Catholic Church needs to develop a Plan B, quickly

There is little doubt that Catholic priests are under immense pressure. I heard one PP sounding off earlier this year that some in his congregation expected the same service they had had twenty years previously. But regularly two priest parishes are becoming one priest parishes, and within a few years may even have to share a single priest with the parish next door. In yesterday’s Irish Times, Fr Gerard Moloney had some scary statistics that demonstrate that even if Ireland’s a la carte Catholics are still going to Mass regularly, few seem prepared to accept the price of taking up the clerical slack:

Since November 1st, 2000, 1,173 Irish priests have died. In the same period, 101 Irish priests have been ordained. That means that one diocesan priest in five is being replaced at present, and just one religious/missionary priest in 30. On average, the deaths of Irish priests continue to outnumber ordinations more than tenfold.

In 2005, 199 Irish priests died, whereas only eight priests were ordained (Intercom magazine, July/August2006). And this does not take into account clergy who have left the active ministry. These statistics are catastrophic. And they will get only worse.

It has led to a situation strangely reminiscent of the frequent appeals for missionaries to go out to Africa in the 1960s and 70s. But according to Fr Moloney, the main problem is that the church has no organised response to the largely unacknowledged crisis:

the other tragedy for the church is that there is no short or medium-term solution to this crisis.

The number of seminarians in training is tiny and, unless something entirely unexpected happens, will not increase any time soon. Amalgamating parishes and closing churches is not a solution to the priest shortage but merely a response to it.

However, the biggest tragedy of all is that the Catholic Church does not appear to have even a Plan A as to how to face up to the shortage of clergy, not to mind a Plan B.

Possible radical solutions, such as redefining what we mean by priesthood, is not being discussed. Even the possibility of ordaining worthy married men or of extending the ordained ministry to women are not options.


  • Aaron McDaid

    Worldwide the stats mightn’t look so bad. Maybe we’ll soon see African newspapers calling out for missionaries to go to Europe?

  • Crataegus


    It would help improve attitude towards race.

  • abucs

    Potential priests are being turned away in seminaries across central and southern Africa as they have too many already.

  • Lorenzo

    This is the opportunity for the Republic to step up to the plate and stop relinquishing control of its schools and hospitals to the Church.

  • sean

    Ten percent of the population of Portsmouth is Polish and are reinvigourating the Church there. No doubt with the demographic swing, the same is hapening in Ireland. The Pro Cathedral and Baldoyle both have African priests. There are a lot more Poles than Irish, so expect their impact to be a lot bigger than the Irish had.
    Also, the Irish Catholic Church was a force for maybe less than 160 years (1829-1969)
    Lorenzo: the schools and hospitals you speak of are Catholic or Anglican. You have it the wrong way round. The Christian Brothers have begun the handover to lay Catholic control. Ireland is now a middle class country mo longer in need of free education by overworked nuns and brothers.

  • smcgiff

    There’s plenty of vocations in Ireland to the priesthood. That they are to married men and women is a problem the Catholic Church needs to get over.

  • andy

    Good news.
    We had a debate on this a while ago. I can’t think of too many positive things the Church has given Ireland.

    I’m reading a book about the basques at the moment and the pattern there is the same, rural population being exploited for the narrow interests of the church.

    I’m not saying that individuals in the Church don’t do good, but as an organisation it is seriously dysfunctional.

    Sean- I think your point about more religously inclined immigrants potentially-reinvigorating the Church is sound.

    Incidentally I am a Roman Catholic.

  • Rory

    Which reminds me of a story told me by an old priest, deeply disillusioned by John Paul II and his backtracking on Vatican II:

    Pope JP II had a vision that he spoke with God and asked Him some questions that bothered him:

    “Would Russia be converted?”
    “Not in your lifetime, my son”.

    “Would priests be allowed to marry?”
    “Not in your lifetime, my son”.

    “Would women be ordained to the priesthood?”


    “Not in My lifetime, my son”.

  • Lorenzo – you’ve obviously missed the regular announcements of divestment by orders like the Christian Brothers of schools to lay boards of management throughout Ireland due to a lack of priests to run them.

