More damned statistics – This time of priests who leave the priesthood (and some who return)

Still catching up with reading from last month, there is this astounding essay from “La Civilta Cattolica” entitled “Priests who desert, priests who come back” (translated on Sandro Magister’s site) on the statistics of priests throughout the world who have left the priesthood over the last 40 years or so. According to Magister, the article was apparently commissioned by Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State.

It makes riviting reading (for those of us who like statistics). For instance:

On the basis of indications sent to the Vatican from the dioceses, from 1964 to 2004, 69,063 priests left the ministry. From 1970 to 2004, 11,213 priests have returned to the ministry. This means that there cannot be more than 57,000 married priests [who have left the priesthood]. Probably there are many fewer, because over forty years a number of them have died. So the figures cited by the press and by the associations of married priests, speaking of 80,000-100,000 ex-priests, are unfounded.

Now, 57,000 are still a lot in anyone’s book. But I guess it is better to have the right figures than imagined estimates. And all the right figures are given in detail in what follows. One very interesting statistic is this:

Of the 1,076 priests who leave the ministry each year, 554 ask for a dispensation from the obligations imposed by the priestly state: celibacy, and the recitation of the breviary.

So about half of those who left the priesthood are still sufficiently attached to the Church to want to have their situation regularised. Why did they leave?

The reasons for abandoning the priestly ministry, or at least the ones that are given, are highly varied. Most requests for dispensation are due to situations of emotional instability, together with other factors that ultimately make the situation of many priests almost irreversible, but there are also cases of crises of faith, conflicts with superiors or difficulties with the magisterium, depression, and serious limitations of character.

Or compare the numbers of those who requested dispensation from the obligations of ministry before and after 1964:

From 1914 to 1962, 810 requests for dispensations were submitted, of which 315 were approved and 495 rejected. From 1964 to 1988, the requests received totaled 44,890, of which 39,149 were granted and 5,741 denied, for a total of 39,464 dispensations granted and 6,236 rejected out of 45,700 requests received by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith.

Something obviously went serious wrong in the 1960’s… I wonder what?

Finally, I was intrigued by the statistics of convert Anglican married clergy who have been ordained as Catholic priests:

On average there are seven or eight of these each year. There were 12 in 2004, 9 in 2005, and 13 in 2006.

So few? One hears of hundreds of converts “swimming the Tiber”, and has the impression that these “hundreds” have been ordained. They are obviously rather very very rare compared to overall numbers. Marco reckons that in fact many Anglican clergy take the plunge actually swim back again when they find that the Catholic Church is not the paradise they imagined it to be.

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5 Responses to More damned statistics – This time of priests who leave the priesthood (and some who return)

  1. eulogos says:

    How does Marco reckon this?

    Especially in this day and age when anyone can read blogs, I don’t see how they could have imagined that the Church is “a paradise” in earthly terms. It has always been full of chaff growing along with the wheat; it has long been a slow moving bureaucracy, and it hasn’t completely recovered from the post VII upheavals. That is all easily known. I would think that those who come in would know all these things and have counted the cost.

    But how does Marco know “many” go back to Anglicanism?
    Susan Peterson

  2. Schütz says:

    Personal experience, Susan. He moved in those circles for a number of years.

    Also, I don’t know how many of these Anglican clergy have been blog readers. Remember. Blogging is a recent phenomenon.

    A lot of converts get their initial knowledge of their new community from books. Actually encountering the real incarnate community comes as a shock.

  3. Past Elder says:

    “Something obviously went serious wrong in the 1960’s… I wonder what?”

    In two words: Vatican II.

  4. Christine says:

    Hmmm. Past Elder, I was just reading on another site that Bishop Richard Williamson of the SSPX has gone on a rant stating that women should not wear pants, go to college and the Catholic Church had no business making female Doctors of the Church. Plus, in the best tradition of the great Angelic Doctor he suspects that they may be somewhat “inferior” in wisdom. The author of that post surmises that the good bishop may find burquas welcome, heh.

    Never mind that St. Paul was speaking at a time when women were temple prostitutes in the pagan world and people still believed in the messages of the oracles. I can see how St. Paul had a problem with that in not wanting Christian women to give a false impression in their society.

    But I’ve got to get rid of all of my pants? Not gonna happen :)

    All one has to do is read the New Testament to see that the Church was never a paradise at any stage of her being.

    I’m glad I got a good education (20 years’ worth) at how messy the Catholic Church can be from my messy Catholic in-laws before I jumped in (not to mention my messy Catholic Dad and his messy Catholic crew!)

  5. Peregrinus says:

    Fascinating statistics, but tantalisingly incomplete. Why, for example, is 1963 mysteriously left out of both of the periods being compared? The first period runs to 1962; the second starts in 1964.

    And it would be interesting to see year-on-year figures. Was there a huge “backlog” being cleared in the 1960s? Did the change of approach in Rome in 1980 have much impact on numbers seeking dispensations, as opposed to the numbers being granted? Has the age of those seeking to leave changed since the 1960s, or has the pattern changed in other ways?

    You note that the number of priests leaving ministry each year is about half of the number who seek to be dispensed from the obligation of celibacy and the obligation to recite the Divine Office. I would quibble with your suggestion that this means that “about half of those who left the priesthood are still sufficiently attached to the Church to want to have their situation regularised”, if this implies that the other half are detached or alienated from the church. Magister seems to say that the numbers who return to active ministry come largely or entirely from the other half, so they can’t all be alienated from the church.

    This, coupled with the fact that apparently an average of ten years elapses between priests leaving ministry, and being dispensed from celibacy, leads me to think that the normal process is for priests who wish to leave to withdraw from active ministry (either unilaterally, or in consultation with their bishops/superiors) and establish themselves in some kind of stable, non-clerical life, and only then seek a dispensation. It may indeed be – I am speculating here – that the Roman authorities expect this to be done before they will consider or approve a request for final dispensation.

    This might explain why the cohort of “returners” comes largely from those who have not yet been finally dispensed.

    There could also be a cohort of leavers who do not seek a final dispensation simply because they have no desire to marry, and they continue the practice of reciting the Divine Office.

    And there could be a cohort who do not seek a dispensation because, given their particular circumstances and the stricter attitude apparently taken by Rome since 1980, they do not expect to be granted one. Their situation is obviously a very difficult one, but it doesn’t follow that they are “not sufficiently attached” to the church.

    Finally, with respect to the ex-Anglican ministers who become Catholic priests, if there are several hundred of these but they are coming across at present at the rate of a dozen a year or less, I suggest that a big cohort came across at some point in the past (in response to the decisions regarding the ordination of women), and that that has to a large extent “cleared out” the Anglican clergy who might be open to such a move. The current strife in Anglicanism regarding the consecration of gay bishops is therefore not having the same result.

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