Faculty and candidates for Graduation assemble in the Bruening-Marotta Library of Saint Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio on May 8, 2013. Photo by Renata M. Courey / courtesy Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology

Faculty and candidates for Graduation assemble in the Bruening-Marotta Library of Saint Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio on May 8, 2013. Photo by Renata M. Courey / courtesy Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology and Diocese of Cleveland


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

WASHINGTON (RNS) After decades of glum trends — fewer priests, fewer parishes — the Catholic Church in the United States has a new statistic to cheer: More men are now enrolled in graduate level seminaries, the main pipeline to the priesthood, than in nearly two decades.

This year’s tally of 3,694 graduate theology students represents a 16 percent increase since 1995 and a 10 percent jump since 2005, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

Seminary directors cite more encouragement from bishops and parishes, the draw of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the social-justice-minded Pope Francis, and a growing sense that the church is past the corrosive impact of the sexual abuse crisis that exploded in 2002.

Ultimately, it was “a calling in my heart,” says Kevin Fox.

He walked away from his electrical engineering degree and a job in his field, working with CT scanners, to enter St. Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio, in his home diocese, Cleveland, this fall.

“I always had an inkling that I might want to be a priest and my parish priest told me he thought I might be called,” said Fox, 24. “But I put it aside.”

With a fresh degree from Case Western Reserve and his first post-graduation job, Fox soon realized the secular path “wasn’t filling my soul with joy.”

Now, after years of pure science, Fox is immersed in pure theology – and loving it. The challenges of the culture, such as crude jokes from strangers about the abuse crisis, have not dissuaded him.

“I feel the church has done a great deal to deal with (preventing) abuse and the seminary took a lot of care in screening and training us to make sure we are the good guys,” Fox said.

President-Rector Rev. Mark A. Latcovich during Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology Commencement Ceremony on May 8, 2013. Photo by Renata M. Courey / courtesy Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology

President-Rector Rev. Mark A. Latcovich during Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology Commencement Ceremony on May 8, 2013. Photo by Renata M. Courey / courtesy Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Fox is one of 72 students currently enrolled in the undergraduate and graduate programs at St. Mary, the highest number in decades, said the Rev. Mark Latcovich, president and rector.

Latcovich credits encouraging current seminarians and priests who are “our best recruiters. If they are happy and witnessing their faith and opening their hearts, that enthusiasm and joy is contagious.”

Young men today “want to give their life for something that counts. These men are tired of living in a culture of relativism. They want to say there must be something true, beautiful and good. They have discovered the beauty of God,” said Latcovich.

Monsignor Craig Cox, rector of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., said the upward trend leading to their current record class of 92 graduate seminarians began six years ago.

He also cited “a renewal of idealism,” a stronger push for vocations by priests and bishops, and “receding damage” from the abuse crisis.

Cox, who sat in on admission discussions, says his students are drawn from Southern California to Las Vegas and range in age from 22 to 45. While they’re younger than previous classes, they bring “a great level of maturity” to get through a rigorous admissions process.

“Ultimately, I believe that the Spirit is at work,” Cox said.

CARA’s new statistical look at the church shows the seminary-to-priesthood patterns and other shifts in American Catholic life:

  • Annual ordinations have inched back up to the 1995 level of 511 new priests, still far below the peak of 994 in 1965.
  • New ordinations won’t catch up to the thousands of retirements and deaths of ‘60s-era priests: the total number continues to slide from 58,632 priests in 1965 to 39,600 in 2013.
  • The number of parishes without a resident priest is still growing – up from 3,251 in 2,005 to 3,554 now.
  • A two-decade-long trend of parish consolidations and closings has led to fewer parishes where pastoral care is led by a deacon, religious sister or brother, or a layperson. Their number peaked in 2005 at 553 and now is down to 428.

Blame demographics, says CARA’s senior research associate, Mary Gautier.

“Catholics don’t live where they lived 15 years ago. They’ve moved south and west, from urban to suburban areas and they didn’t take their parishes with them,” Gautier said. “The smaller, older lay-led places without a resident priest are often the first to be closed.”

The church keeps growing – 1 percent a year. CARA offers two totals, varying by the source: 78.2 million if you go by self-identification recorded in surveys; 66.8 million if you go by the “Official Catholic Directory” where parishes report their numbers.

Meanwhile, the declining numbers of people who identify with Protestant denominations has led to falling numbers in their seminaries since 2006, said Eliza Brown, spokeswoman for Association of Theological Schools, which represents more than 270 seminaries.

