Priest shortage in the Roman Catholic Church

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In the years since World War II there has been a substantial reduction in the number of priests per capita in the Catholic Church, a phenomenon considered by many to constitute a "shortage" in the number of priests.

In 2008, 49,631 parishes in the world had no resident priest pastor.[1] Between 1970 and 2012, the total number of priests declined from 419,728 to 414,313.[1]

Shortage by area[edit]


Worldwide, the total number of priests in 1970 was 419,728.[1] In 2012, there were a total of 414,313 priests.[1] While the total number of priests worldwide has therefore remained about the same since 1970, the Catholic population has nearly doubled, growing from 653.6 million in 1970 to 1.196 billion in 2013.[1]

The number of parishes with no resident priest pastor has grown from 39,431 in 1970 to 49,172 in 2013.[1] The number of parishes without a priest does not include the thousands of parishes that have closed for lack of priests.

United States[edit]

Gap Between Priests and Catholics in USA.svg

The situation in the USA is that the “Catholic Church is unique among eleven of the largest Christian denominations in several areas: the dwindling supply of priests, the increasing number of lay people per priest, the declining number of priests per parish, [and] the increasing number of 'priestless' parishes...In the Catholic Church, the total number of priests has declined from 58,534 in 1981 to 52,227 in 1991, 45,713 in 2001 and 38,275 in 2012 (a 33 percent loss between 1981 and 2012). Requirements for celibacy, poverty and obedience may be factors. In every other group, including denominations in which membership has declined (e.g., the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches), the total number of clergy has increased.[2]

With the Catholic population increasing steadily[3] and the number of priests declining, the number of laypeople per priest has climbed from 875:1 in 1981 to 1,113:1 in 1991, 1,429:1 in 2001 and 2,000:1 in 2012 (a 130 percent increase). The declining number of priests in parish ministry is producing a marked increase in the number of 'priestless' parishes. In 1960, only about 3 percent of Catholic parishes had no resident pastor. By 2000 that figure was up to 13 percent, and by the summer of 2003 it had risen to 16 percent".[2]

Between 1965 and 2010, the number of USA parishes without a priest climbed from 549 to 3,342.[1] Research by Davidson found "a growing shortage of Catholic priests but an increasing supply—some analysts say an oversupply—of clergy in most Protestant denominations".[2] Similarly, research by Richard Schoenherr found that "the current clergy shortage is a distinct Catholic crisis".[4]

2012: latest statistics suggest the tide may be turning."Catholic seminary enrollment up..." "... there were 3,608 post-baccalaureate U.S. seminarians last year, a net increase of 125 seminarians, or 4 percent, over the previous year and the highest number since the early 1990s. More than three-quarters of them were studying for the diocesan priesthood, while 24 percent intend to be ordained for religious orders." The numbers are up across the board in non-Catholic seminaries too. "The organization that accredits theological schools said 75,431 people were studying for the ministry at 261 institutions during the last academic year, an increase of .6 percent from the year before."[5] This hopeful expectation is however not backed by an increase in ordinations, which are stable at a low level of 6-7 per year per million Catholics for over 15 years.[1]

But Theological College's Father Brown said a rise in enrollment is only part of the story:

"It's not just the numbers but the quality and spirit of the men who are coming," he told CNS. "I'm tremendously impressed with the quality of the candidates, their zeal," he added. "We're seeing a real renewal of the priesthood."[6]


In Ireland, one of the organizers for the progressivist Association of Catholic Priests, Father Brendan Hoban, described the situation in these terms: "We believe that in 20 years time there will be very few priests in Ireland. We believe too, as everybody understands, that without priests you have no Eucharist, and without [the] Eucharist you have no Church. We are saying, 'What's the plan B?'"[7]


The region in the world where Catholicism is experiencing its fastest growth is in Africa.[3][8]


Around the world, the priest shortage is leading to a sacramental and pastoral deficiency for religious communities.[citation needed] This is because the faithful currently depend primarily on priests to confer the seven sacraments in Catholicism. The distances that faithful must travel for a Mass, baptism, etc. have become ever longer since the priest shortage has led to the closing of many local churches.[citation needed] On the other hand, priests must travel greater distances as they are spread to cover more parishes. Priests have less time for the individual churchgoer since they must care for a greater number of them.

In some western countries the shortages have meant many parishes have had to share a priest and staff with one or more other parishes or have had to close.[citation needed] Parish pastors often are assigned multiple parishes, in addition to be assigned diocesan responsibilities.

At the same time, however, there has been a growth in the number of men and women entering other forms of ministry in the church, such as deacons and lay ecclesial ministers. There has also been a dramatic increase in the participation and activity of the laity in general. Often, this is not a matter of deacons or lay ecclesial ministers taking over priestly roles, but of priests no longer taking over diaconal or lay roles. Canon law (CIC 512) does, however, allow for a deacon or lay ecclesial minister to be appointed as de facto pastor of a parish, under the supervision of a priest moderator, in the absence of a qualified presbyter. [9]

Researcher Dean Hoge explains "I was given a foundation grant to estimate if the celibacy requirement is a large or a small deterrent to keeping men from entering the priesthood, and on basis of a survey of Catholic college students, I found that it was the single biggest deterrent. If celibacy were optional for diocesan priests, there would be an estimated fourfold increase in seminarians, and the priest shortage would be over. The priesthood would grow until it hits financial limits".[10]

Some pundits have gone further, arguing that the shortage of priests contributed to the Catholic sex abuse cases. The suggestion is that the Roman Catholic hierarchy tried to act to preserve the number of clergy at all costs and ensure that sufficient numbers were available to serve the congregation, despite serious allegations that some priests were unfit for duty.[11] Others disagree and assert that the Church hierarchy's mishandling of the sex abuse cases merely reflected their prevailing attitude at the time towards any illegal or immoral activity by clergy.


  • Dean R. Hoge, The First Five Years of the Priesthood: A Study of Newly Ordained Catholic Priests. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. 2002. p. 3.
  • A.W. Richard Sipe, Celibacy in Crisis: A Secret World Revisited. Brunner-Routledge, New York and Hove. 2003. p. 136.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Frequently Requested Church Statistics". Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
  2. ^ a b c Davidson, . "Fewer and Fewer". America.
  3. ^ a b "The Changing Demographics of Roman Catholics". 2005.
  4. ^ Schoenherr, Richard. 1993. Full Pews and Empty Altars: Demographics of the Priest Shortage in United States Catholic Dioceses. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, p. 6
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Association of Catholic Priests discuss Church's future". BBC News.
  8. ^ "Catholic Church At Crossroads: Demographics, Social Issues Pose Challenges".
  9. ^ epd: Katholische Kirche setzt Strukturreform fort
  10. ^ Hoge, Dean. The Current State of the Priesthood: Sociological Research 2005. Catholic University of America.
  11. ^ (2004-06-11). "Catholic Priests in India 'Outsourced' to Meet Clergy Shortage in West".