Yes, Catholics need more priests

As a regular part of his ministry, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore says Masses on behalf of Catholics who have left the church. The unique element of these rites is that he offers his prayers for anyone he has -- during his 45 years as a priest, with or without knowing it -- driven away from Catholic pews and altars.

This isn't the kind of ecclesiastical issue that makes headlines.

Nevertheless, this is a quiet kind of crisis that priests must take seriously, said O'Brien, in a Franciscan University forum that included current and potential seminarians. How many lapsed or former Catholics, he asked, slipped away because they felt "talked down to or lectured at by preachers or confessors who don't really know them or who appreciate how difficult their struggles are just to get through life?"

How many, he added, are haunted by a clergy comment, "often at an emotional time in their lives," that wounded them so deeply they became convinced that it justified leaving the church? How many drifted away to Protestant megachurches because of "our dull, lifeless and irrelevant homilies."

The priesthood has faced many crises during the past generation or two and O'Brien offered no easy solutions.

Obviously, he couldn't ignore three decades of scandals caused by the sexual abuse of thousands of children and young people by priests and bishops. O'Brien also discussed the hierarchy's problems finding new priests, yet avoided the stark statistics that are so familiar to American Catholics. In 1965 they had 58,000 priests. Now there are about 40,000 and, if trends stay the same, there will be 31,000 in a decade, with most over 65 years of age.

While these crises dominate the news, O'Brien stressed that Catholic leaders cannot overlook the personal challenge of helping potential seminarians struggle with this timeless question: Does God want me to be a priest? As a former seminary leader, in the New York archdiocese and in Rome, O'Brien said he has added a more nuanced set of follow-up questions.

"Why are you living your life here and now?", he asked the audience at his late-2010 lecture on the Steubenville, Ohio, campus. "What is your radical motivation? Are you here on this earth to give or to get?"

The cultural changes that rocked Catholicism after the 1960s made it even more of a challenge to answer these kinds of questions. O'Brien saw this era up close, since he was ordained in 1965 and, as an Army chaplain with the rank of captain, served a tour of duty in Vietnam.

In the "heady years" after the Second Vatican Council it seemed that Catholics "saw almost everything go up for grabs" in their parishes and "in Western Culture in general." Priests were "leaving by the droves" and at times, he noted, it seemed as if "follow your conscience" stood alone as the "only criterion for morality, heedless of any objective moral truth." Many seminaries lowered their admissions requirements in an attempt to find more priests.

O'Brien offered a blunt analysis of that decision: "Many of the horrendous sexual scandals, I think, can be traced to the breakdown of seminary formation from 1965 to the early 1980s."

The continuing aftershocks are familiar to priests who keep trying to defend church teachings and traditions. The archbishop noted that a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 45 percent of Catholics didn't know that their church believes that the bread and wine consecrated during the Mass are not mere symbols, but become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. A survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus found that 82 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed with this statement: "Morals are relative, that is, there is no definite right and wrong for everybody."

This is sobering, but Catholics must not lose hope, said O'Brien. God will raise up priests who are willing to wrestle with ancient and modern questions while serving in what the archbishop called a "post-Christian" culture.

A missionary bishop in an earlier era, he noted, stated the challenge this way: "The task of a missionary is to go to a place where he is not wanted to sell a pearl whose value, although of great price, is not recognized, to a people who are determined not to accept it -- even as a gift."

Catholic South shall rise

Catholics in the urban Northeast are getting used to the headlines.

Parishioners in East Harlem have decided to conduct a vigil in a beloved old sanctuary because church leaders plan to lock the doors -- forever. The Archdiocese of New York recently said it would close or merge 21 churches in order to gather more people in fewer pews to be served by a declining number of priests.

A parishioner at Our Lady Queen of Angels told the New York Times: "People have been baptized here and married here, received first communion here. ... When they close the church, we are going to stay inside."

This is one image of American Catholic life today.

However, it's only part of a bigger picture, said Steven Wagner of QEV Analytics in Washington, D.C. While parishes are closing in regions long known as Catholic strongholds, more missions are opening in regions where the Catholic flock is small -- but vital.

For every Boston, there is a Knoxville, Tenn. For every Philadelphia, there is a Savannah, Ga.

"The church is closing parishes in the Northeast, but Catholics are building them in the South and the Southwest," said Wagner. "We know that a lot of that is driven by immigration and population trends. ? So if you really want to know where Catholicism is alive and where it's struggling, you can't just look at membership statistics. You have to ask other questions."

That's what Wagner and co-writer Father Rodger Hunter-Hall have tried to do in a study entitled "The State of the Catholic Church in America, Diocese by Diocese," conducted for the conservative Crisis magazine. Using statistics from the Official Catholic Directory they ranked the 176 Latin Rite dioceses in three crucial areas. Their goal was to study the role played by local bishops between 1995 and 2005.

In an attempt to gauge clergy morale, they determined if the number of active priests in a diocese was rising or falling. Five dioceses stayed the same, 29 experienced growth and 141 suffered deceases.

Then Wagner and Hunter-Hall counted the number of priests being ordained, using a scale that did not discriminate against small dioceses. On the negative end of the scale, 48 dioceses had zero ordinations in 2005 -- including large Sunbelt dioceses in Dallas and Houston.

