Priest shortage = self-inflicted wound

mass sacrificeMy old pastor, the late Msgr. Schuler used to make mordent remarks about the suicidal vocations efforts of the Archdiocese. “They’re like people during a famine who wring their hands and discuss how they are all going to starve to death, instead of planting crops.”

From a great Anthony Esolen at LifeSite:

The Catholic Church’s priest shortage crisis: a self-inflicted wound

Suppose you take a double-barrel shotgun and aim it at your foot. You press the trigger, and half of your toes are bloody fragments. Then you pray, “Cure me, O Lord, for I am lame!” You hobble around for a while, complaining that there are hills in the world, and looking forward to that time when the Lord will level them all and fill in the valleys, so that you won’t have to lean on your crutch so hard. But you still carry that shotgun around, and every year you repeat the same mysterious experiment in new and improved ambulation. You have now rendered one foot nothing but an ankle ending in a splinter, and the other foot a mangled mess. But you keep praying, “Heal me, Lord, help me to walk upright again!”

When, after many years of limping as a cripple, you are persuaded that the Lord is not going to make your feet grow back, you begin to say that it is a good thing to be hobbled; it allows us to experience the wonders of chair-lifts, special parking places, threats of gangrene, and early death. But that doesn’t mean that you change everything you believe. You are still a stalwart with that shotgun. Ready, aim, fire.

The Catholic Church is in dire need of priests.  She had plenty of priests before the onset of liturgical abuses not sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium. Mathematician and computer programmer David Sonnier has plotted out the precipitous decline in vocations after the Council, illustrating it by an asymptotic curve he calls, with mordant irony, the Springtime Decay Function, whereby he concludes that we are missing more than 300,000 priests who otherwise might have been ministering to the people of God today. He shows his students the data, telling them that it marks enrollment at a college, and he asks them to guess what happened. They reply in one way or another that the college in question must have made a dreadfully bad decision in 1965. [The other day during a sermon I remarked that God is not calling fewer men to the priesthood.  The reason for the shortage was elsewhere.]

Did they get rid of football?” asked one of the students.

The answer to that is yes, they did “get rid of football.” Nowhere in Sacrosanctum Concilium or in other documents of Vatican II, as Professor Sonnier observes, are the following liturgical innovations mandated or recommended or even suggested:

* orientation ad populum
* Communion in both species
* Communion received in the hand
* Communion received while standing, as at a delicatessen
* removal of altar rails
* prohibition of Masses said according to the 1962 missal
* exclusive use of the vernacular
* girls serving at the altar

Instead, Sacrosanctum Concilium forbids innovations in the liturgy, “unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (SC, 23). Not one of those innovations above can pass that severe test, [strict, yes, and rightly so] and, as Sonnier notes, several of them had already been condemned.

Sonnier understands that correlation and causation are not the same; though it defies all reason to suppose that a decline so sudden and so calamitous was strictly coincidental. One way to show that it was not coincidental – that the foot’s agony had something to do with the shotgun and the trigger – would be to go to those dioceses and communities that did not pull the trigger, and to see whether they are walking about hale and hearty and on two feet. And so they are: Lincoln, Nebraska; Arlington, Virginia; Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate; the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter. [MADISON.  In the 33 years that Schuler was pastor of St. Agnes, 30 men had 1st Masses at the parish.  Bp. Morlino shows up in Madison, WI, and the number of seminarians rises from 6 to 36.  Coincidence?]

But when I said that “they got rid of football,” I meant it. Apart from the dubious orthodoxy or the dubious theology behind those innovations in liturgy and then in preaching, there were all the reasons in the world to suppose, from what we know about human beings in general and boys and men in particular, that the changes would be calamitous.  [YES YES YES!]

Think. Open your eyes. Remember a little history. Men fight. Many of them really enjoy fighting with their fists, but many more enjoy the spirit of intellectual or spiritual combat for something to which they will devote their goods, their lives, and their sacred honor.  [In my native place, there is a parish where the parish priest (not a blushing flower) allowed some laymen to start the Argument of the Month Club.  Only men and their sons can come.  They have unhealthy food, they have beer, they smoke cigars, and they have a speaker or two who have an argument and whom they hassle a bit with hard questions.  Lots of razzing and cheering.  Last time I was there there were hundreds of men and boys there.  It was amazing.]

