Half a century ago, there were nearly 60,000 U.S. priests and about 90 percent of them were in active ministry – serving about 54 million self-identified Catholics.
The number of priests was down to 36,580 by 2018 – while the U.S. Catholic population rose to 76.3 million – and only 66 percent of diocesan priests remained in active ministry. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, half of America’s priests hoped to retire before 2020. Meanwhile, 3,363 parishes didn’t have a resident priest in 2018.
It’s understandable that concerned Catholics are doing the math. Thus, activists on both sides of the priestly celibacy issue jumped on an intriguing passage in the “Instrumentum Laboris” for next October’s special Vatican assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Pan-Amazonian region.
“Stating that celibacy is a gift for the Church, we ask that, for more remote areas in the region, study of the possibility of priestly ordination of elders, preferably indigenous,” stated this preliminary document. These married men “can already have an established and stable family, in order to ensure the sacraments that they accompany and support the Christian life.”
The text’s key term is “viri probati” – mature, married men.