  • Lorenzo

    The handover of secondary schools run by the various Orders has started but in both primary and secondary school sectors, the Church still dominates. The Archbishop of Dublin is patron of 460 primary schools in Dublin. 93% of primary schools and 51% of post-primary ones nationwide are under Catholic Church patronage. The patron of a school controls its ethos, deciding on “cultural, moral, linguistic and spiritual values and traditions” within the school and having final say over the hiring of staff, according to the DoE (via Adam Maguire’s blog).

    In Dublin, parents are clamouring to get their children into Gaelscoil or Educate Together schools while more and more classrooms lie empty in the traditional Catholic primary schools. Some of these schools have taken a dog in the manger attitude, while some have been brilliant in sharing their facilities.

    My original post was intended as criticism not of the Church but of the State in not just allowing but facilitating and actively encouraging this to happen. There may have been *some* excuse when we were poor but not any more. In this respect we are a republic in name only.

  • George

    it is for parents to choose how their children are educated.

    Under the constitution, the state provides FOR education so it isn’t as simple as the state wading in and taking control.

    The solution is for parents to take control, not the state. True, the state can do more to encourage parents to take control although they seem to be doing it anyway by moving their children to other schools.

    All new schools opened last year were Educate Together or Gaelscoileanna and some existing schools are going the lay route.

    Change is underway and will go faster as more and more parents push for it.

  • Lorenzo

    George: it is for parents to choose how their children are educated.

    I wholeheartedly agree. But parents feel powerless to obtain their choice of education type for their children. I will explain why.

    There is a huge imbalance between the type of schools parents want to put their children in and what is actually available. There are little or no mechanisms available to parents to try to redress that imbalance.

    I am involved with an association trying to get non-denominational school established in my local area. Schools similar in ethos nearby are heavily over subscribed. In the same area there are traditional Catholic schools with empty classrooms, through a mixture of demographics and the general decline in religious observation. The DoE say “You can’t have a new school, look at the empty classrooms in existing schools”. It’s a classic Catch-22 situation.

    That attitude goes beyond not encouraging parents to take control to outright blocking of parental choice. I hope it is the result of normal bureaucratic inertia and conservatism rather than something else more shadowy – but given the long relationship between the DoE and the Church, who could say for sure?

    BTW Educate Together have suspended all their planned schools for 2007 to campaign for the political will to get the (currently ridiculous) school initiation process sorted out and the high number of their existing schools still in temporary accommodation moved to permanent premises.

  • Greenflag

    The RC Church in Ireland is diminishing for the same reasons as it did in Germany, France ,Italy ,Netherlands , Belgium and Britain. Once enough people become educated and have choices and begin to think for themselves there is a drop in Church attendance followed by a decline in the next generation and so on . Having ‘married ‘ priests and bishops and female vicars has not saved the Church of England from decline neither would those kind of changes save the RC Church in Ireland from similar decline . More importantly there has been a decline in people’s confidence in where their financial contributions are going . The RC Church needs to open upo it’s financial records the same as any other ‘business’ and so too should every other Church . This may help to reduce the incidence of ‘religious’ fraud .

    Nothing short of a major religious revival will save the RC Church in Europe and the developed world .

    The RC Church has not adapted to the increased and increasing role of women and is being seen as more and more of a reactionary backward looking organisation still focused on ‘male celibacy’ .

    We need to face the fact that ‘male celibacy’ is an unnatural practice and for the vast majority of heterosexual males a negation of their inherent humanity . The same applies to females in nunneries .

    I agree BTW that the Irish education system and what it has produced would not be what it is but for the contributions of generations of Christian Brothers and Nuns .

  • “But regularly two priest parishes are becoming one priest parishes, and within a few years may even have to share a single priest with the parish next door”


    This is widespread amongst the established churches here as well. My son-in-law is holding down three Lutheran churches thirty miles south of the back of beyond in Northern Montana. Before that he held down two in the Lake Woebegon area of Minnesota. The trend ain’t good for established religion.

    Two reasons: fewer sky pilots and fewer parishioners.

  • Mick Fealty

    Following on Jim’s comments, it is interesting that the Archbishop of Canterbury said that ordaining women as priests did not bring about the renewal of his church that many thought it would.

    Even if there were a reversal on married and women priests, it is going to take a while to pull out of this shortage. And I would guess a fair amount of church property is going to have to hit the market before things are manageable again.

  • abucs

    “I would guess a fair amount of church property is going to have to hit the market before things are manageable again”

    Maybe the churches will look into floating a property portfolio on the stockmarket and issuing discounted shares to members ?