So what have we done?

We have eliminated from most hymnals every single song that had anything to do with fighting the good fight. A boy may attend Mass for ten years and never hear one hymn that calls him to the soldiership of Christ.

Men are gamblers, for good and bad. Many of them court risk. They are the inventors of backgammon, cribbage, poker, “fantasy sports,” billiards, and chess. They are the ones who will risk ruining themselves for an idea or an invention. So what have we done?

We have lowered the stakes. If everyone is saved – though our Lord clearly warns us against that sluggish sureness – then why sweat? Where’s the adventure? No real boy says, “I want to grow up to be a fat bishop sitting in the chancery while the real world goes on its merry way,” or, “I want to grow up to be a man without a wife and children, who spends his days being nice.” Is that it?   [Priests are not ordained to be nice.  Priests are ordained to offer sacrifice and to forgive sins, to keep you out of hell.]

Men thrive in brotherhoods. Not peoplehoods, but specifically brotherhoods. See Tom Sawyer, Gilgamesh, the Germanic comitatus, the Japanese samurai, the monks of Saint Benedict, the fishermen of Newfoundland, the Plains Indians, the cristeros of Mexico, and, in a human sense, the apostles of our Lord Himself. So what have we done?

We have obliterated the brotherhoods. We got rid of most of our high schools for boys. We got rid of every one of our colleges for young men. We dissolved the brotherhood of acolytes – the altar boys. We did this at the worst imaginable time, just when everybody else was doing the same thing, so that now in most places CYO Basketball is but a memory, Boys’ Clubs are Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, which means Safe Small Children’s Clubs, and the Boy Scouts have been sued clear to the precincts of Sodom.

Men understand authority and flourish in it. If you doubt this, you have never come near the locker room of a football team, nor have you troubled to consider whether that team could run a single play, let alone win a game, without strict adherence to a chain of command established for the common good. “I am a man under authority,” said the centurion to Jesus. He did not say, “I insist upon equality.” Men are the ones who invented orders. Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouts, understood the principle.

What have we done?

We have obliterated distinctions between the clergy and the laity. We have turned a suspicious eye against the fundamental virtue of obedience, instead teaching that every man may do what appears right to him in his own mind.

Men are inspired by discipline. They are the ones who invented Boot Camp – and are disappointed now to find that it isn’t any longer any great deal, not if you’ve been a wrestler or a football player in high school. Find out what the boy in the American prairies underwent to prove himself a man.

What have we done?

We have eliminated almost every strenuous practice of self-denial from the common life of the Church. All we say is that if you are chewing gum during Mass, please to move it to the left side of your jaws so as to clear a space on the right to receive the Lord at Communion.

No ascetic life, no hierarchy, no brotherhood, no risk, no battle – no priests. And then there are the supernatural concerns, about which I will have more to say next time.

I, for one, look forward to what else he has to say.


In the meantime, Fr. Z kudos.

I will now add to his point about serving Mass in corps of altar boys what I usually add when things liturgical come up: No initiative we undertake in the Church will succeed without a revitalization of our sacred worship.

We have to get all women and girls out of our sanctuaries and return to our Roman Church worship in our Roman, Latin Church parishes and chapels.

The above-mentioned Msgr. Schuler ran a parish famous for liturgical excellence and for sacred music.  I mentioned the number of vocations.  The door to the sacristy was open for young men to come in and don the cassock and serve.  Boys, both from the K-12 school and from elsewhere, moved up year by year in the ranks, enrolling in the Archconfraternity of St. Stephen (the first chapter outside of England). Their tasks changed.  The color of the medal cord changed.  They taught the younger ones.  The schola cantorum was open.  The choir benches in the sanctuary were open to men when we sang Vespers on Sundays.  The door of the rectory was open when seminarians and young men met.  The priests acted like priests.  The men saw the life.   They were near the altar.  They formed a corps and the corps formed them.  Those who didn’t go into seminary wound up, usually, married and with great families.

