I recently came across an interesting datum about the priest shortage in this country, especially in the large archdioceses. It seems that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles ordained only seven men in 2017 for well over 4 million Catholics. That reminded me of the kind of vocation data that have plagued the large archdioceses of South America for centuries. So I looked into our other large archdioceses, and I must say the picture is rather stunning.
Take the five largest: Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Houston. In 2017, these five ordained a total of 33 men to serve a combined population of 12.5 million Catholics. (Again, like what we have long seen in South America where the vocations were so few that most priests come from outside that continent.) Here too, a significant number of those being ordained were born outside the United States. Indeed, in one of these local churches not a single ordained priest was born in the United States. A half-century ago those 33 ordained would have been fairly common in a single large archdiocese. Obviously, those days are gone.
Just for comparison, I looked up a couple of small dioceses that have been far more successful in recruiting. In Wichita, ten men were ordained in 2017; in Lincoln Nebraska, there were five. Now Wichita serves approximately 120,000 Catholics, Lincoln about 95,000. So, two small dioceses with a combined population of 215,000 produced almost half as many ordinations as five major archdioceses with a combined population of 12.5 million! How is this possible? How can two small dioceses have no vocation crisis while the largest archdioceses in the country have a tremendous problem?
There is no simple answer to these questions. Nonetheless, you would think that the USCCB might be jarred to look into the matter. What can possibly be more important for the future of the Catholic Church in our great population centers than understanding why they are failing to produce enough priests? A good place to start might be to study these smaller dioceses. They could give some valuable insights as to the direction the larger churches should take.
Common sense could also suggest at least a few factors that might make a big difference. For one thing, I looked into these two small dioceses not only because they produce a lot of vocations to the priesthood, but because they are well-known for Catholic schools that are very up-front about their Catholicism and very affordable for most Catholic families. The Diocese of Wichita, for instance, has for some years been offering virtually tuition-free education, supported by a tithing system in the parishes, which all families can take advantage of – rich, middle-class, or poor.
In the large archdioceses, and in most other dioceses, the tuition-based financing of education has made the schools effectively inaccessible both for poorer families and large families. This was a situation feared by the bishops at the Third Council of Baltimore, who ordered that Catholic schools should be accessible to all in the way they’re financed. Most of these bishops were not in favor of tuition-based schools.
At the same time, it’s highly questionable just how truly committed to Catholic education most of the schools are in large archdioceses and even in smaller dioceses. How many of these local churches effectively oversee the hiring of faculty to assure that the Catholic educators are themselves practicing and faithful Catholics? Students being educated in a school where there is a pro forma, watered-down religion curriculum, and who are also well aware that some or many of their other teachers either disagree with Church teaching or don’t practice their faith at all, are surely less likely to be the kind of committed Catholics from whom vocations will emerge. So, the study might just look at how many dioceses are insisting that to teach in a Catholic school, the faculty member must be a faithful Catholic who actually practices the faith.
Another datum from these two small dioceses is that they have had a succession of bishops who themselves were firmly committed to building a strong and affordable Catholic education system and who were personally involved to one degree or another in the vocation program itself. Of course, that involvement is easier in smaller dioceses, but given the small number of candidates today in large archdioceses, certainly some involvement will be more possible today than in previous times. The first bishop of my own diocese, Thomas Welsh, was very much involved in strengthening the religious curriculum of the schools he inherited, and he was very directly involved in the vocations program. He had been the rector of the major seminary in Philadelphia and understood well the needs of young men studying for the priesthood – including some regular personal contact and support from their bishop. That’s one reason why the Arlington Diocese does not have a priest shortage.
Finally, while there’s no question that the social environment of large metropolitan areas is rather poisonous for the faith and that the Church has only a limited ability to turn that situation around, there is certainly one element that the Church could affect. Look at Catholic birthrates in these two smaller dioceses compared with the larger archdioceses, and at the size of families from which vocations are coming in those small dioceses. Today in the large metropolitan areas, the one- or two-child family, even among Hispanics, seems to have become the norm. Is it unreasonable to presume that they might want grandchildren more than a priest in the family?
Perhaps the larger metropolitan churches are witnessing the results of the relative silence of bishops and clergy when it comes to the evil of contraception. Just a thought. But it might be worth studying and making changes about matters of vital importance to the Church’s mission of evangelization and of bringing sacramental graces to a world badly stumbling for lack of them.