    That would be one sure fire way to increase numbers. :o)

    (Might have to drop the sermon about Jesus chasing the money traders from the temple though).

  • Sean

    We should all become Buddhists, if it’s good enough for Tina Turner, it’s good enough for me.

  • BeardyBoy

    I continue to be amazed at how everything is the fault of the Catholic Church – my child cannot get schooled the way I want and it is the fault of the Catholic Church.

    People do not go to Mass and it is the fault of the Catholic Church and so on and so on.

    This was interesting 15 or 20 years ago but it is pure boring now.

    The Catholic Church changed immensely in the last 40 years and it simply made things worse by listening to the chattering classes.

    It should stick to its guns and be more assertive. Earn more respect that way than by trying to please everyone.

  • roisin

    As regards Catholic preiests, they haven’t gone away, you know.
    The Catholicism of YOUR youth may be gone but so what? Who are joining edtablished political parties amd other bastions of 1950s’ Ireland? With falling birth rates, 2 car houses, increased mobility who needs swarms of people at Sunday mass? The current pope is playing a blinder by concentrating on European ideological problems. The next Pope will be non European. Catholicism will survive the Muslim hordes. European liberalism will not. And Irish liberalism is only its ugly afterbirth. So, fear not. Glasgow Celtic with McNakamura will never lack for support.
    “It’s so lonely round the fields of Athenry” but not downtown Rio where the next football toting Pope may become from. Pope Pele 1.

  • Henry94

    Plan B is the problem. We need to go back to Plan A starting with the restoration of the right of every Priest to say the Tridentine Latin Mass.

    Spot on roisin and beardy boy. Benedict XVI will not be fooled by those who want to destroy the Church while claiming to want to save it.

  • Lorenzo

    BeardyBoy, I don’t blame Church, I blame the State for the schooling problem. Of course the Catholic Church will try to retain its influence and power in education, and – up to a certain point – good luck to them.

    The problem for the Church is that they will eventually not have the manpower (and I use the word advisedly) available for this work as the ratio of priests to parishes goes from something like 2:1 to 1:2 or less.

    It is up to the State to realise that what most Church schools are providing is no longer what many parents want and take the appropriate action. The Church can help or hinder this process but irregardless it is going to happen.

  • abucs

    I think the ‘local language masses’ are too busy with the emphasis on ‘a forced community going through the motions’ instead of having time to pray and concentrate.

    Of course the mass is a celebration of the Eucharist. I don’t want to forget that. But it’s just too forced and busy and it loses it’s sacredness because of it, IMHO.

    Up, down, reply, sing, kneel, shake hands, look at the watch repeat repeat. Little time for what we are supposed to be there for IMHO.

  • abucs

    In a follow up i should say that i like going to mass in Asian countries (where i spend a lot of my time) almost precisely because i can tune out the ‘foreign’ language and concentrate on the mass. And the congregations are packed to the rafters, literally going out onto the streets with PA systems set up.

    The mass for me always seems more real in Asia. Perhaps the tuning out of the language helps to tune into something else ?

    I know the Buddhist ceremonies have a lot of chanting which i’d probably dislike if i understood the language more as it would be too repetitive. But tuning out again allows a more spiritual experience i think.

    The Latin mass with the readings and homily in English and the altar boys doing ‘all the work’ with the replies and offerings would be more preferable to me.

  • Greenflag

    Beardy Boy,

    ‘It should stick to its guns and be more assertive. ‘

    The Paisley strategy ? You must be from NI. So your logic is that if this strategy does’nt work in NI it’ll work everywhere else .

    ‘ Earn more respect that way than by trying to please everyone.’

    The population of the world is 51% female . A male only celibate ‘priesthood ‘ which reduces women to roles as ‘assistants’ housekeepers, and kitchen mothers -has only one future -NONE.

    The day of the heaven magicians is over. Apart from in the Middle East , and in parts of Northern Ireland.

  • BeardyBoy

    The Vatican II will probably be judged the same as Robber Council – I must admit the greatest respect for Lefebvre, he will be looked upon as an Athanasius in times to come.

    As for coming from NI – I come from Ireland.

    As for strategy – preach the same in or out of season – fads and trends come and go – Christ Church will remain.