Gap in Sun story on the priest gap

The Baltimore Sun -- the newspaper that lands in my yard -- has done another story related to the vocations crisis in the modern Catholic Church. Regular GetReligion readers know what that means. (Cue: audible sigh)

This time around, the story centers on a new "Focus 11" program that strives to expose children in Catholic schools to the more personal, subtle details of life as a priest, monk, sister or nun.

On the positive side, I liked the story's use of personal details and even humor:

Focus 11 includes activities like a quiz game between the children and panelists, who included a priest, a brother, a deacon and two nuns. The back and forth showed the children that vocations come from people leading ordinary lives.

"Nobody is born a priest or nun," said Sister Fran Gorsuch, who played emcee for the game. "God called them to that life. And, that life is anything but boring."

When she asked which panelist was a Phillies baseball fan and a motorcyclist who worked in the Dominican Republic, the children chose one of the men -- not the correct answer (it was Sister Mary Beth Antonelli). They erred about who had mastered fencing. It was the "lady in blue," Sister Mary Grace Dateno.

However, you also knew that the story would include the usual background paragraphs about the causes of the vocations crisis.

At this point, I assume that every computer in the Sun newsroom has some kind of Control-click macro feature that automatically inserts the following paragraph -- or precise variations on these themes -- into the semi-regular stories about American Catholicism's shortage of priests and nuns.

The Catholic Church has for the last several decades experienced declining numbers of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life. Some of the factors blamed for the decrease are the required vows of celibacy and the fact that priesthood is limited to men. Church sex abuse scandals have hurt as well, said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference. ...

In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, only two priests have been ordained in the past two years. Since 1965, the number of priests nationwide has dropped from nearly 60,000 to fewer than 40,000, according to statistics from CARA. There are less than a third as many nuns today in the United States as there were 50 years ago, and while the Catholic population has increased, many parishes are not staffed by a resident priest.

All of this is true, of course. That is not my point.

I am also sure that Bednarczyk spoke those words, during his discussion of causes for the crisis. However, based on my own experiences and interviews with other Catholic leaders, I am sure that he discussed other subjects as well. However, the official, designated, simplistic list of causes seems to have been carved into stone at this point and it's hard for mainstream journalists to ponder other factors.

Like what? Well, one of the major problems these days is that millions of Catholic parents are no longer sure if they want their sons and daughters to surrender their lives to the church.

This is the factor that the Sun continues to miss in its coverage of stories linked to Catholic statistics -- such as struggling parishes, closing schools and, yes, the declining number of priests. A key fact: Birth rates for most white American Catholics now resemble those found in liberal Protestant churches.

I dug into this a few years ago in a pair of Scripps Howard columns that shipped with this title: "Fathers, mothers and Catholic sons." The key interview was with the progressive Catholic academic Father Donald B. Cozzens, a former seminary vicar in Ohio and author of the influential 2000 book, “The Changing Face of the Priesthood."

The bottom line: How many Catholic young people will even considering entering religious life if this step is actively opposed by their fathers and mothers?

In the past, when large families were the norm, it was a matter of pride to have a son enter religious life. But what if most Catholic families contain only one son?

“When it has become normal to have two children or less, you are not going to find many parents who are encouraging a son -- especially an only son -- to become a priest,” said Cozzens. “They want him to get married, to have grandchildren and carry on the family name. ...

“So there are fewer sons and there are more mothers who are asking hard questions.”

Grandchildren or no grandchildren?

This needs to go into the Sun macro on the crisis. Once again, demographics is destiny. I would also note that, especially in Catholic pews, demographics are often shaped by doctrine.

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