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So, the number of priests has risen...

But everything is relative and statistics do not always paint a complete picture

Michael Kelly Michael Kelly
  • Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • February 21, 2011
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Great attention has been paid over the last week to the Vatican’s announcement that the gross number of priests in the world has risen in the last decade. On our own site, the story rated the highest number of visitors on the day of the announcement and across the world, the story gained extensive exposure.

Without being as cynical about the announcement as the 19th Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli might suggest that we be (“There are lies, damn lies and statistics”), the figures merit more considered assessment if they are to reveal what the real condition of the Church’s clergy is.

The abiding question about any claim that a number is growing is “growing relative to what?” If anyone who has a business were told their profit had grown or the owner of a piece of property were told it had increased in value, the real question for both is: in relation to what?

Has the value of the property increased ahead of or behind the rate of return on shares or money? Has the profit on the business provided its owner with an appropriate rate of return on the investment that created the business in the first place?

Simply saying that the price of property has risen or profits in a business have increased without these qualifiers is not really very helpful.

So, the number of priests has risen in the last decade. But relative to what? The number of Catholics has risen in the same time by 128 million according to the Vatican’s own figures. Even if the number of priests has risen by 50,000 (as the growth reported for the previous year suggests) in the last decade, that still represents half the rate of growth of the Catholic population the priests are ordained to serve.

Relative to the number of priests needed to serve the growing Catholic population, the number of priests has actually declined. The Church was better off, in relative terms, a decade ago.

But the questions about gross numbers need to be even more searching. Where are the large populations of Catholics and how are they faring in ordinations? What is the median or even average ages of the clergy and how do they compare with a decade ago?

Are the Vatican statistics including those priests who have left active ministry but are not laicized? Many leaving priesthood today don’t bother with applying for laicization because it takes so long and the Vatican is very reluctant to grant it. So priests leave, take other jobs, may get married but still appear in the books, misleadingly, as priests.

With a few exceptions – India, Thailand and Korea in Asia and Nigeria and the Congo in Africa – the number of priests per Catholic is going south.

The spread of the clergy worldwide is very uneven. In an aside to an Australian bishop on his Ad Limina visit to Rome, Pope John Paul II lamented that Italy alone had 35,000 priests and asked what impact they made when other countries with large populations of Catholics had so few. Italy has about nine percent of the world's clergy for just on three percent of the world’s baptized Catholics. The Philippines has just on 2.2 percent of the world’s priests for 4.5 percent of baptized Catholics worldwide.

The Western world, as is widely known, is witnessing not just the decline in gross numbers of priests but their rapid aging as well. In Australia, the average age of priests is nearly 70 where it may be little more than half that in some developing countries.

In other words, unless figures are set in their real and relative contexts, they aren’t very helpful.

But these statistics prompt even more basic questions. What are we talking about when we use the word priest? What is at the core of a priest’s ministry? Compare that to what priests actually do. What are the things priests do that in many places around the world that are done by unacclaimed and unordained lay people? What are the terms of access to priestly ministry and why are they restricted to celibate males?

Aren’t there plenty of ministries in the Church – teaching, financial and staff administration, service of the sick and poor, introductions to the Christian faith as catechists, etc – that should have a way of being recognized, celebrated and commissioned as part of the service of the Church to the faith community and beyond?

More than 20 years ago, a priest now in his late 80s asked me a question: “Michael, do you know what the two issues were that Paul VI reserved to himself and would not allow their discussion on the floor of Vatican II?”

I replied that I didn’t know, that I was nine years of age when the Council began and 12 when it closed.

“Contraception and clerical celibacy,” he replied. “And what are the two things that bedeviled the Church since? Female anatomy and the nature of ministry.”

Celibacy was slated for consideration at the 1971 Synod of Bishops but got bumped off the agenda in favour of social justice and produced the groundbreaking document Justice in the World. It has been the fountainhead of extensive action and reflection in the Church ever since.

But maybe it’s time to put ministry back on the agenda.

Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of UCA News. He has worked in radio and TV production since 1982 and as a journalist in Australia and Asia for various publications, religious and secular.

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