How is this hard?

It takes a little time, but it isn’t rocket science.

Truly the lack of vocations to the priesthood is a self-inflicted wound.

Remember these POLLS?

Does an all-male sanctuary foster vocations to the priesthood? (Revisited)

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Does female service at the altar harm or suppress vocations to the priesthood?

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Fr. Z KUDOS, Hard-Identity Catholicism, POLLS, Priests and Priesthood, Seminarians and Seminaries and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Aquinas Gal says:

    There’s a good deal of truth to this. I remember after 9/11 the movie shot by the two French brothers, and the young guys who wanted to become fireman because that was how they could be heroes.
    Other factors come to mind, though, such as the steep decline in the number of children that Catholics families are having these days . . . How many future priests were aborted or contracepted?
    There’s also the parents who would do anything they could to prevent one of their sons from becoming a priest.
    It boils down to a lack of faith all around. Bad teaching and rejection of Catholic teachings on the Mass, the priesthood, the priesthood, Christology, etc.

  2. SaintsSQPNcom says:

    the lack of Men Being Men is not just within the Church or its ancilary functions – its throughout the West and particularly here in the US where, until *very* recently, being A Man’s Man was a good thing. today, real boys are treated like malfunctioning girls. and i imagine that the Argument Club described above is often referred to by that most disparaging term (when used with that most disparaging tone of voice) – a “Boy’s Club”.

  3. Gabriel Syme says:

    Great article Father.

    I liked your shotgun-to-the-foot analogy. [Thanks. It isn’t mine, if you’ll look carefully, but thanks anyway.]

    I smirked to think that the person, hobbling around after their self-inflicted wound, might call their mobility predicament “The New Athleticism”; thus mirroring the “New Springtime” we are allegedly enjoying at present.

  4. Fr. Reader says:

    It is not a problem of the western world. In many places in Asia there is a similar problem, mixed with a very “cute” religion full of pink, hearts, hello kitty, marshmallow music, followed by a very long etcetera.

  5. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Fr Z. said:

    “[The other day during a sermon I remarked that God is not calling fewer men to the priesthood. The reason for the shortage was elsewhere.]”

    I had also heard it said roughly 10 years ago during a sermon that God is still calling men to the priesthood but the problem is that many of us are no longer answering the call. (reason=

    Fr. Z said :

    ‘[MADISON. In the 33 years that Schuler was pastor of St. Agnes, 30 men had 1st Masses at the parish. Bp. Morlino shows up in Madison, WI, and the number of seminarians rises from 6 to 36. Coincidence?]”

    Another coincidence ? – Vocations Rose Under Benedict XVI ; National Catholic Register .

    And this, despite the fact that

    “Under the authority of Pope Benedict, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education put in place new strict directives for seminaries in 2005, calling for screening requirements that barred candidates with ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ or psychological immaturity from entering the priesthood.”

    Go figure !

  6. ChesterFrank says:

    I had to fill out a form for my employer. The line that traditionally asks “male or female?” was replaced with “what gender do you identify as?” We lost more than the football, we lost our marbles too!

  7. kurtmasur says:

    I’d just like to add two points to the above list of what Sacrosanctum Concilium did NOT authorize:

    – Holding hands during the Our Father
    -Sign of peace

    We can’t get any more hippy than that…

  8. midwestmom says:

    Yes! Our diocese just announced that it is closing 40 of 108 parishes. We are expected to blend into a hand-holding parish. Ugh.

