Why does the Catholic Church have fewer priests than it did twenty or thirty years ago? There is little doubt that there is a clergy shortage in nearly every diocese in the nation, but how this shortage has come about is less clear. Priestly ministry has been under the media's microscope throughout 2002, and many faithful priests have become dispirited, while scores of others have been forced into resignation. While this situation has caused the decline in priest personnel to spike, it does not explain the shrinking numbers. One thing is certain: if a priest makes it through the first five years of his ordained service, he is more likely to remain in the ranks for a longer period.
In his latest volume, Dean Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America and a researcher on America's churches for over three decades, presents a research report detailing the first five years of priestly ministry. His data are based on interviews with about five hundred of the newly ordained, together with 72 diocesan and religious priests who resigned within five years of their ordination. The research project forms part of a larger effort funded by the Lilly Endowment entitled Pulpit and Pew: Research on Pastoral Leadership, and is based at Duke University Divinity School. The project was urged on Hoge by the executive committee of the National Federation of Priests' Councils.
The report itself first surveys studies on priestly ministry, defining the state of the question. Chapter two highlights attitudes in a number of of the newly ordained who are active as well as those who have resigned. The third chapter provides insight into what makes for satisfied newly ordained priests. Chapter four identifies four types of resigned priests. Briefly, these types are: those who are in love with women (heterosexuals who felt loneliness or were unappreciated); those who rejected celibacy (heterosexuals with no specific woman involved in their decision); those who are disillusioned (hetero/homosexual priests whose loneliness or feeling of under-appreciation couple with disillusioning experiences with fellow priests or the hierarchy); and finally, those who reject celibacy as constricting an openly gay life.
The fifth chapter sets out to link "life experiences" with decisions on whether these priests stay in ministry or leave. The last chapter of the report essays recommendations. Seven other authors provide a kind of cheering section to Hoge's analysis in a series of short reflections on the nature and value of the research. These are more in the category of "after thoughts" and their own usefulness is limited. Many simply echo one another, especially on the common opinion that Hoge's report is commendable and there are a number of areas in priestly formation that need addressing. An exception might be in Father Steven Rosetti's contribution which relays his experience as the head of Saint Luke's Institute in Maryland, a residential treatment program for clergy and religious. He remarks that an increasing number of his clients come to St. Luke's within the first five years of ordination. Insofar as his reflection confirms the need to attend to complex psychological problems encountered in the first years of ministry, formators ought to be convicted on the point.
The importance of the book rests on its methodology. The interviews are revealing about what is working and not working in the nation's seminaries. For instance, there is much that cultivates the prayer lives of the nation's newly ordained, and their theological studies also tend to make a positive impact on these men. Yet it seems clear from the interviews that many in formation are ill-equipped to embrace a mature and stable celibate life - one that does not deny the sexual impulse, but is able nonetheless to control it and still overcome the challenges of loneliness.
Three points seem to be left unexplored. First, no detailed accounting is given for ethnicity. A new development in seminary education is the rise of foreign students, some of whom are actively recruited from overseas in order to meet the pastoral needs of immigrant communities. How these new priests are adapting to their ministries is still a mystery. Second, there is little that is said on the specific seminary programs themselves. While it is not the purpose of the research to go beyond indicating problem areas, some accounting of the universality or particularity of seminary education might shed some light on why certain priests feel their training is lacking. If there are some seminaries that are more or less part of the overall problem for priestly dissatisfaction or ineffectuality, institutional investigations might be suggested. Finally, I would also be curious to know who of these newly ordained priests that were interviewed took their seminary studies in America and who studied overseas. I do not think there would be a major difference in the perspectives cultivated during formation between these two groups, but I do not know with any certainty.
Happily, this study joins other equally fine and needed research efforts - such as the September 2002 white papers on ongoing priestly formation and satisfaction, work load, and support structures published by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (http://CARA.georgetown.edu) - in order to illumine the nature of priesthood today. They help cut through some popular explanations for the dearth of clergy that emerged after the Second Vatican Council as, for example, the following (courtesy of one of my students): "American Catholic women after Vatican II realized that `you want my son, but not my daughter, and thus you don't want me, so you can't have my son.'" Clergy decline and retention is more complicated. The book's audience should be the bishops, seminary rectors, and priest personnel boards of every diocese in North America. Specialists in the field of Catholic ministry will find it indispensable.