Going Their Way

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Catholic layman Garry Wills has written another book on the Catholic
Church, a kind of follow-up to his Bare
Ruined Choirs
(1972), which I reviewed a long time ago in
The Wall Street Journal. In that book, he reminisced about
the parish of his youth, one that sounded a lot like the parish
in Going
My Way
. It was gone forever, he said, and good riddance.
A newer, more liberal Catholicism had replaced the Catholicism of
his youth. Wills had been radicalized in the 1960's, and he argued
that the American Catholic Church had, too.

new book is called Papal
. I prefer to let Catholics respond to Mr.
Wills's historical critique of conservative popes and liberal ones
Who Did Not Go Far Enough. Here, I want to discuss some implications
of statistical trends that he brings up.

says that in 1965, there were 50,000 Catholic seminarians in the
United States. By 1997, this had fallen to about 5,000. By 1999,
it was down to 2,500. There was a decline of 70% in the 1990's (p.

average age of an American priest is now 58. A quarter of them are
over age 70 (p. 152). Age 58 is a lot closer to Barry Fitzgerald's
priest than Bing Crosby's. I'm 58. Daily, I am reminded: geezerdom

statistics are not quite officially confirmed, but they are close.
The archdiocese of Seattle has posted a Web page on Catholic
quick facts
. Its "Statistics" page lists 3,302 diocesan
seminarians and 1,524 religious seminarians. The former are training
for the parish priesthood, and the latter are training to join religious
orders. The total is under 5,000. As far as parishioners are concerned,
those 3,302 are the crucial students who may someday serve their
spiritual needs.

training takes eight years after high school. How many of these
3,302 diocesan seminarians will graduate this year? Probably not
as many as one-eighth, but even if one-eighth do graduate, this
totals only about 400. Will all of them join the priesthood and
then remain until death? Unlikely.

church has over a million baptisms a year. If all of those baptized
remain in the church, and if all of this year's seminary graduates
remain, the latter will have to minister to a million people. When
these newly baptized Catholics are adults, and today's priests reach
age 58, that will be 2,500 members per priest, unless present trends

American church has 62 million members. It has 31,370 diocesan priests.
This is about 2,000 members per priest. Today's baptisms/seminarians
ratio indicates that this figure will rise over the next three decades.

can one priest supervise any congregation this large? In Presbyterian
circles, when a congregation reaches 150 adult members, it hires
a second ministeru2014an associate pastor or a youth pastor.

does a priest hear confessions from 2,000 people a week? He doesn't.
Then what happens to the rite of confession, even as an ideal, let
alone as an institutional reality?

the old days, priests relied on a small army of sisters. Not today.
The American church is down to 85,000 nuns, and many of them are
old. They are ready to retire.

belong to a 27-year-old secessionist Presbyterian denomination of
300,000 members. The seminary that supplies this denomination with
ministers opened its doors in 1966 with 14 students. Its four campuses
today enroll 1,900. But training takes three years, not eight, so
it is graduating close to 50% more students each year than the seminary
system of the American Catholic Church, which has 200 times more

says this is a major problem. He is correct.


the trend in its seminaries is reversed sharply within a few years,
the American Catholic church will have to import even more priests
than it does today. That will hurt its effectiveness in those foreign
countries who lose their priests.

priests do not bring with them the culture of America. They are
outsiders. This raises the issue of the acculturation of Catholic
immigrants, especially those from Latin America. If their priests
can barely speak English, and the public schools adopt bi-lingual
education, we are going to have millions of barely assimilated people
in the American Southwest. This has not happened since the United
States grabbed the land from Mexico, when Americans were the immigrants.

determined which culture would rule in the American Southwest. The
question is: Will it do so again?


over a century, the tax-funded public school system was the primary
institution of the American melting pot. The Catholic Church was
in second place. But the church's hierarchy regarded the American
public schools as Protestant. This was correct socially, but incorrect
theologically. The public schools were unofficially Unitarian from
the days of Horace Mann until World War I. After World War I, they
became increasingly secular, and legally so after 1961.

church set up parochial schools in order to keep members' children
from becoming Protestants. But about the time that the public schools
went completely secular, the bishops' support of parochial school
system began to wane. When hard-core fundamentalists finally started
abandoning the public schools after 1965, the Catholics replaced

can remember Catholic teachers in my public high school in the late
1950's. They were among the best on campus. Every year, the principal,
a theologically clueless immigrant from the Midwest to southern
California, sent recruiters to the Immaculate Heart College of Los
Angeles to hire as many of its young women as he had room for on
the faculty. He knew they were dedicated, competent, and ready to
work . . . cheap. One of them is still teaching at my old alma mater,
41 years after she arrived, when I was a senior. She has a Ph.D.
now. This May, President Clinton presented her with the national
Teacher of the Year award. I am sure she deserved it. But there
was no rejoicing at Immaculate Heart College.

1980, Immaculate Heart College went out of existence. The order
of dedicated nuns that had sustained it since 1906 could no longer
replace the college's faculty. Liberalism had destroyed the order's
recruiting ability. It really was true: when they abandoned their
habits, they abandoned their habits. The college became trendy.
Then it disappeared. This took about fifteen years.

century ago, the liberals told the Protestant hierarchies that if
they refused to conform to the modern world, young people would
not join. This message was believed. All of the mainline denominations
above the Mason-Dixon line went liberal by 1940, unless you count
Missouri Synod Lutherans as mainline. Most of the ones in the South
went liberal by 1970. Only the Southern Baptist Convention reversed
this process before it was too late, due to the strategic planning
of three men (1977-90).

Protestant denomination that has adopted liberalism has suffered
a significant decline in its membership. The onset of this decline
can be dated: 1926, the year following the Scopes trial/media circus.
Also beginning in 1926, independent fundamentalist and Pentecostal
churches started growing.

liberals, such as Garry Wills, have told the Catholic hierarchy
ever since 1950: "Liberalize or die!" By 1960, the Catholic
church had entered the race to match the mainline Protestants. Despite
its late start, it seems to have won.

await Going Their Way, starring Gene Hackman as Father O'Donnell,
a heavy-drinking former radical who in 1967 pioneered the rock festival
Mass, and Brad Pitt, a newly ordained priest whose guitar style
is reminiscent of Jimmy Hendrix, and who has just returned from
his stay in Tibet as a seminary exchange student.

5, 2000

Gary North is the author of Crossed
Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church
available as a free download on www.freebooks.com.
Chapter 7, on how the Rockefellers, Harrimans, and Carnegies funded
the theorists of Nordic racial supremacy, and how the Supreme Court
in 1927 upheld compulsory sterilization, will not soon be quoted
in U.S. history textbooks.

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