Let’s begin with some truths universally acknowledged about the Catholic Church in Britain (and many places elsewhere too). We have fewer priests now than we used to. The average age of the ones we do have is higher than it once was. There are more priestly retirements (or deaths) each year than ordinations. A number of our seminaries have closed, and the ones we still have are not all bursting at the seams.
Typically, these unobjectionable facts are summarised by the familiar phrase “shortage of priests”. But is this really the problem?
Consider some simple numbers, drawn from two main sources: the Catholic Directory and Religious Trends (both most safely regarded as “impressionistic”, but they’ll do the job here well enough). In 1970, England and Wales had roughly 7,700 active priests (including Religious), and 1.9 million worshippers on a typical Sunday. By 2014, we had around 4,900 active priests, and 850,000 Sunday worshippers. So although priest numbers fell between 1970 and 2014 by 48 per cent, Sunday worshippers fell by 55 per cent.
Let us put these numbers another way. In 1970, for every 10,000 Sunday Mass-goers, there were 40 priests to serve them. But by 2014, the same number had 46 priests. In fact, Catholics in 2014 had a better priests-to-practisers ratio than at any time between 1950 (and no doubt long before) and the 1990s.
This is, of course, a pyrrhic pastoral victory: we’ve lost practising Catholics even faster than we have priests. It would be wonderful to have more priests, but it would be even more wonderful to have more practising Catholics. (Frankly, I suspect that if we solve the latter problem, the former will largely solve itself.)
But in light of the numbers of practising Catholics we do have, then, seen objectively, it is hard to see how we have too few priests to care for them all. But of course that is not how the Church sees the problem – and with good reason.
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