Thursday, May 12, 2005

Retirement changes eyed for priests.

Today’s Globe reports that the Archdiocese of Boston is planning to trim retirement benefits for diocesan clergy. Facing a $55 million shortfall in available pension funds, the Archdiocese intends to freeze clergy pensions at $1,889 a month, reduce housing and health insurance subsidies and require priests with sufficient means to pay out of pocket for pricier services like nursing care. The Archdiocese will also require all priests to seek Social Security benefits and will encourage younger clergy to take a more active role in planning for a financially secure retirement. Naturally, these proposed changes are ruffling a lot of feathers. Many will interpret these changes as a sign that the Archdiocese is hedging its commitment to care for men who have given decades of devoted service to the local Church. More than a few older priests undoubtedly feel, in the words of one priest quoted in the article, “like they’re getting the rug pulled out from under them.” In some sense, they’re right. However, the impoverished Archdiocese seems to have no choice but to make the cuts, and therein lies the tragedy.

The Globe article on this topic includes some sobering statistics on priestly demographics in the Archdiocese of Boston. I’ve seen these numbers before and am not surprised by them, but they nonetheless bear repetition:

The Boston Archdiocese, like other dioceses, faces a dwindling number of active priests and, in the short term, an increase in the number of retirees. At the end of last year, the archdiocese had 578 active priests, down from 1,002 two decades earlier, and 265 retired priests. The median age of active priests is 59, and 83 active priests are older than 70. The archdiocese expects 173 active priests to retire or die over the next decade and no more than 50 to be ordained.
In other words, in the brief span of my lifetime the number of active diocesan clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston has been almost halved. The serious disproportion between retirements and ordinations means that maintaining adequate parish staffing will become steadily more difficult in the coming years. Of course, this challenge is by no means unique to Boston; many other dioceses are in similar straits and have adopted various strategies. Dioceses in some areas have responded to this problem by appointing laypeople or women religious to run some parishes, with ‘circuit-riding’ priests coming in on weekends to offer Mass. The Archdiocese of Boston has yet to do this, seeming to prefer closed parishes to priestless ones. Lay parochial administrators are no substitute for the parish priests that American Catholics are accustomed to, but I suspect your average parishioner would rather see his or her parishes stay open with a lay administrator than close because the local diocese can’t provide a resident priest.

For me, it’s impossible to introduce statistics like those quoted above and to talk about the problem of parish staffing without also saying a few words about vocations. Clearly, the priest shortage makes the need for stronger vocation promotion all the more critical. Granted, vocations to the diocesan priesthood are a hard sell in Boston nowadays. When the Archdiocese is closing churches left and right, making sharp across-the-board cuts in services and coping with the lingering effects of the clergy sex abuse crisis, convincing young men to give their lives to service of the local church has to be incredibly difficult. The Archdiocese needs to be honest about this, and also has to expect some very lean years in terms of vocation recruitment. In a larger way, we shouldn’t expect another vocation boom of the kind the Catholic Church experienced here in the twenty-year period following World War II. However, we can and should expect a boost in numbers to come from more effective efforts to nurture vocations. As a novice in a religious order, I am perhaps badly qualified to speak about the best way to promote vocations to the diocesan priesthood. However, within the Society of Jesus in the United States we’ve seen a slight increase in the number of men entering the novitiate in recent years, and I am modestly hopeful that the trend will continue.

Returning to the primary topic of this post, the issue of clergy retirement pensions provides a good illustration of some of the differences between religious life and the diocesan priesthood. Unlike members of religious orders, diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty – indeed, they don’t take vows at all, instead making promises of celibacy and obedience to their bishop. Diocesan priests are expected to live ‘simply’ in some sense, but unlike religious they retain the right to own property and manage their own finances. Some diocesan priests happen to be quite wealthy, while others just barely get by. In this sense, the vowed poverty of religious life fosters greater equality. In theory, all members of a religious order are equally poor, though their actual material circumstances may differ significantly depending upon the place in which they live and the apostolic work they do. When it comes to things like retirement, from a certain perspective the diocesan clergy have greater freedom: the individual diocesan priest has the power to make decisions that will ensure a more or less comfortable retirement. Lacking private property or income, religious are dependent upon their community for their retirement needs. Here again, however, the promise of equality makes up for a putative lack of choice. A Jesuit can’t invest his salary in a 401(k), but he can at least rest easy in the confidence that his province will care for him in his last years. Though I can’t know the specifics at this point in my Jesuit life, this promise of care feels a lot more durable to me than the uncertainty about retirement that many diocesan priests must live with. In this context the vow of poverty is a real comfort, and I thank God for that. AMDG.


