers in Christ, to embrace your roles as shepherds, and nourish the people you were ordained to serve. We ask you to encourage discussion of the genuine reform so necessary to the future of the Church.
The people of God, including priests and bishops, have already begun a courageous dialogue about restoring our early traditions recognizing married and celibate priests and women deacons. We ask you, as leaders of US dioceses, to open such a dialogue as well, officially or unofficially within your dioceses, the US Bishops’ Conference, and the Vatican itself.
May God bless our Church with people of vision, wisdom and courage.
Sign on to the Open Letter:
- We invite signatures from individual Catholics, Catholic parishes, organizations, prayer groups and justice groups.
- If you wish to remain anonymous it's ok to sign the first and last name field with something like "concerned pastoral minister", "overworked priest" or the like.
- The open letter will be published in one or several national Catholic publications in 2011 and 2012.
- It will contain a link to an online version that contains the names of all organizations and individual signers who wish to be identified. (Only your name and diocese will be included in the online listing.)