success stories

Ministry in the Twenty-First Century

A lecture presented at
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate
October 2, 2002
Fred L. Hofheinz
Program Director for Religion
Lilly Endowment, Inc

It is a distinct honor and a great personal privilege for me to be with you here this evening. I have followed CARA and its work since I began my career at Lilly Endowment nearly 30 years ago. In 1973, shortly after I assumed my responsibilities at the Endowment, I was visited at my office by CARA’s revered founding executive director, Father Louis Luzbetak, who was seeking support for some now-forgotten project. Although we were not able to work together at that time, in 1979 I journeyed to CARA headquarters, then located at Oakwood Terrace adjacent to the Catholic University of America, to ask Father Francis Kelly Sheets, then on the CARA staff, to work with me on a Lilly-funded examination of the managerial and financial practices of Catholic seminaries. That project yielded the first-ever national portrait of the financing of the Catholic seminary enterprise and helped me learn early in my career about both the possibilities and the limitations of good religious research.

Because I have had the opportunity to observe CARA over three decades, during which I have seen it wax and wane through several twists and turns of fortune, I want to say how pleased I have been in recent years to have watched the remarkable renaissance of this fine agency under the leadership first of Gerry Early and now of Bryan Froele. Similarly, I salute Bishop Friend and the other members of the board for their commitment to CARA and its mission. There were times in the past that I seriously wondered if CARA would survive: I certainly don’t harbor those doubts now. So I salute you.

The Lilly Endowment has been interested in supporting religious research for at least a quarter-century, and a significant amount of that research has been concerned with ministry. Now, as you likely know, the Lilly Endowment is concerned with religion across the Christian spectrum and thus most of what we support with our grants is not focussed solely or even primarily on Catholicism. But, the Catholic Church, as the largest single Christian family, has long been a significant part of Lilly Endowment interest and will, I trust, remain so.

Our first grants specifically to support research on Roman Catholic ministry were made in the early 1980s, now some twenty years ago. Among the earliest grants in this series were the ones to support the work that led to Dean Hoge’s still important and valuable 1987 book, The Future of Catholic Leadership, and the first of several grants to support Richard Shoenherr’s decade-long magisterial work on the demographics of the American priesthood, published in 1993 as Full Pews and Empty Altars. It was that research and the events surrounding it that taught me a valuable, but quite disappointing, lesson about religious research and its impact on church leaders.

At that time at Lilly, we were fond of describing our grants for religious research as a kind of “early warning system” that could help illumine the landscape of things to come. Through our research grants, we hoped to highlight the critical issues of the day with the aim of aiding leaders in the Church as they struggled to shape the Church of the future. That is likely the same kind of motivation that led the founders of CARA to call this agency the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Neither Lilly nor CARA is interested in research that, as the common phrase puts it, “sits on a shelf gathering dust.” As he so often does, Dean Hoge probably said it best in the aforementioned Future of Catholic Leadership when he wrote, “Where the Church should go is a theological question to be decided in prayer and study by Catholic leaders. The role of research is merely to provide information and interpretation of current conditions.” Leadership in the Church, or indeed, in any other human endeavor is difficult enough as it is, but it is nearly impossible without adequate and accurate information. Based on that reasoning, early on in our negotiations for the grant to support Schoenherr’s work, he and I agreed that it would be useful and most likely strategically important to award the actual grant for this work directly to the United States Catholic Conference rather than to the University of Wisconsin on whose faculty he served. That way it would have a kind of quasi-seal of approval from the “official” Church and thus, so we naively thought, would be much more useful for bishops and others as they planned for a future that likely would see a shrinking number of ordained ministers. Schoenherr believed that having accurate demographic data as early as possible would be of invaluable assistance to local bishops and to the Bishops’ Conference as a whole as they planned for the future. Father Gene Hemrick who was Director of the Office of Research at the Conference and Msgr. Dan Hoye who was than its General Secretary readily concurred and between 1984 and the publication of Schoenherr’s book nearly a decade later, the Endowment provided nearly a half-million dollars to support the gathering and dissemination of this important demographic data.

As soon as Schoenherr’s data was reported to the bishops, long before it was published in book form, criticism rained down upon his head from the very bishops whom he had hoped to assist. One of his toughest and most vocal opponents, a prominent West Coast prelate, leveled a scathing response to Schoenherr’s report to the Bishops’ Conference by publishing a mean-spirited article in the national newsweekly, Our Sunday Visitor, in which he stated – and I quote directly – that “the Catholic Church in our country has been done a great disservice by the Schoenherr report” and he went on to assert that “our future is shaped by God’s design for His Church, not by sociologists.” Anyone who knew this gentle, scholarly and scrupulously honest social scientist knows how much he loved the Church and how hard he worked on its behalf. Trying to shape the future of the Church was never something to which Richard aspired; he simply wanted to provide accurate information. Before he died, Richard shared with me his private exchange of correspondence with this high-ranking episcopal critic. Over and over, in that patient but persistent way that he had, Richard tried painstakingly and diplomatically to explain his research methodology and how it led inevitably to his projections. With far less patience, and infinitely less expertise, his critic ignored Richard’s evidence and asserted that he would never concede the accuracy of the projections. He didn’t care how exacting Richard’s methodology was: he knew better. I wish I could say that this attitude was idiosyncratic to this one bishop, but I am afraid that it was not. By the time that Full Pews and Empty Altars was published to high acclaim from the social scientific community, it had been generally discredited among the hierarchy.