At May 15, 2005 2:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About the decline in vocations to the priesthood, recent data support the conclusion that dioceses that are characteristically "liberal" are experiencing a crisis in vocations whereas dioceses that are "orthodox" have ample vocations. Check out the story at the following link:

It doesn't surprise me to read that in leftist Boston the decline in vocations to the priesthood is especially severe. What is there about "liberal" Catholicism to attract fervent and effective servants of God? Nothing. A sort of vocational Darwinism is operating whereby the "most spiritually fit" religious communities and dioceses survive and the "least spiritually fit" wither away until they become extinct.

The most effective way to foster vocations to the priesthood, to religious life and to the universal call to holiness (even among the laity) is to preach, celebrate and teach orthodox Catholicism. Vocations offices will be ineffective at recruiting men for the priesthood unless Catholic parishes and schools are imbued with authentic, deep Catholic faith and thereby inspire young men with the meaningfulness, joy and challenge of the Gospel to serve Christ and his Church as a priest.

The American Church is going through a period of pruning so that in its next season a more illustrious blossom will result.

At May 17, 2005 1:33 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thomas –

I’m reluctant to pass final judgment on the study you cite without reading its full text, but based on the summary you’ve linked it seems to contain some worrying defects:
1.) Selection criteria: The study’s authors seem to have taken a very arbitrary approach to choosing dioceses for the study. Basing selection on the mentions in the Catholic press hardly makes for a representative sample.
2.) Insufficient data: The data as reported do not include information on how comparative statistics on the number of priests and ordinations per capita were generated. Also excluded is any explanation of how the number of “active or practicing” Catholics per diocese was determined, since the sources HLI claims to have used for its calculations do not report this data as a subset of the total number of Catholics in each diocese.
3.) Superficiality of analysis: The HLI study makes no distinction between
dioceses on the basis of size or percentage of Catholics as a share of the
larger population. Most of the putatively “orthodox” dioceses are small, rural
and contain relatively few Catholics. Most of the “progressive”
dioceses cited are large, urban and in areas with substantial numbers of
Catholics. Small dioceses in predominantly non-Catholic areas tend to have
more priests per capita than large dioceses in traditionally Catholic areas;
this belies the fact that the larger dioceses have more priests and Catholics
in absolute terms.
4.) Superficiality of conclusions: The study’s assessment of cause and effect fails to take account of the many sociocultural factors that help explain statistical changes in ordination rates. The study appears to make a lot of unfounded assumptions, including:
a. That all dioceses can be directly compared with one another.
b. That the pastoral and theological ‘style’ of a diocese is the chief determinant of its vocation recruitment and ordination rate.
c. That the same vocational strategy is equally applicable in all contexts, i.e. that if all dioceses took the approach favored by the study’s authors they would yield equal results despite differences in culture, demographics, history, size, etc.

Predicting whether vocations to the priesthood and religious life will increase or decrease in a particular context is very difficult. Vocational recruitment is impacted by many factors and can differ markedly from place to place and from decade to decade. There is no easy explanation for the decrease in priestly vocations we have seen over the past several decades; on the same token, the ‘vocation boom’ that coincided with the postwar baby boom was a function of numerous historical factors and as such a unique phenomenon. Unfortunately, there is no ‘quick fix’ strategy that will produce a maximal number of priestly and religious vocations across the board; there is no tried-and-tested solution that would work equally well for every diocese and religious community. The only really indispensable method that all Catholics everywhere can turn to is one that lies outside the bounds of our discussion: prayer. Wherever we find ourselves and however we might categorize ourselves, we all ought to pray that the Holy Spirit will give every Christian an awareness of his or her unique vocation within the Church.

As a sidenote, I’m a little perplexed by your characterization of the Archdiocese of Boston as “leftist.” In my lifetime of experience with the Archdiocese, I have not found this to be the case. If you doubt me, you may want to take a closer look at the careers and public pronouncements of Cardinals Medeiros and Law and Archbishop O’Malley. I think you’ll find that the Archdiocese of Boston is anything but the “leftist” and “liberal” bastion you suppose it to be.


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