Going Their Way

Liberal 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.

His new book is called Papal Sins. 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.

Wills 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. 151).

The 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 beckons.

Wills's 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.

Seminary 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.

The 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 change.

The 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.

How 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.

How 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?

In 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.

I 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 members.

Wills says this is a major problem. He is correct.

Imported Priests

Unless 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.

Immigrant 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.

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

Catholic Education

For 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.

The 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 them.

I 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.

In 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.

A 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).

Every 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.

Catholic 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.

We 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.

July 5, 2000

Gary North is the author of Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, available as a free download on 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.