Ten years ago, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) surveyed US diocesan priests and found that half of active priests planned to retire within ten years. This survey finding from the past continues to raise important financial and ministerial questions. Are we on track to see more retired than active US diocesan priests at some point in the future? Are enough new priests being ordained to replace those retiring? What does the projection suggest about the availability of active priests in 2019?

P.J. Kenedy and Sons annually publishes a very complete summary of the organizations, offices, and personnel of the Catholic Church in the United States -- the Official Catholic Directory. The Directory for 2009 contained key data about 2008, the year on which the prediction was based. Comparing that with 2015 data from the 2016 Directory can help assess US Catholic Church staffing in relation to the predicted significant drop in active priests.

National Numbers

The Directory annually publishes diocese by diocese detailed summaries and, at the back of the book, general summaries of the numbers of priests, parishes and US Catholics. One must go to the individual diocesan summaries to calculate critical statistics for

Active Priests per parish and Catholics served per active priest.

Such detailed statistics can help discern the impact of the changes over time in the critical number to follow – active Catholic priests serving in US parishes.

In 2015, one third of US diocesan priests fell into the Exhibit 1 ‘Retired, Sick or Absent’ column, most of whom were retired. Approximately 4% of diocesan priests were ‘Active Elsewhere’, usually working in other ministries, dioceses or the foreign missions. The remaining 63% were active in their own dioceses, most ministering as parish priests.

US Diocesan Priests: 2015 and 2008

During the seven year period, 2008 to 2015, retired priests grew slightly while active diocesan priests declined by 9.0%. By 2015, the number of active diocesan priests had fallen a little further below minimum adequacy for sacramental ministry statistically speaking, one priest per parish. The priest per parish average remained at a statistically rounded ‘one’ because of the loss of 1,062 parishes. Closing parishes is not being suggested as a strategy to address the priest shortage because the overall loss of active diocesan priests and increase in Catholic population meant each diocesan priest ministered to over 500 more parishioners, on average, in 2015. A better strategy would explore additional ways to increase priests to staff parishes.

Important Details

Parishes in US Catholic dioceses are often staffed with priests from several sources, as shown on Exhibit 2. Religious Orders function in most dioceses, covering some parishes and conducting other ministerial work. Another source of active parish priests is the ‘international’ or ‘extern’ priest. Extern priests minister in dioceses without being incardinated into the local diocese. Such priests come from many places – some from other US dioceses or religious orders and most from foreign countries all over the world. The strategy of staffing parishes with priests from countries with much lower priest to parish ratios is not advocated here, but presented to further detail the current situation in the United States.

Exhibit 2 displays numbers for the major sources of US parish priests. Except for the Personal Ordinariate of St. Peter set up for Anglican converts, the Directory does not identify the few married Protestants who have converted and become Catholic priests. They fall into the Active or Extern counts. The Directory does provide counts of Religious Priests in each diocese.

All Active Priests Ministering in US Dioceses: 2015 and 2008

Lacking more detail, numbers of active as opposed to retired religious order priests are estimated using the same active/retired ratio as for diocesan priests in each diocese. Many religious order priests work in the ministries of their orders –schools, social services, retreat centers, seminaries, etc. Thus, assumptions about active status and ministry overestimate the number of active religious priests actually working in parish ministry.

Exhibit 2 also provides data from the Directory about the number of extern priests in each diocese. The Directory does not indicate their country of origin. Likewise the Directory does not detail the active/sick/absent/retired status of extern priests. We should not assume from 

Exhibit 2 that all extern priests are active parish priests. Some may be in other ministries in their diocese. Others may be inactive. These missing details about extern priests add to the reasons why the Exhibit 2 estimates of Total Active Priests per Parish err on the side of being high!

In spite of the ambiguities just mentioned, Exhibit 2 displays a fuller picture of parish priest staffing in dioceses. The addition of active religious and extern priests to the cadre of diocesan priests raises the average of active priests per parish from just under 1 to over 1.6 per parish.

The picture looks better when all sources of priests are included in the analysis. But the results are uneven. As with any nationwide averages, some dioceses are better off and others not so. Exhibit 3 examines this next.