  9. Praelium says:

    Excellent story by Mr. Esolen. Accurate response from Fr. Z. Very good comments here.
    I read Rose’s Goodbye, Good Men (Regnery, 2002) in 2002. Then I closed the book and said, Yup. Goodbye, good men. See you later. The billions spent on lawsuits was sad but true. The Lord predicted it while St. Peter was fishing. “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break” (Lk 5:6). St. Ambrose knew that the breaking nets are caused by “carnal desires.” ‘Nuff said. Like Fr. Z said, I enjoyed visiting Msgr. Schuler at St. Agnes in St. Paul, since he was welcoming, there was always guys around and we sat around a big table and argued. I like how Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “I too lived through that period” (Letter to Bishops 20070707). We have been there and done that. Altar girls, women at the pulpit, missing altar rails, and lame lame music. Women do not understand our male androstenedione cool factor, cortisol gladiator, dopamine drive, testosterone aggression nor our vasopressin knighthood. My male Mullerian substance (the sixth hormone mentioned here) backs away from bridal showers, baby showers, draperies on the altar, lead singers with guitars, and pianos at mass. Us guys just need an organ to play a marching song once or twice a month. The rest of the mass should be quiet and prayerful. Remember Hugh of Vermandois, Behemund of Taranto, Godfrey of Bouillon and Peter the Hermit. They marched from France to Antioch in six months with bravery, victory and a complete dependency on Christ the Lord. Time for a new start.

  10. AttiaDS says:

    Are only men allowed in the Argument of the Month Club because they know if they let just one woman in, they would lose every time? Is that it? They are scared to be showed up by, “The Weaker Sex”?

    Or is it because men will waste their time with idle words while women try to attain holiness, and the priest doesn’t want the women to lose their sanctity (which doesn’t seem like a good priest)?

    [It has more to do with the fact that this is a men’s group, which be definition is for men, not women. The fact of its maleness eliminates the FFLF, the Female Fun Limitation Factor, defined as the effect produced on one or more males of any age having fun of any kind when any female of any age asks in that inevitable special tone of voice, “Do you really think you should be doing that?”, and also through The Look and other non-verbal signals.]

  11. Semper Gumby says:

    Esprit de corps is vital to the Church and Western Civilization. Bishop Olmsted wrote at the opening of his recent letter Into the Breach: “I begin this letter with a clarion call and clear charge to you, my sons and brothers in Christ: Men, do not hesitate to engage in the battle that is raging around you, the battle that is wounding our children and families, the battle that is distorting the dignity of both women and men. This battle is often hidden, but the battle is real. It is primarily spiritual, but it is progressively killing the remaining Christian ethos in our society and culture, and even in our own homes.”

    Halfway through his letter Bp. Olmsted added:
    “Throughout all of history, including the history of Christianity, important movements were spurred on by bands of brothers, friends in Christ. The Early Church Fathers St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Basil were great friends and co-workers in the defense of Christ as they stood for the truth and defeated early heresies threatening the Church. St. Benedict and his monastic companions established communities of men that preserved and furthered Western culture in the face of barbarian destruction.”

    Last month over at the Imaginative Conservative, Joseph Pearce posted an article titled “Rescuing our Maidens From the Culture of Death.”. After a reference to The Hobbit and dragons, Pearce describes the alarming rise of suicides among British teenage girls- primarily due to sexual abuse. A reader of Pearce’s article could also call to mind the ongoing sexual assaults in Europe- from the mob in the plaza near the Cologne cathedral to spas in Sweden by certain recent male migrants. One German woman posted an article in January pleading “Where are the men?”. Another article, though, described the actions of one German man protecting several frightened women on New Years Eve in Cologne.

    Pearce closes his article with this observation:

    “In a world where virtue is shunned, vice will prevail. In a world where love is replaced with lust, the most vulnerable will be systematically abused. In a world which boasts of its Pride, it is the weakest who suffer. Such a world is destined for anarchy, which Oscar Wilde rightly called “freedom’s own Judas.” Anarchy is the morally lawless society in which the morally lawless prey upon the weak. It is a world that has unleashed the dragon. In such a world, characterized by the increase in the number of damsels in distress, we need an increase in the number of those prepared to go forth, like St. George, armed with courage and the grace of God, to rescue the maidens from the dragons of the death-culture.”

    Men going forth into battle require esprit de corps, this is achieved by familiarizing boys with the concept at the altar and elsewhere.

