Catholic beat memo: Don't ignore facts about church tradition when reporting on priest shortage

When I worked as an editor, I always encouraged journalists covering a particular city, town or neighborhood to get a hold of church bulletins. Why? They are packed with information and, frequently, with hooks for local stories.

The weekly bulletin that awaits me every Sunday when I enter church is one of the ways my family and I connect with the parish. It’s the place where the pastor writes a short message, offers up a schedule of events and there may even be ads from local shops.

The bulletin that greeted me on the first Sunday of this month did not feature good news. Rather, it hit close to home with information about some of the many challenges the current Roman Catholic church faces.

The clergy abuse scandals stretching back to 2002 in the Boston diocese through the present in Texas has crippled the church’s moral credibility in the eyes of many Catholics and society as a whole. Add to that a shortage of vocations that has plagued the church for decades and you have a lethal combination. With such adversity, how can the church properly serve the lives of everyday people? 

My parish priests, writing in the Feb. 3 bulletin, revealed that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio — head of the Brooklyn diocese (which covers two of New York City’s five boroughs) — informed them recently that a decision had been made to make my church a “one priest parish” later this year. It means fewer services on Sunday and more work for the sole priest now responsible for the people living in the surrounding zip codes. 

“However, it is a sign of the reality we face with the declining number of priests,” the letter said.

What is happening in my parish is an example of the struggles thousands of churches across the country now grapple with. The church sex-abuse scandal, coupled with dwindling vocations, have made priests a scarce commodity.

What’s the answer to this problem? The mainstream media’s response has been to try and get Pope Francis to talk about — and even endorse — the notion of married priests, with no regard for the Catholic church’s Roman rite traditions.

Nonetheless, when it comes to married priests, this pope has argued against lifting the celibacy requirement. One wouldn’t necessarily know that from the headlines of the past few weeks.

In Brooklyn, for example, there are only 50 seminarians studying to become priests over the arc of the next nine years. That means if they all those young men become priests, which doesn’t always happen, then the diocese will have about five new priests each year. The diocese loses far more priests every year due to retirements and deaths. There, in one stat, is the supply-and-demand problem parishes face each year.

The Diocese of Brooklyn, for example, counts 1.5 million Catholics spread out across 188 parishes. That’s a a lot of people considering that another 2.6 million Catholics live across the East River in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and several northern counties as part of the Archdiocese of New York.

Nationwide, as a result of the shortage, churches have had to consolidate — as was the case recently in an affluent suburban Chicago parish — and laypeople having to take on larger roles in places like Buffalo, N.Y.

What’s lacking in the news coverage about this issue has been just how these developments change the details of how Catholics interact with their church, what it means for communities forced to deal with the shortages and what does it mean for Catholicism as a whole going forward.

The problem was highlighted in a 2015 Georgetown University study put together by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In the report, researchers noted the clerical shortage and how it was being remedied. This is the key paragraph:

A growing phenomenon within the Church is the use of African and Asian priests in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere where there are too few native priests to staff parishes. Globally, the ratio of Catholics per priest worsened, as the number of Catholics per priest increased from 1,895 in 1980 to 3,126 in 2012.

The numbers do tell the story. However, the coverage of the issue has always been tinged with a certain disrespect. Instead of blaming the drop in vocations on our changing society, urban demographics and the sexual revolution, the coverage assumes something is wrong with the doctrine. Just like that, a tradition that dates back to the fourth century, as outlined at the Synod of Elvira, must be flawed. When was the last time you saw a reference to the Synod of Elvira in a news story?

I did dig up one reference to it in recent years by Canada’s National Post newspaper in a 2017 news story about the pope mulling over the possible move of allowing clergy living in remote parts of the Amazon to marry. The piece noted that the Amazon region has a ratio of just one priest for every 10,000 Brazilian parishioners. 

These two paragraphs appear halfway down the story:

According to Catholic Online, the first written mention of celibacy being required for ordination occurred in 304 AD, when Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira required all clergy to abstain ‘from their wives and not to have children.’ It was not until the 11th century, when Pope Gregory VII decreed all priests must be celibate, that it was enforced by bishops, the website says.

Nevertheless, such a breakthrough is likely to nourish criticism by conservatives who are up in arms over Francis’ decision to allow divorced people who remarry to receive communion if their priests or local bishop approve.

By comparison, a search through the extensive New York Times archive — which has been digitized in recent years and date back to 1851 — came with “0 results for” when Synod of Elvira was searched.

The Vatican never did make a decision regarding priests working in the Amazon. For the Catholic church this is a real problem. Brazil, a nation with an overwhelming Catholic majority, could see those numbers fall to 50 percent by the year 2030. The growth of Protestantism in Brazil over the past two decades has given conservative Catholics an alternative way to profess their faith, according to a Pew Research study.

The issue of vocations and married priests did come up again recently. Pope Francis, following a five-day visit to Panama last month for World Youth Day, made headlines when asked about lifting celibacy for priests. While he is often asked about it by reporters, the pontiff reiterated: “I am not in agreement with making celibacy optional.”

The pope did say, however, that there are areas of the world where Catholics are deprived of the Eucharist like in the scattered Pacific Islands.

On Jan. 28, for example, the National Catholic Reporter offered this headline: “Francis expresses openness to married priests in places with 'pastoral necessity.’”

For a pope who often sends mixed messages, the mainstream press (and those at left-leaning Catholic outlets) opt to cherry-pick the pope’s more reform-minded statements for a click-bait headline. Again, very little is done to give doctrinal and historic context in the coverage. Those who fail to read the story and just scan for headlines could be left with the wrong impression.

“I believe that the issue must be open in this sense: where there is a pastoral problem because of the lack of priests,” the pope told reporters during the course of that same news conference. “I will not say that it must be done. Because I have not reflected, I have not prayed sufficiently over this. But the theologians must study.”

Certainly, theologians will study it.

Whether news reporters will cover it properly isn’t so clear. Yes, some journalists just don’t “get” it.

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