I have taken the time to rehearse this story because I am afraid that it has been an all-too-typical response by church authorities to research. I could cite other examples of Lilly-supported research, both Catholic and Protestant, that has been ignored. All of you here this evening from the research community could do so as well. I suppose that as a native Hoosier I should not be surprised, since it was a Congressman from Lafayette, Indiana, Earl Landgrebe, who made the famous statement justifying his continued staunch support for Richard Nixon as the Watergate hearings were in progress: “I’ve got my mind made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.” Though I can’t imagine many bishops who would put it quite that starkly, I am afraid that far too many seem to operate with that as a guiding principle. If the important work of CARA and others engaged in research in service to the Church is to be appropriately appreciated and useful, this mindset must change and change quickly. I regret to say that so far, at least, I haven’t had a lot of evidence that this is happening. Let us pray that it soon will.

Two years ago, the Lilly Endowment awarded a grant of $3.5 million to the Divinity School at Duke University to support its Pulpit and Pew Project, the most comprehensive research that has ever been undertaken on the state of the Christian ministry in the United States. While spanning the entire Christian ministry, the Pulpit and Pew project has not failed to give attention to the particular situation of ministry in the contemporary American Catholic Church. The various Advisory committees for the Pulpit and Pew project include such distinguished and knowledgeable persons as Bishop Gerald Kicanas, Fathers Clete Kiley and Bob Silva, Sister Katarina Schuth and other Catholic leaders. As many of you know, Dean Hoge and his colleagues’ recently published study The First Five Years of the Priesthood as well as his soon-to-be published new book, The New Vision of the Priesthood: Changes from Vatican II to the Turn of the New Century, both available from Liturgical Press, are products of the Duke Pulpit and Pew project.

Twenty other research projects are currently underway in the Pulpit and Pew project addressing such questions as: What is the state of pastoral leadership at the new century’s beginning? What do current trends portend for the next generation? What is good pastoral leadership and how has its definition varied historically and by denominational tradition?

One of the more impressive Pulpit and Pew projects is a nation-wide interfaith and interdenominational survey of clergy aimed at providing a comprehensive profile of American pastors. It is the most inclusive and representative survey of clergy ever undertaken, with responses from clergy in over eighty denominations and faith groups. I would encourage anyone with interest in the issue of ministry in America to scan the project’s website at www.pulpitandpew.duke.edu. Over the next years, a torrent of publications will be flowing from this project and, without claiming too much, may I simply suggest that there is the possibility here of more enlightening and inclusive information about ministry in America than has ever before been available.

In addition to the Pulpit and Pew project, the Lilly Endowment also recently sponsored another major effort that holds promise of yielding important information about the ministry. Early in 2002, the Endowment launched a major competitive grants program on the theme of “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence.” In this program, the Endowment invited organizations of all types from across the United States to submit proposals to support significant efforts that would help pastors improve and sustain good ministry. In June, we received more that 730 proposals from a wide variety of religious agencies across the United States in response to this invitation. In late September, the Endowment awarded 47 grants totaling $57.8 million to support those programs that held the most promise. Ten of those grants were awarded to Roman Catholic agencies, including one to the Dominican House of Studies here in Washington for a program in partnership with the Archdiocese of Washington and CARA. You might also be interested to know that included among the grants was one of $2 million to the National Association of Lay Ministry that includes a major research component and a grant of more than $930,000 to the University of Notre Dame for programs of education and formation for Catholic bishops. Other grants were awarded to a range of Catholic universities, seminaries, retreat centers and even a local diocese in Oklahoma.

As part of the process for this competition, each agency submitting a proposal was asked to tell us its analysis of the current state of pastoral ministry. I spent the greater part of this summer reading those 730+ proposals and was fascinated by the way that question was addressed. The responses from the more than 150 Catholic agencies from across the country that submitted proposals would be of most interest to you. Although we have not yet made a careful, scientific analysis of this vast amount of data, I can tell you that it was commonplace in these proposals to find a description of a Church and a presbyterate reeling from the shock and shame of the sexual scandals and suffering from both the loneliness and the stress resulting from shrinking numbers of active parish priests. And yet, in spite of these neuralgic realities, there was also a clear portrait that emerged of many hardworking, faithful and talented pastoral ministers, ordained and lay, serving Catholic parishes of all kinds across the breadth of the nation. The Endowment hopes later to sponsor systematic study, analysis and publication of this material since it represents an important snapshot of how agencies of all kinds view ministry today.

