success stories

Posted February 21, 2004

An Old Study that needs to be “Revisited” and “Pondered”

Book: Full Pews and Empty Altars
Authors: Richard A. Schoenherr and Lawrence A. Young
The University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 437

An excerpt from the Jacket:

The Roman Catholic Church faces a staggering loss of diocesan priests in the United States as it moves into the twenty-first century, and there is little chance of reversing this trend in the lifetime of the current generation of churchgoers. Full Pews and Empty Altars predicts that by the year 2005, there will be twice as many parishioners per priest as there was in 1975.

Constructing a census-registry of some 36,000 priests in the years from 1966 through 1984, and using life-table techniques to forecast the Church’s future, Richard A. Schoenherr and Lawrence A. Young portend a 40 percent loss in the diocesan priesthood population from 35,000 in 1966 to 21,000 in 2005. Along with the decline in priests will come a dramatic increase in the churchgoing population: from 45 million to 74 million.

Using a novel application of the demographic transition model and multiple regression models to explain the causes of change, Schoenherr and Young find that only six or every ten priests who leave the active ministry through resignation, retirement, sick leave, or death are replaced by ordination of new priests. Two of every five pastoral positions vacated each year go unfilled.

Without offering its own solutions, this book attempts to improve the practicality of scientific studies of organization, providing accurate, definitive, and up-to-date demographic information on the priest shortage for those in a position to use it. Schoenherr and Young maintain that, in a society dominated by large and powerful organizations, organization demography must take its place among the other tools of social analysis. They tie their analyses to concerns of the population approach, integrating the study of declining organization size, the political economy framework, and Perrow’s qualified power model.

An excerpt from the book:

Falling entrance and rising exit rates of the diocesan clergy affect the changing economy, or resource structure, of the church. A sure sign of an organization in the state of decline is a sagging internal economy. The steady loss resulting from resignations combined with the precipitous decline in ordinations may b properly described as a youth drain. Not only does the sheer number of personnel constitute economic strength for service organizations like the church, but characteristics of the staff such as energy and idealism, mastery of the latest professional literature, and openness t new ideas and procedures (all of which are generally associated with youthful new members) are likewise valuable organizational resources.

With its human resources greatly reduced in size and presumably in quality, the church will undergo some drastic changes in its program priorities, which reflect how an organization cuts back and reallocates its economic resources in response to decline. While the number of qualified full-time professionals dwindles, the sacramental ministry or “means of justification,” which is a defining characteristic of Catholicism will inevitably be curtailed. In addition, the parochial system of administration, which is not only the liturgical center of Catholic religiosity but also the organizational force behind a host of related social and community-oriented services will necessarily change its thrust when it is manned by fewer and older clergymen.

In an extensive study utilizing a large national sample, Leege and Gremillion (1989) profiled U.S. Catholic parishes of the early 198-s, a period when the priest shortage was beginning to be noticed in some areas but not in others. Their findings show that lay leadership is extensive, generally welcomed, but not without problems. The Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life, as it is called, may serve as a benchmark for future comparative research when more severe cutbacks and reallocations begin to affect the political economy of the church at the parish level.

The interaction between an organization’s economic and political subsystems during periods of decline brings into play the “politics of scarcity”. Program priorities of organizations are not rearranged solely by the forces of rational decision. Setting new goals and priorities is part of an organization’s political process.

Table of Contents:

Part 1. Overview
Why Count Priests?

Part 2. The Demographic Transition in Catholic Dioceses
National trends
Regional trends
Describing local variation
Mapping the demographic transition of organizations in decline
Explaining local variation

Part 3 Components of population change
Retirement and preretirement mortality

Part 4. Consequences of Change
Priest shortage as demographics transition
Understanding the components and consequences of change
Advances in theory and practice