Our Sad Decline in Priestly Vocations: Most Priests will Retire in 2015-2025

Irecently learned from Deacon Greg Kandra that Our Lady of Providence Seminary of of the Diocese of Providence Rhode Island has zero new seminarians:

Over the past five years, between two and six men have entered the seminary every fall but that’s not the case this year.

“Entering the fall we don’t have any new seminarians applying for the Diocese of Providence, which is rare,” Fr. Chris Murphy, the Catholic Diocese of Providence’s assistant vocation director, said Tuesday.

“I cannot remember in recent memory when the last time was,” he added.
A look back at the numbers shows a declining trend. Five men entered the seminary in 2012 and six entered in 2013, then the numbers drop to three, two and four in the years that followed.

Over the years, whenever the “priestly shortage” comes up in conversation, someone is quick to reply with some encouragement like this: “Oh yes, but we have so many young orthodox vocations! Things will change in a few years!”

I agree with this encouraging fact: We have some great seminarians! I’ve personally taught Catholic seminarians in America and in Rome and I can confirm that there are some dynamic, orthodox, and impressive seminarians moving into the sacerdotal pipeline.

But I am also aware of a gaping problem that hardly anyone mentions. The seminarian numbers are not there. We are about to fall off a demographic cliff of priestly vocations.

  • Yes, an impressive seminarian or deacon-seminarian visits your parish during the summer and does fantastic work.
  • Yes, you see lots of faces on the “Meet our Seminarians” color poster in the narthex after Mass.
  • Yes, you’re bishop announces yet another round of ordinations this year.

Praise God! I rejoice in all of it…but still…the numbers are lacking. Let’s take a look at priestly demographics:

For priests, we need to pray for quality and quantity:

Here is table of the number of priests in the USA from 1930 to 2015:

The number of priests exploded in 1950 (partly through migration) {I dispute the assertion that the explosion of 1950 was “partly through migration”.  I discerned my vocation to the priesthood in 1950 and I was one of the many veterans of World War II who after resuming their college/university education after the War felt the call of Jesus Christ to serve as a priest.  The horrors of World War II caused many veterans to ask God for help in discerning what to do with life now that they had completed their education that had been delayed by the War.  Not coincidentally the immense popularity of Thomas Merton’s books, especially THE SEVEN STORY MOUNTAIN, caused men to think and pray about the purpose of life.} and peaked out in 1970. After 1975, you see a slow but steady decrease in the number of priests until the decline becomes steep around 1990.


More troubling is the fact that the tsunami of priests ordained from 1970-1980, will be reaching retirement age between the years 2015-2025 (age 25 + 45 years of service = retirement age 70).

Discovering the 1 Priest to every Catholic Ratio:

We have already begun to feel the scarcity of priests and you’ll understand why when you examine the numbers in light of the ratio of priest per Catholics. Check out these numbers:

  • In 1950, there was 1 priest to every 652 Catholics in the United States.
  • In 2010, there was 1 priest to every 1,653 Catholics in the United States.
  • In 2016, there was 1 priest to every 1,843 Catholics in the United States.

A numeric study shows that the tipping point in the USA happened around the year 1983. This is when our priest/Catholics ratio began to tank:

When it comes to priest/Catholics ratio, our priestly manpower is 33% of what it was 1950. Meanwhile there millions more lay Catholics in the pews.

And depending on the city, the ratio can be much worse. Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles have pretty discouraging ratios, but none are hurting as badly as my neighboring diocese of Dallas:

  • Diocese of Dallas: 1 priest to every 6,229 Catholics.
  • Diocese of Los Angeles: 1 priest to every 3,931 Catholics.
  • Diocese of New York: 1 priest to every 2,055 Catholics.
  • Diocese of Chicago: 1 priest to every 1,624 Catholics.

Meanwhile there are model dioceses that have wonderful ratios that beat even the 1950 national ratio:

  • Diocese of Lincoln: 1 priest to every 598 Catholics.