Exhibit 3 presents important differences among the US dioceses. The columns to the left display priest per parish ratios in US dioceses in 2015, from low to high. The forty-one dioceses with the lowest priest / parish ratios have a significant need for more priests. A detailed review of the 2015 data shows two dioceses with ratios below .50—i.e., with 61 priests serving 149 parishes. These two dioceses together need 88 priests to reach the one priest per parish goal. Another group of 15 dioceses must deal with priest per parish ratios below .75, requiring many priests to minister in multiple parishes.

Average Numbers of Priests Ministering in Parishes per Diocese

At the other end of the 2015 priest per parish spectrum, a group of 38 dioceses have more priest staffing flexibility, with priest per parish ratios over 2, some as high as 3 and 4 priests per parish. Most dioceses fall in the middle of the 2015 data; 98 dioceses operate with priest per parish ratios averaging 1.4, enabling them to staff most of their parishes with a resident priest.

As can be seen from a quick review of Exhibit 3, the distribution of Catholic priests among the dioceses did not change much between 2008 and 2015. Some of the actual dioceses were different but the pattern continued with a substantial group of 41 dioceses struggling to staff each of their parishes with a priest. When reviewing the dioceses with priest per parish ratios below .75, all but one remained the same in the two comparison years. These seventeen dioceses appear to have a history of struggling to attract priests for their parishes. As can be seen from the list of these dioceses, they are small, rural and mostly from the central part of the country. They include:

Bismarck, ND;  Crookston, MN ;  Dodge City, KS; Dubuque, IA; Fairbanks, AK; Fargo, ND;  Gallup, NM; La Crosse, WI; Lubbock, TX; New Ulm, MN;  Ogdensburg, NY; Rapid City, SD; Salina, KS; Sioux City, IA;  Sioux Falls, SD; Superior, WI ;Winona, MN

An Opportunity for Dioceses with Shortages

Whether Pope Francis will consider a universal change allowing married priests or not is unclear, but the possibility is not solidly on the table with the advent of the Amazonian synod the the request to implement ‘viri probati’ where the need for priests is greatest.  Surely, the US dioceses listed above have real needs, not as great as in the Amazon region, but real needs in relation to the rest of the US church. Perhaps the bishops of some of these dioceses have already worked together within the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the needs of small, understaffed dioceses.

Their dioceses seem the place to start for this new approach to resolving priest shortages.

Bishops interested in implementing the ‘viri probati’ model would need to develop plans detailing their needs and proposed implementation steps for USCCB review and forwarding to Rome. Parish leadership responsibilities and candidate qualification requirements should be clearly delineated as well as sources of candidates to fill the combined need for 600 priests in the seventeen dioceses. Surely, excellent candidates already exist among their large corps of deacons (approximately 660) and lay ministers (approximately 1,800). Married men in such positions regularly demonstrate extensive knowledge of Catholic doctrine and sacramental ministry, and a zeal for furthering the spiritual lives of parishioners. They will be excellent candidates for this new form of priesthood.

Next Steps

This analysis has shown the importance of viewing diocesan priest staffing from the perspective of active priests. The distribution of active priests, diocese to diocese, is very uneven. Many US dioceses have sufficient and even ample numbers of active priests. Approximately forty dioceses struggle to staff each of their parishes with a resident priest. In these dioceses, many priests split their time among several parishes. In several of these dioceses, over half of the diocesan priests are already retired.

The Pope’s openness to new ways of increasing the number of priests focuses on places with few priests. His immediate openness to allowing married priests involves ordaining experienced members and leaders in Catholic Church communities. Candidates will need preparation and formation for the new role in sacramental ministry. Some of the many US seminaries and schools of theology can serve in both the planning and formation processes. While US dioceses do not have the severe need for priests as found in other parts of the world, the dioceses identified above have real needs, falling short of minimum staffing for effective sacramental ministry. These dioceses fit most closely Pope Francis’ inclination to focus first on filling needs.

We intend to update this analysis in future years. Hopefully, coming soon, we will be able to report on a new category of priest being documented by the Official Catholic Directory.