Forget the earthquakes – the shortage of priests is really biting

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Oh dear, it’s all a bit sad. According to a recent report , our country is teetering on the brink of disaster. What is the disaster you ask? Climate change? Earthquake? Famine? Disease? No, it’s a shortage of Catholic priests. You may now run around screaming and waving your hands in the air. I”ll wait.

Welcome back. You can read all about it in this article. Amongst the hyperbole are these words…

“The catastrophic decline in parish priests…”

“The situation is far more serious than he anticipated…”

”The crisis is real and the scale is huge..”

Crikey, now I’m really alarmed (although not afraid). But given that’s the premise of the article, author Barney Zwartz has an interesting first para or so:

“WEDNESDAY morning Mass at St Aloysius in north Caulfield, and barely a dozen of the faithful are scattered through the handsome old Catholic church built to house 1000, as Father Gerard Diamond celebrates the sacrament.

Two hours later, he is leading Mass again at St Anthony’s in Glen Huntly for a healthier congregation of about 50.”

Exactly how many priests does it take to manage ‘barely a dozen of the faithful’?

The article goes on to describe the merging of th Glen Huntly and Caulfield parishes, and I’m sure we all remember the seismic shocks felt when that went down. The suggestion in the article is that the merger was the result of a declining number of priests. While I have no reason to doubt the research figures, which show an increasing number of catholics and a soaring rate of catholics per priest, I think Barney is ignoring the elephant in the room. I’d like to see figures on parishioners per priest – and I suspect that would give a very different picture.

There is plenty of evidence of a decline in church attendance overall, and by catholics in particular. This table, taken from a National Church Life Survey here, shows the changes in overall attendance as down 7% in only 5 years between 1996 and 2001, but catholicism takes a larger hit of 13%.

Table 1: Changes in Weekly Attendance, 1996-2001

Denomination 2001 Estimated Weekly Attendance % change since 1996
Anglican 177700 -2%
Apostolic 9100 20%
Assemblies of God 104600 20%
Baptist 112200 8%
Bethesda Ministries 2700 na
Christian & Missionary Alliance 4100 na
Christian City Churches 11400 42%
Christian Revival Crusade 11400 -7%
Church of the Nazarene 1600 33%
Churches of Christ 45100 7%
Lutheran 40500 -8%
Presbyterian 35000 -3%
Reformed 7100 -1%
Salvation Army 27900 -7%
Seventh-day Adventist 36600 na
Uniting 126600 -11%
Vineyard 2500 -17%
Wesleyan Methodist 3800 -7%
CATHOLIC 764800 -13%
TOTAL 1524700 -7%#
Even the Christian Research Association has an article here entitled “Why people don’t go to church and what churches can do about it”. The opening para says:
“Why don’t more Australians go to church? Many express interest in spiritual issues, and there are high levels of occasional contact between the churches and the community. Yet the number of people who attend church has hit its lowest point in the post-war period, with around 20% who claim to attend worship services at least monthly.”

With this as a backdrop, is there really any point in worrying about the lack of priests – to the extent that we would import them?

For me, the most disturbing is the conclusion of the article, regarding the dwindling numbers of priests:

“…priests would be forced to focus on the sacraments and Eucharist at the expense of other important duties such as pastoral care.”

By all means, if there isn’t enough time to service your flock, focus on repeating ad nauseam the hollow words and rituals that I bet are turning people away from churches, rather than providing them with pastoral care which actually has the potential to do some good.


4 thoughts on “Forget the earthquakes – the shortage of priests is really biting

    Reservoir Dad said:
    March 13, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Hi Mate, another great article. I tweeted it and it has ended up on this e-letter – . You should get some social media buttons on your site to make it easier for people to share your content.

      rationalbrain said:
      March 13, 2011 at 2:57 pm

      Hi there rd. Yes, I’ve probably not put enough thought into that side of things. I am publishing to my own tweets, for what that’s worth, but I’ll certainly take up your suggestion. C.

    Ideology at the expense of health « rationalbrain said:
    August 3, 2011 at 8:32 am

    […] an earlier post, I talked about the folly of the Catholic church which, when faced with a shortage of priests, […]

    The Salt Shakers & home-grown extremism « rationalbrain said:
    November 27, 2011 at 11:08 am

    […] written about this syndrome before – no matter that an individual does good work for his flock – if they don’t tow […]

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