{What is different about the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska?  It has had beginning with Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and every bishop that has succeeded him, a loving, compassionate bishop who was/is more like a father than a cold, impersonal, distant autocrat dealing unjustly with his priests.}


And the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP), which offers the Latin Mass from the 1962 Missale Romanum currently has this ratio in its parishes:

  • FSSP: 1 priest to every 250 Catholics.

Vocation Decrease among the Jesuits

Compare the growth of the FSSP to that of the global membership of the Society of Jesus:

  • In 1977, the Jesuits had 28,038 members.
  • In 2016, the Jesuits had 16,378 members.

The Jesuits have declined 41.5% since 1977. The average age of a Jesuit priest in 2018 is 63.4 years old. Considering that mandatory priestly retirement is age 70, this does not look good for the Jesuits. They will decline by more than 50% in the coming decade. If things don’t change, there will be less than 10,000 Jesuits on earth in the next few years.

{After the reign of Francis the Merciful ends I doubt that there will be any Catholic anywhere on earth that will regret the total disappearance of the Society of Jesus from the face of the earth.}

[For reference, there are 6,058 (male and female) Dominicans on planet earth in 2018. That’s the size of three Texas high schools.]

Sad but True (plus some Hope):

It is true that we have many great young men in formation to be holy Catholic priests. I’ve spent hours talking with them after class and I know that we will have an excellent crop. The sad news is that it is small crop. A priest is only one man and if you spread him over 3 parishes, he will be less effective.

My prediction is that we will see a great Catholic migration over the next three decades. As that surge of vocations from 1970-1980 begins to retire and depart to their reward, we will see massive parish closings and consolidations. Priests will be rare. It is already obvious that bishops and dioceses like Lincoln Nebraska attract vocations to the holy priesthood. These bishops and their dioceses will thrive. Meanwhile, dioceses like Providence will shrink while they try to import priests from other parts of the world.

The solution is to pray for vocations, but also beg the question:

Why does Lincoln, Nebraska have a plethora of vocations (1 priest to every 598 Catholics!) while others are not only short on vocations but losing priests year after year?

  1. Is it liturgical?
  2. Is it ethnic or based somehow on immigration?
  3. Is it doctrinal?
  4. What leads young men to inquire about a priestly vocation?
  5. How do they organize their altar server programs?
  6. Does youth ministry play a role or not?
  7. How do pastors play a role?
  8. To which seminaries does each diocese send seminarians?
  9. How does seminarian retention rate differ from diocese to diocese?
  10. How is the bishop involved in the vocation process?

If “coffee is for closers,” Bishop Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska is drinking Roman double espressos.1 priest to every 598 Catholics. Someone should study the vocations process in place under Bishop Conley of Lincoln.

My personal acquaintance with Bishop Conley (he helped guide me into the Catholic Church in 2006) is that he is orthodox, Thomistic, dignified, fatherly, and favors the template of Ratzinger’s “Spirit of the Liturgy.” And if I’m honest, every single impressive seminarian that I meet…is shaped from the same mold. Like begets like. Like father, like son.

And even if you aren’t on board with the template of “orthodox, Thomistic, dignified, fatherly, Spirit of the Liturgy,” the numbers don’t lie.

Pray for holy bishops, holy priests, and holy seminarians!

Question: How is your part of the world doing with priestly vocations? What makes for a good seminarian?






Fr. Michael P. Orsi

The following recounts what happened to an innocent priest from New Jersey in the wake of the bishops’ conference that took place in 2002. Just a few months after it was exposed that the Boston Archdiocese was deeply involved in a cover-up of priestly sexual abuse, the bishops assembled in Dallas. The June meeting was held in a hostile environment: calls for quick and lasting reforms were made from many quarters, and the media had a field day with it. While much good came out of the meeting, it is clear now that on some very important matters, there was a rush to judgment. Nothing was more hastily considered than the due process rights of accused priests. One of those victims was Msgr. Bill McCarthy.