As I reflect on American Catholic ministry in these early decades of the 21st century, I continue to be struck by several realities. As we are all now aware – even the West Coast prelate who disputed Schoenherr – the numbers of ordained ministers continue to diminish year by year, while the number of Catholics continues to grow and the numbers of skilled people trained for and interested in lay pastoral ministry continue to expand exponentially. Additionally, as Dean Hoge has learned and reports in his latest research, many of the men being ordained for the parish priesthood today are significantly different from those of just a few years ago. Dean’s research points to a change away from what he calls the “servant-leader” type of priest to a greater percentage of those who embrace what he calls the “cultic” model. The servant-leader priests, most of whom were ordained in the years immediately preceding and following the Council, say from about 1960 to about 1980, have been replaced over the last 20 years by men with a markedly different kind of ecclesiology and priestly self-identity. The older priests, those now in the 55-65 year-old range, were shaped by the ideas and excitement of the Second Vatican Council. They were more open to reform and innovation than were those who immediately preceded them in the priesthood and, as Dean’s research shows, they are also more open to reform and change than those who have followed after them. So, despite appearances at the time, those ordained in that brief 20-year period were a not-yet-repeated anomaly.

While the Vatican II-influenced priests were excited about and embraced collaborative ministry with lay people, those who have been ordained in the years after 1980 and shaped almost entirely by the long papacy of Pope John Paul II, are much more conscious of their priestly distinctiveness from the laity and much less willing to embrace and enable collaborative ministry, just at the time when collaboration with lay ministers has become more necessary than ever before and at a moment when there are more well-trained and competent lay ministers available than at any other time in history. One does not have to have the prescient eye of a prophet to see a crisis looming on the horizon.

I do not think that I am alone in believing that the story of Catholic ministry for the earliest years of the 21st century and likely for decades yet to come, will be in large part the story of lay ministry. Though lay ministers have now been serving parishes in increasing numbers for more than a quarter century, it still appears that they are “flying beneath the radar” of many in the institutional church. I offer as evidence the fact that while there are nearly 40 permanent offices at the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops for every purpose imaginable – including both an Office for Priestly Formation and an Office for Priestly Life and Ministry – the whole area of Lay Ministry remains the concern of a SUB-Committee within the broadly dispersed Office of Family, Laity, Women and Youth. Indeed, it took a Lilly grant a few years ago to bring to that office the first staff person solely concerned with this issue.

I have noted with real interest in the March 2002 CARA report on Catholic Ministry Formation Programs that during the 2001-2002 academic year there were 3,584 men enrolled in priestly formation programs in theologates across the United States. An additional 1,594 men were enrolled in seminary colleges. Giving the most generous count, then, there are currently 5,178 men preparing for the priesthood in the U.S. In the same year, the CARA statistics list 34,414 men and women formally enrolled in Lay Ecclesial Ministry formation programs. There are, then, nearly 7 times more people preparing for lay ministry than there are men preparing for priesthood. The future of ministry is clearly staring us in the face.

I cannot conclude my reflections on ministry in the year 2002 without a brief reference to the terrible sexual scandals that over the past year have rocked the Church and all of us who love her. It has been a real year of horrors.

While I have very little to add to the hundreds of millions of words that have been written in the religious and secular press or to the statements of shock, pain, anger, disgust, apology, remorse, repentance and every other conceivable human emotion that have been spoken, I do have an observation that I want to share – fittingly for this occasion – an observation derived from research.

I mentioned earlier that I have spent much of the past summer reading through the more than 700 proposals that were submitted to the Lilly Endowment on the theme of “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence.” Several of these proposals came from agencies that were primarily concerned with ministers in the evangelical Protestant tradition. Many of those proposals, when discussing the current state of pastoral ministry in their tradition, quoted from a survey of evangelical pastors conducted recently by the well-respected Fuller Seminary Institute of Church Growth. According to that survey, fully 80% of evangelical pastors believe that pastoral ministry has affected their personal lives and families in a negative way; 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they started in ministry and a remarkable 50% indicate that they have seriously considered leaving the ministry sometime in the last three months. Recently, I have had the opportunity to read the findings of CARA’s survey of U.S. Catholic priests. This poll, conducted in March, 2002, that is, after the Boston sexual abuse scandals were made public but admittedly before the crisis reached national proportions, yields a strikingly different snapshot of ordained ministry in the Catholic tradition. According to the CARA survey, more than 98% of all priests say they are happy in their ministry and barely ten percent say they have ever “seriously thought about leaving the priesthood.” While I certainly do not cite these survey results to make odious comparisons with our Evangelical brothers and sisters, I do want to highlight the reality that, though it’s been a extraordinarily difficult and painful year for all of us who love the Church, we can take solace knowing that the American Catholic Church is blessed with a remarkably healthy, committed and fulfilled presbyterate, as well as by a growing corps of deeply committed and highly skilled lay women and men ecclesial pastoral ministers. May God continue to bless them all and sustain them in their ministry on behalf of the Kingdom.

Thank you.