Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Catholic World News News Feature

The Incredible Shrinking Catholic Church May 01, 2003

By Kenneth C. Jones

Time magazine wanted to talk theology with Mel Gibson recently on the set of The Passion, his new movie depicting the last hours of Christ. Asked what he thought about the effects of the Second Vatican Council on the Catholic Church, the Braveheart of Catholic traditionalists said, "Look at the main fruits: dwindling numbers and pedophilia."

Gibson's post Vatican II ergo propter Vatican II argument would be enough to drive any high school logic teacher crazy. Is the Council responsible for all the Church's ills, including the priestly sex-abuse crisis, that have arisen since the Council closed in 1965? After all, many of the abuse allegations pre-dated the Council, and some of the most notorious offenders--like John Geoghan and Paul Shanley--were trained in the pre-Vatican II seminaries. Too many factors come into play to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Council caused the pedophile priest phenomenon.

But Gibson comes closer to the mark when blaming the Second Vatican Council for the "dwindling numbers. In fact he is being generous, because "plummeting  would be a more accurate term than "dwindling" to describe of the incredibly shrinking Catholic Church since 1965. In every area that is statistically measurable--such as the number of priests, seminarians, priestless parishes and nuns--the deterioration is obvious, and is the exact opposite of the trends before the Council.


Beyond a vague understanding of a need for "more vocations," most Catholics are perhaps unaware of the disaster facing the American priesthood. After skyrocketing from about 27,000 in 1930 to 58,000 in 1965, the number of priests in the United States dropped to 45,000 in 2002. By 2020, there will be about 31,000 priests--and only 15,000 will be under the age of 70, according to a study conducted by Dr. James R. Lothian of Fordham University.

The shortage of priests has created a problem previously unknown to modern Catholics: the priestless parish. Only 3 percent of the parishes in the US--a total of 549--were without a priest in 1965. In 2002 there were 2,928 priestless parishes, about 15 percent of all US parishes. By 2020, a quarter of all parishes, 4,656, will have no priest.

As one would expect, the priest dearth has been fueled by a collapse in the seminarian population. There were 16,300 seminarians in 1930 and 49,000 in 1965. By 2002 the number had plunged to 4,700: a 90 percent decrease. Without any students, countless seminaries across the country have been sold or shuttered. There were 596 seminaries in 1965, and only 200 in 2002.

And empty seminaries result in declining ordinations. While there were 1,575 ordinations to the priesthood in 1965, in 2002 there were 450, a decrease of 350 percent. Taking into account ordinations, deaths and departures, in 1965 there was a net gain of 725 priests. In 1998, there was a net loss of 810.


The tragedy of the convents has been perhaps even more startling. A host of 138,000 sisters ran the Catholic education and health systems in 1945; their numbers swelled to 180,000 by 1965. In 2002, there were 75,000 sisters, with an average age of 68. By 2020, the number of sisters will drop to 40,000--and of these, only 21,000 will be age 70 or under. One does not have to be Chicken Little to predict that within a generation there will be no nuns.

The same is true for the once-proud religious orders of men. For example, in 1965 there were 5,277 Jesuit priests and 3,559 seminarians; in 2000 there were 3,172 priests and 389 seminarians. There were 2,534 OFM Franciscan priests and 2,251 seminarians in 1965; in 2000 there were 1,492 priests and 60 seminarians. There were 2,434 Christian Brothers in 1965 and 912 seminarians; in 2000 there were 959 Brothers and 7 seminarians. It does not require special training in statistics to conclude that by 2050, if these trends continue, the Jesuits, the Franciscans, and the Christian Brothers, will be the virtually extinct in the US.

Other statistics on the life of the Catholic Church in America tell the same story. At the time of the Council there were 4.5 million students in US parochial schools; now there are 2 million. Before the Council there were less than 400 marriages annulled by Catholic diocesan tribunals in an average year; now there are 50,000. Before the Council 3 out of 4 Catholics attended Mass each week; now the figure is 1 in 4.

Given these alarming facts, one wonders how a movie star like Mel Gibson can sense a Church in extremis, but the American bishops cannot. They know the statistics (which are published by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops), yet take no action to counter the catastrophe.

The bishops do not have a good track record when it comes to responding to crisis. Just as they showed no interest in the sexual abuse of minors--in fact they were sometimes complicit--it is a good bet that the bishops will neglect the emergency that threatens the very existence of the Church in the America.

[AUTHOR ID] Kenneth C Jones of St. Louis is the author of Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church since Vatican II, published by Oriens Publishing Co.