Justice demands that the guilty pay, but it also demands that the innocent not suffer. On June 15-18, the bishops will meet in Seattle, and one of the items they are expected to address is the issue of accused priests and fairness in dealing with them. It is only fitting that the documented case of Msgr. McCarthy be given due consideration. Sadly, he is not alone.

Bill Donohue

Monsignor William McCarthy is a retired priest from the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. After a stellar, four-decade pastoral career, he is a priest in good standing. However, for almost five years he wasn’t. In The Conspiracy: An Innocent Priest, A True Story, McCarthy recounts the ordeal that resulted from a false accusation that he abused two young girls.

A 2003 complaint—made anonymously some 23 years after the incidents were alleged to have occurred—subjected McCarthy to the provisions of the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, enacted by the United States bishops in 2002 to address the highly publicized and damaging reports of child abuse. He is straightforward in his negative assessment of this draconian measure. He also criticizes the ineptitude of some bishops, the unchecked bureaucracy of diocesan chancery offices, the vendettas carried on by some of the laity against priests, the corruption of some law enforcement officers, and the arduous process and long wait faced by priests seeking justice from the Church.hop to laicize him immediately. Instead, the future pope ordered a canonical trial at which McCarthy was completely exonerated.

Some of the situations addressed in this book are chilling. About the vindictive nature of some people who have a gripe (real or imagined) against a priest, McCarthy writes:

“Leaders of even simple ordinary positions such as pastors of local churches are not without their adversaries who will go to any extent to hurt them. During the ‘pedophile’ eruption in the USA, the media was inundated with countless accusations of priests. People were bombarded with this phenomena, it was in the ‘air’ as it were. Consequently, anyone with a grudge against a priest was motivated to seize the opportunity to make a hit.”

The motive of an accuser (or a purported witness) should be thoroughly investigated as part of the inquiry process whenever an allegation arises. Yet, this is rarely considered a top priority. Instead, ever since the Boston debacle caused by Cardinal Bernard Law’s mismanagement put the issue of recidivist abusers in the nation’s headlines, accused priests are automatically presumed guilty by their bishops, with very little scrutiny of those making the accusations.

The judgment of guilt is generally affirmed in the court of public opinion, since the priest has already been removed from his ministry. Out-of-court payoffs to plaintiffs, which have become a common practice, exacerbate the problem. People assume that the exchange of money automatically proves there was something wrong, creating a no-win situation even for a priest who is ultimately found to be innocent.

Therefore, unless incontrovertible evidence can be shown that abuse occurred, each case should be litigated aggressively by the priest’s diocese (this is as true in the case of dead priests). The system, as it stands now, encourages false accusations, has led to bankruptcy in many dioceses, and left the Church, its bishops and priests more vulnerable than ever.

McCarthy paints a dreary portrait of his former bishop and chancery staff that is, unfortunately, all too common. Instead of an organization guided by Christian principle, we see a group of confused and desperate people whose behavior illustrates such key insights from business management as, “Personnel is policy,” and “Like brings on like.” Concerned only with self-protection, they are only too willing to throw a priest “under the bus.” As McCarthy explains:

“In my case, my former bishop writes an official letter to the Pope demanding my immediate laicization, ex officio; this time not even a trial or personal discussion of any kind. No recourse of any sort was allowed me. No communication was possible—I was shunned by the diocese and my brother priests. My name erased from the official records. My life was essentially evaporated.”

Infuriating as it may be, Canon Law enables bishops to act as little potentates in their dioceses. Inadequate bishops, fearful of public opinion, tend to isolate themselves from those who think differently than they do, and confront issues in a dictatorial manner. Bishops who allowed known serial pedophiles to continue in the priesthood should have been removed. So too those who sacrificed innocent priests for expediency, hiding behind the non-binding Dallas Charter. But the Vatican has no mechanism for removing them (even for evaluating them), unless immoral behavior, heresy, or financial mismanagement can be proven. And so, many of them continue to exercise their office in good standing. No wonder the outrage!