"All kinds of factors can affect morale and the number of ordinations," said Hunter-Hall, who teaches at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. "But these statistics at least provide insights into whether a bishop is attracting new priests and whether or not he has created a climate that makes men want to serve in his diocese."

To gauge the effectiveness of evangelism efforts, they charted the number of adult converts in each diocese. Once again, Wagner and Hunter-Hall stressed that Catholicism is experiencing rapid growth in some regions due to immigration and, as always, many people enter the church through intermarriage.

However, that kind of growth "isn't the same thing as people making decisions to convert because of the faith itself," said Hunter-Hall. "If you see converts streaming into the church, that almost always tells you something about the spiritual climate in a diocese. That usually has something to do with the bishop."

Finally, the researchers combined these three factors and determined which dioceses that they thought had improved and declined the most during the past decade. The top 20 list was dominated by small dioceses -- including a stunning number in the Bible Belt. The sharpest declines were in the Northeast, especially New England.

Thus, Wagner and Hunter-Hall noted: "The church is ... most healthy in that region that is traditionally the least hospitable to it, and is least healthy in that region where it has the longest history, and in which are found the greatest concentration of Catholics (as a percentage of the population) and the largest number of Catholics."

Size is not always a virtue and, it seems, the first may become the last. Small dioceses -- especially in "missionary" regions -- consistently attracted more converts and more new priests.

"It sounds strange, but if you're a Catholic and you want to go where the action is you need to go to places like Alexandria (La.) Tyler (Texas) and Biloxi (Miss.)," said Wagner. "Catholics all over America are facing unique challenges. It seems that some people are handling them better than others."

Fathers, mothers & Catholic sons, Part I

The Chicago news was full of sex, children and Roman collars.

This wasn't part of the first national "Sins of the Fathers" furor in the mid-1980s. This was the early 1990s and the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago eventually opened its files on all 2,252 priests who had served in the previous four decades. The powers that be hunted for pedophiles and they found one.

The key word is "one." One priest had been accused of assaulting a prepubescent child. The other allegations involved priests and sexually mature, but under-age, adolescents -- mostly boys.

"Those Chicago numbers are not unusual. This is, in fact, part of a pattern we see in diocese after diocese," said Father Donald B. Cozzens, former vicar for clergy in Cleveland and then rector of a graduate seminary in Ohio.

"Of course, any abuse of children is horrifying and it is just as wrong -- morally and legally -- when sexual abuse occurs with teen-agers. But it isn't helping matters, right now, for people to keep blurring the lines between these two conditions. This isn't just about pedophilia."

Debates about sexuality and the priesthood will only heat up, if that is possible, now that a crucial Vatican voice has spoken. A close aide to Pope John Paul II told the New York Times that it's time to slow or even stop the flow of gays into the priesthood. "People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained," said psychiatrist Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

Cozzens stressed that he agrees with researchers who believe sexual orientation is irrelevant in discussions of pedophilia. But what if pedophilia is not the issue?

By definition, pedophiles are sexually attracted to boys and girls who have not reached puberty. But Cozzens said reports he has studied, and his own experience as a counselor, indicate the more common problem among Catholic clergy is "ephebophilia." This is recurrent, intense sexual interest in post-pubescent young people -- teen-agers.

The term "ephebophilia" is rarely used in church debates and the press. Yet, Cozzens said that whenever clergy vicars held conferences 90 percent of the sex-abuse cases they discussed fell into this category. Church authorities are reluctant to investigate this reality.

Why this conspicuous silence?

"Perhaps it is feared that it will call attention to the disproportionate number of gay priests," wrote Cozzens, in his influential "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," published in 2000. "While homosexually oriented people are no more likely to be drawn to misconduct with minors than straight people, our own experiences was clear and, I believe, significant. Most priest offenders, we vicars agreed, acted out against teenage boys."

In his most controversial chapter, Cozzens quotes reports claiming about 50 percent of U.S. Catholic priests are gay, with the numbers higher among priests younger than 40. Talk of a "gay subculture" grew in recent decades as 20,000 men left the priesthood to get married.

The seminary climate changed - radically. Cozzens cited a survey in which 60 percent of one seminary's students identified themselves as gay, 20 percent were "confused about their sexual identity" and 20 percent said they were heterosexual.

Cozzens concluded: "Should our seminaries become significantly gay, and many seasoned observers find them to be precisely that, the priesthood of the 21st century will likely be perceived as a predominantly gay profession."

This is the proverbial elephant in the sanctuary that few bishops want to discuss.

Cozzens said that, along with many other researchers, he does not see a direct link between homosexual orientation and sexual abuse. Yet the cloud of secrecy and denial that swirls around the gay subculture makes it hard to discuss urgent issues -- such as ephebophilia.

"Pedophilia is a totally different kind of sickness and it can't really be treated," he said. "You simply have to do what you can to help the abuser and then make sure all future contact with children is cut off. There is no other way. ...

"But there are many bishops out there who, for a variety of reasons, have been convinced that priests can be successfully treated and reassigned to other parishes if the sexual contact was with teen-agers. Now, that belief is being shaken."