Priest Numbers

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter J. Daly

July 29, 2003


            Every few years I do a column on the statistics regarding the U.S. Catholic Church and the priesthood. The numbers tell a tale, though an incomplete one. All of my numbers are drawn from the Official Catholic Directory, published by P. J. Kenedy and Sons.

            I decided to compare the stats from 2003, with two years ago, 2001, and ten years ago, 1993. I thought this would give a more accurate picture, since one-year comparisons can sometimes be misleading. Occasionally there are one-year blips in some categories. A blip does not a trend make.

            The number of Catholics has climbed steadily from 59.2 million in 1993 to 66.4 million in 2003. Over the decade the number of Catholics has gone up nearly 7.2 million, more than 700,000 per year on average.

The rate of increase in the absolute number of Catholics is accelerating. Between 2001 and 2003 the Catholic population went from 63,683,030 to 66,407,105. That is an increase of 2,724,075 over two years, or an average of 1,362,037 per year. This is logical. The rate of increase is a relatively constant 2% each year. It parallels the over all growth in U.S. population. Catholics have remained a constant 23% of the U.S. population over the last 10 years.

While the number of Catholics is steadily up, the number of priests and seminarians is steadily down. 

In 2003 there were 44,487 priests, active and retired, serving the church in the U.S. That is down from  46,041 in 2001 and 50,907 in 1993. We have seen a decline of 1554 priests in two years and 6,565 in ten years. 

Over that past decade the number of priests in the U.S. has declined at the rate of 1.7 per day. The rate of decline is accelerating. In the last two years the number of priests has declined at the rate of 2.1 each day. Every day there are two fewer priests serving the church than the day before.

These totals include retired priests and priests teaching full time in schools. Just under one third of the U.S. Catholic priests are retired from full time ministry. In 2003 there were 1596 priests in schools.   

The decline is faster for religious orders than for diocesan priests. In 2003 there were 14,772 religious priests, down 614 from two years before and 2804 from ten years before.  That is a decline of 15.9 % in ten years.

Diocesan clergy, by comparison have declined from 33,476 to 29,715, a decline of 3761 or 11.2%.

The ratio of priests to lay Catholics has gone from one priest to every 1,163 U.S. Catholics in 1993 to one to every 1,492 in 2003. We are still better than most of the world, especially in Latin America. In some countries to our south, there are more than 10,000 Catholics to each priest.

It appears that the decline in the number of priests is what the economists call a “structural” deficit. That means it is not likely to change.

This is because the number of priests in the “pipeline” is also down. In 2003 there were 4522 seminarians, diocesan and religious, studying for the priesthood in the U.S. This is down from 4917 in 2001 and 5891 in 1993. In ten years the number of seminarians has declined by 1369 or just over 23%. The number of seminaries has also declined from 75 in 1993 to 70 in 2003.

Fewer seminarians mean fewer ordinations. In 2003 the U.S. Church reported 449 ordinations. This compares to 605 ordained in 1993 and 536 in 2001. There were 156 fewer men ordained this past year than a decade ago. A decline of just over 25%.  To stop the current rate of decline, ordinations would need to more than double immediately. Not likely to happen.

Those are the statistics.

What should we do about them? You draw your own conclusions.