It seems to be part of our psychological make-up to trust law enforcement personnel and think of them as good people. We also tend to believe that telling the truth will clear us of an allegation. McCarthy jarringly demonstrates that this trust is misplaced. He chronicles the emotional abuse suffered at the hands of a police detective, and discusses the use of such dubious investigative practices as a rigged lie detector test and proposing “suppressed memories” to alleged victims. He recounts the testimony given by a police detective at his canonical trial:


[the detective] testified—the one who began this whole shamble. The one who convinced the girls that ‘Father McCarthy molested you when you were children,’ even though they denied having any memories whatsoever of such a thing happening. He invoked the technique prevalent in the seventies called ‘suppressed memory.’ He had said to them, ‘You don’t remember it because it was so painful and awful that you just buried it…but he did molest you.’ After several intense barrages at them, they allowed themselves to become convinced those awful things actually happened to them.”McCarthy rightly advises any priest facing a sexual abuse charge to get a civil and canon lawyer before answering any questions, either from the bishop or from the police—especially the police. He notes how the conviction of an abusive priest is viewed as a feather in a police officer’s cap—career-wise.

So much is said about abuse victims—and rightly so—but little is said about the priests falsely accused, either those living or those who have died. Least discussed of all is the truth that, in some cases, Satan is acting on the minds and imaginations of those people who lend themselves to the task of destroying an innocent priest. The Evil One knows that to cripple the priesthood is to strike at the heart of the Church. That’s why every effort must be made to protect the innocent, for their good and for the good of the Body of Christ.

McCarthy shows his readers the entire process, civil and canonical, which he endured. His story is an invaluable education for those not familiar with the usual course of events involved in these cases. He says:

“Unquestionably there needs to be positive meaningful change to the ecclesiastical tribunal system. They have never been truly challenged. It is time for priests around the world to speak out for major reform. It needs to change so that innocent priests like me can get a fair shake—and I’m going to keep fighting until it is done. If I don’t keep up the struggle, my life’s work will be in vain.”

McCarthy acknowledges the importance of his lay friends and brother priests who supported him during his long ordeal. They were, he says, essential to his survival. He praises his new bishop for treating him with dignity and respect, and reports a reconciliation with his now-retired bishop and the Vicar-General who processed the case against him. McCarthy says he has forgiven all those involved in his crucifixion but, he says, he will never forget. Nor will anyone who reads McCarthy’s account.

The Conspiracy is a combination diary, spiritual journal, and exercise in self-analysis, and it includes a bibliography of other books McCarthy found helpful during his ordeal. It is self-published, and so doesn’t have all the polish of a work edited and produced by a major publishing house. In a sense, that enhances its effectiveness. This is a raw account of one man’s ordeal, capturing both the torment inflicted on an innocent priest and the joy of his vindication.

Despite the successful outcome of his case, the physical and psychological wounds McCarthy sustained have left permanent scars. Yet the depth of spiritual growth which he reports has enabled him to identify with the innocently crucified Lord. Perhaps that’s the most important point the book makes.

This story should be read by every priest and every lay person, because the priest scandal is a sad episode in the history of the Church which effects everyone. McCarthy has performed an invaluable service by giving us his story in the form of an insightful memoir. His account puts the sensationalism surrounding the crisis in a different light, bringing into focus those priests who are being abused by an unjust system. And he offers words of hope to any of his fellows who may be experiencing the pain he endured:

“Finally, may I dare say, if there is one message I want to leave from this journal, it is if there is a priest out there who is falsely accused, I want you to know, that you are not alone, and with perseverance and hopefully with patient endurance, you can make it to the other side of darkness.”

Fr. Michael P. Orsi is Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion, Ave Maria Law School.


About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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