    And by teaching them history- history of the Church, of the country, of the spiritual and physical battlefield, of previous exploits in manly excellence. To the best of my knowledge, Cicero wrote: Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Not to know what happened before you were born, that is to be always a boy.

    So beers from the monks at Norcia to Anthony Esolen and Joseph Pearce, to the fathers and priests of the Argument Club and Bp. Olmsted, to a man resisting the dragons near the Cologne cathedral. And if I may add, to those men among a loyal band who once strove against barbarism: Requiem in pacem.

  12. emmanuelb says:

    May I know the name of the art piece included in this post?

    Thanks in advance!

    [I believe it is an old holy card.]

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  14. Ben Kenobi says:

    Fantastic, fantastic article. “Where are the men?” The same place we’ve always been, doing the same jobs we’ve always been doing. Keep your eyes open, ladies. ;)

  15. Joel says:

    Huzzah, huzzah!!!

  16. Absit invidia says:

    Those 1,271 males who answered “No” to question #2 need to do some soul searching. Either they never served mass, or have been brainwashed by 1970’s liberal zeitgeist.

  17. Hidden One says:

    Fr. Z, I would like to see a version of your polls about serving aimed specifically at priests (and bishops) and present seminarians. I think that that would be very illuminating.

    [The problem with that is that seminarians usually are working from the same IP address and the polling software sees that and blocks subsequent votes.]

  18. JuliB says:

    I think that the silence on artificial birth control figures into this as well, making the potential pool smaller. But other than that, I agree 100%.

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  20. PA mom says:

    “parents who would do anything to keep their sons from becoming priests..”

    From the sound of it, some (many?) of the seminaries were not a place that a mother would WANT to send her son, if she wished him to keep his integrity and his faith.

    Surely some number of them noticed and wisely guided their sons away.

  21. Artist says:

    As a near-octogenarian, I agree with much of your analysis of what has gone wrong with masculine identity and I would further lay it at the door of an exaggerated feminism-cum-liberalism that views equality as identity – into which men as well as women have been persuaded. However, I well recall the ’60s when this mindset was only incipient, yet priests and religious were quitting in droves, so that I fear it is simplistic to see the one as cause of the other: rather a new generation was in revolt against a ghetto mentality prevailing in a Church which was failing to engage with quite drastically changing times .
    Yet at that point only boys served on the altar and liturgical traditions you, Father, might like to see required were still in place. ( Here might I ask whether you also would wish to see restored the one exception to women in the sanctuary: when required to clean it? If not, then I fear for the orderliness of our churches!) [I am perfectly comfortable with women, indeed lay people, helping to clean a sanctuary, prepare linens, tend cassocks and surplices, deal with candles, ring the church bells, turn on the lights, unlock the doors, mind the flowers, play the organ, ….]

  22. Imrahil says:

    That was a very interesting article.

    It certainly serves well to explain why we don’t have more priests than we do.

    However, I’d be rather interested in the precise calculation of the Springtime Decay Function. According to the data I have – and this is not whitewashing – we have to talk about priest shortage but with qualifying remarks.

    It is true that the fraction “priest per general population” really has plummeted. As for the fraction “priest per Catholic”, as well as the absolute number of priests, they have also decreased, but rather slowly. The fraction “priest per Sunday Church-goer” has increased. The fraction “priest per practicing Catholic” (where practicing includes regular Confession) has skyrocked.

    And in countries like Africa which are presumed to display have lots and lots of priests, the “priest per Catholic” fraction actually has decreased also*, and is still lower than in the supposedly decayed Western world; their numbers are perceived as large because the Catholic Church is growing rapidly, and the vocations rate (absolute or per population) is also growing, if not quite as rapidly. (As the Chinese General Secretary observed recently, proportional growth is easier to achieve if you have less to grow from.)

    [*This may be, though, because the seminaries are full.]

    And after all that breakdown in the number of practicing Catholics, and, in addition, the “getting rid of football” which the article described and which did happen, it is rather miraculous that we still get as many priests as we do get. It seems that God, even in these conditions, still provides us with as many as we really need; though not, perhaps, as many as we would want, or as we could make use of, or as He would provide if we took care of providing better conditions.

