Study of Future Catholic Leadership and Attitudes Toward Future Catholic Leadership

Project Number: 
Start Date: 
Sun, 01/01/1984

The decline in numbers of priests and seminarians has sparked a vigorous and sometimes heated debate within the Catholic Church. In the midst of an often bewildering array of contending explanations and proposed responses, it became clear that there was an acute deficit of reliable information upon which ecclesiastical policy makers could rely during their deliberations. This study goes a significant part of the way in answering some of the most important questions sparked by the vocational crisis. Growing out of a comprehensive survey in 1984 of what was then known about declining vocations, Dean Hoge of the Catholic University of America designed this study to determine trends in values and attitudes related to the priesthood and other forms of ministry. The study concentrated on Catholic college students, other adults, and priests, and sought information on how Catholics currently view the priesthood as a vocation, what their attitudes are toward various kinds of lay ministry, and how priests themselves feel about their profession. Contemporary findings were compared with earlier data bearing upon these issues. Several assumptions shape this project: The vocation shortage in the U.S. is not a temporary problem but part of a long- term trend shaped by basic social forces. Sociological research that addresses concrete questions and explores the feasibility of practical proposals is needed, but such research provides information only; it cannot tell church leaders how to respond to the problem. As the Catholic church is in the midst of a long process of transformation from an immigrant enclave to a mainstream middle-class church, comparative attention should be paid to Episcopalians and Lutherans, the groups which tomorrow's Catholics will probably most resemble. Along those lines, the priest shortage should be viewed as an institutional rather than a spiritual or cultural problem, and the impact of the Church as an institution upon priests' satisfaction with their work needs to be attended to. Several options confront the Catholic Church as it responds to the vocational crisis. This research seeks to provide reliable data regarding the probable consequences of each of these options, in terms of institutional impact, doctrinal compatibility, and acceptability to the laity. Many proposed solutions are unlikely to have any positive institutional impact: Combining parishes, recruiting seminarians, or importing priests from abroad are all unworkable solutions. Ordaining women or instituting terms of service raise serious theological difficulties. The two options that seem to best satisfy all three criteria are a greater reliance on lay ministry and making celibacy optional. The study finds the Catholic laity concerned about the potential effects of a future priest shortage: They worry about priests becoming overworked, but at the same time are unhappy with the prospect of a substantial reduction in the sacraments. Restructuring parish leadership to include larger roles for deacons, sisters, and laypeople is regarded favorably. The laity, particularly college students, are eager to share in the ministry of the Church, and express strong desires for a more personal and participatory parish life. The requirement of celibacy, however, remains the single most important deterrent to pursuing ordination.