Between 2006 and 2012, the number of students enrolled in Master of Divinity programs at Protestant and non-denominational Christian seminaries fell from 31,532 to 29,249, Brown said.

“Their congregations are less able to afford for full-time, theologically educated clergy,” she said. “And students, who graduate with debts, can’t afford to take part-time or low-paying pulpit positions.”

27 Comments

  1. Pope Benedict ragged relativism so badly and so much that it has become a pop concept for many writers. Benedict and those writers err monstrously to infer or claim that relativism is not real and honorable, at least as real and honorable as the absolutes they claim should guide all thought and action.

    Let us begin with what is simple and closest. We are all related to our parents and other relatives. That’s physical, but it’s relative. We are all related, like it or not, to the society and culture in which we live. We are all related or reject relationship with varieties of religious and political thought that are part of our culture.

    Those who presume that their chosen absolutes are the only right ones denigrate the very relativity of their choices among absolutes. They infer they have a contact others lack in some kind of “relationship” with the absolute Divine. In so doing, they raise themselves to equal status with the Divine, the ultimate absolute, and that is the most unreal and hideous expression of absolutism possible.

  2. This is a minor uptick, 10% over 8 years, a little over 1% per year. True, it shows some minor growth after years of decline, but we are still ordaining only one priest for every 2 who retire, die or resign. The fact is that every day in the U.S., there is one priest fewer than the day before. Even this the uptick, we will still have to close parishes unless we begin to ordain married men. We have more than 17,000 permanent deacons, most of them married. They would make excellent candidates. The hierarchy prefer celibacy over the Eucharist.

    • those 17,000 permanent deacons are called permanent deacons for a reason. they are deacons forever, deacon is not some lesser vocation, but a calling in of itself. Priest are ordained transitional deacons first, a big difference.

      I don’t think celibacy is nearly as big a reason as people act like it is. if God is calling one to the seminary, what that entails doesn’t really matter. I think just cause the idea of celibacy goes against modern society so much, which places sexual intercourse on the highest level of value. People who deny that for something higher doesn’t make any sense to our society

    • True, there will still be a deficit before we get back to an optimal operation level, however, married priests is clearly not the solution. As if those eccesial communities that do allow married priests are overflowing with vocations…take a look at the Episcopalians.
      It’s also interesting that we mainly hear the argument against celibacy from married laity (not presuming anything about “PQuotidiano”) but how about asking us content celibates?

      “The hierarchy prefer celibacy over the Eucharist.” – No, the Church prefers holding fast to tradition (2 Thes 2:15) that’s effective over lowering disciplinary standards.
      And “lolz” is right the diaconate is a calling of its own. Bottom line is God is providing in a time when there is no natural reasons why we’d have such an interest in the priesthood following confusion after Vatican II and scandals in the Church. Let’s continue to pray for and promote vocations! – the harvest is abundant and laborers few.

    • If you will notice, in the article, they also mentioned the huge decline in Protestant ministers in the same time span. If I am not mistaken, they are allowed to marry, so how is getting rid of the celibacy rule going to help? I’m not opposed to allowing married priests (since there already are a number of them in service today), I just think that is not what the problem is.

  3. “Those who presume that their chosen absolutes are the only right ones denigrate the very relativity of their choices among absolutes.”

    That in itself is an absolute statement. But as others have already pointed out, you were probably to drunk to realize it

  4. In the 1920′s the Servant of God Luisa Picarreta was given a prophecy that God would remove His ministers from the altar [[no vocations]] because the number of sacriliges committed by the congregation will have reached an unacceptable number [[ie. communion is a state of mortal sin]] and Jesus told her “So that you will know when that time has come I intend to publish the sins of my priests”.
    A priest who for 25 years was a psychiatrist specifically for priests with sexual problems (and wrote a book about it) left and got married to a nun he had courted for three years to make her leave the community to marry him. He says in his book “I am reluctant to say this but I will because I have found that it is true, that priests who pray two hours daily are completely happy and at ease with their sexuality and celibacy”.

  5. It’s not the numbers of priests or nuns that matter, it’s the quality of the clergy and that hasn’t improved at all. I guess if you worship Mexicans and loathe America’s native born, hate liberty, and want to destroy the United States, you’ve got a place in the Catholic clergy! Jesus loves traitors!

    • What are you talking about, Alecto? Our seminarians go through nine years of training in theology, philosophy, sacraments, liturgy, and more. They go to parishes for field education in order to learn the heart of the people and how to minister with and to them. I’m not saying that we don’t have some priests who have issues, but, really? I truly don’t understand your point, but I think your comments are way off base in what you do say.

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