    After all, we live in a world that is increasingly connected through traffic, media and so on, and displays a heavy trend of urbanization, whether we like it or no (though the Church has always taken care to take care for the things everybody likes but does not care for). The State, consequently, has fusioned his municipalties to fusioned bigger municipalties.

    It may be deplorable, but it cannot be said to be totally illogical if the 700-soul-parish comprising the formerly independent municipalty of Schaibing, County of Wegscheid, Lower Bavaria, now part of the fusioned town of Untergriesbach, fusioned-county of Passau Countryside, Lower Bavaria, may lose their own pastor and have to be content with the pastor of Untergriesbach.

    – In any case, a lot of what the article pleads for would be fine not only to get priests, but also to deal with the (I would guess, yet more important) problem of the lack of practicing Catholics, especially of the male gender.

  23. Imrahil says:

    Other things to consider:

    1. Priests used to be supplied, by and large, but faithful and pious Catholic families having at least three children whereof at least two sons (“giving one son to the Church”, it was called). When it is about something that you don’t really have to do (and to it is of obligation to be Catholic and follow the commandments, not to be a priest), the natural desire to preserve the family name and perhaps inherit and lead on the family business cannot so easily be set aside.

    Our priests, this day, the families usually have only two children, and the families are not as pious and faithful as they used to be. Often, I guess, prospective priests have to rebel against their parents (mostly in the sort of rebellion that goes against the “we’re going to support everything you do [but you know we don’t like that one]”, but still) to become priests. That is probably more hard than “be sure that you don’t just become priest to please us (but well, it does please us, we don’t deny it)”.

    2. Priests have to be celibate (which, whatever we think about it in general terms, has served as an excellent means to sort out those who only have a vague belief in something of Christianity and doing good things).

    In the modern world, this means they either have to get rid of their girlfriend or enter sacred orders with the haunting suspicion that after all, women didn’t like them anyway.

    This may be an interesting key, because it is always hard to get people do things they don’t have to, like become priests. It may be easier to enrol them in organized activities aimed at getting them do things they actually have to, without exception: like become chaste Catholics. Of course, even the chaste Catholic may have a girlfriend he is chaste with (so to speak) and hopes to marry, and entirely separating the sexes is nevertheless unadvisable, and impossible anyway. But if we could at least guarantee a Catholic atmosphere in which, for all the tolerance of passionate sins (to be confessed), entering sinful relationships is considered a thing not to do – then, perhaps, the “boys and girls need get together in pairs when sixteen” societal pressure would not be as hard. And people would be more psychologically free to consider priesthood.

    If I may, for the sake of brevity, use a bit of pars pro toto and set the health problems of tobacco aside and leave out the obvious call for moderation:

    We should try to grow, instead of a male generation that does not smoke but masturbates, a male generation that does not masturbate but smokes.

  24. Imrahil says:

    Cut that “our priests” in the third paragraph (and the second parenthesis in the second paragraph should, of course, be “and it is of obligation”). Sorry.

  25. Artist says:

    Thank you, Father. I rather assumed you would welcome women to do the tidying up and decorating – not to say the scrubbing! – and perhaps not even bar them, as was done in the past, when menstruating. Now for another question.
    I know a family where the Downs Syndrome son desired after making First Communion to serve on the altar, and has done so for some years now with a touching reverence in all his actions. This was allowed – indeed welcomed – provided his younger sibling, a girl who made First Communion with him, acted alongside. The boy can never qualify to be a priest; would you exclude him and his like from altar service? And would you exclude his sister from taking part with him?

  26. jacobi says:

    I sometimes look back with fond memory to my now somewhat distant days as an altar boy. It was a great pals club and great fun, sometimes too much which produced fits of giggles across the altar during the sermon!

    And by the way no, absolutely no, hint of you know what from the clergy. Had they tried a boot in the you know whats would have been the response!

  27. Knittingfoole says:

    Wow! I guess we all pray to St. Anthony that these marbles may be found!

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