Advance the priest shortage story (please)

prieststoryFor months, I have written about coverage of the Catholic priest shortage in the United States. My standard critique has been about stories' technique -- the reporter's use of sources, point of view, details, etc. Now my critique is about their content. My change of heart is partly a response to several insightful replies from GR readers. Take the reply below, for example. After I wrote in May about coverage of a story about the growing number of older incoming priests, reader Fr. John wrote the following:

There are several problems with the story.

1. 1965 is a bad year to compare to. It was a peak year for ordinations. 2. There was a huge surge in vocations between 1945 and 1965. 3. The US has never ordained enough priests for it's own needs. We've always had to import them, historically from Ireland, now from Poland, Africa, and the Philippines.

At the seminary I went to, there are now roughly twice the seminarians than the year I was ordained (1996). Over half my class was so-called "late vocations". This is old news.

Indeed, Fr. John's remarks are more informative than the vast majority of reporters' stories. This is a problem. The press is not advancing the story. It is, at best, reporting variations on the same theme and, at worst, regurgitating old news.

Which brings me to The Roanoke Times' story about the Catholic priest shortage, in southern Virginia. Within the conventions of the genre, reporter Rob Johnson's story is quite well done.

Johnson skillfully employed many of the reporter's bag of tricks. Take his lede, for example.

For a clergyman so in demand, helping fulfill the spiritual needs of more than 1,000 families in three Catholic churches, the Rev. Nixon Negparanon spends a lot of time alone.

His Sundays sometimes begin on Saturday night, driving 30 miles from his home parish at Our Lady of Nazareth Catholic Church in Southwest Roanoke County to the modest wood frame house in Rocky Mount that serves as the rectory for Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.

On such an evening in late August, the 34-year-old Negparanon cooked his Sunday lunch in solitude -- reheating it nearly 18 hours later during a brief break before his 26-mile commute to Resurrection Catholic Church in Moneta for a baptism.

"I must be prepared ahead to have time to eat. It is the only way," said the native of the Philippines. After the baptism, he led Resurrection's Mass at 4 p.m.

Some Sundays are longer -- if there are ill parishioners to be visited in the Smith Mountain Lake area, for instance. Only then does Negparanon settle back into the church-furnished Toyota Camry and complete the final 37-mile leg of his circuit.

With ministerial tasks stretching across three counties, Negparanon and his brisk Sundays underscore the effects of the Roman Catholic Church's growing shortage of priests in the United States. Parishes must increasingly share pastors, more and more of whom must be imported from overseas on temporary assignment. Soon, some Southwest Virginia parishes may be faced with holding services without a priest.

A presentation of the priest's point of view, the use of novelistic details (Toyota Camry, his modest wood frame house), a matter-of-fact tone -- Johnson's technique deserves praise. And within the newsroom, I don't doubt that Johnson's editors will give him a slap or two on the back.

Also to his credit, Johnson adds a new wrinkle to the conventional narrative: while the number of priests in the region is declining, the number of Catholics is growing. As he writes,

[T]he deficit of priests is deepening at a time when the number of Catholic congregants is on the increase. Among the 152 Virginia churches in the Diocese of Richmond -- covering most of the state but excluding populous Northern Virginia -- the number of active priests fell by 33 percent between 1975 and 2005, to 158. Meanwhile, in a part of the South where Baptists and other Protestant denominations prevail, the ranks of Catholics in the diocese more than doubled to 223,595. In Western Virginia, Catholic parishes in Blacksburg and Moneta, in particular, are showing vibrant growth.

Yet Johnson's main story is more of the dog-bites-man variety than its opposite. For example, Johnson explains the decline in the priests' ranks this way:

Catholic officials say the paucity of pastors has several causes, including the requirement that priests maintain celibacy. But that tradition is centuries old and existed during times when the ranks of Catholic clergy were robust. Other factors cited include decades of growth in the economy that increase secular career options and increasing opportunities for college scholarships and loans that vie for the attention of potential seminary students. Further, highly publicized child sex abuse scandals involving priests, which have prompted apologies from Pope Benedict XVI, have eroded the prestige of the priesthood, church officials acknowledge.

As reader FW Ken notes, such sociological and psychological explanations, while true enough, are old hat. Within Catholic religious circles, people rely more on theological explanations. The most intriguing of those was that before Vatican II the Church taught that the clergy were more likely to go to heaven than the laity.

In summary, I will make a proposal: reporters should scrutinize the theological and religious explanations for the priest shortage, as well as provide more historical and sociological context. Doing one or both would be a good way to advance an old story.

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