In two national polls of adult Catholics in the last decade, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University has asked the question: "As you may know, the number of Catholic priests has declined in recent decades. Have you noticed this change?" In 2001, 70 percent of adult Catholics said they had noticed a decline. In 2008, the percentage who said they had noticed dipped slightly to 66 percent. 

These responses occurred as the combined number of diocesan and religious priests in the United States actually declined by 8 percent, from nearly 45,000 to just more than 41,000 between 2001 and 2008. 

Perhaps even more surprising, less than one in five Catholics in both surveys said that they had been personally affected by the declining number of priests (20 percent in 2001 and 15 percent in 2008). 

What will they say 25 years from now? The Catholic faith is centered on the sacraments, and specifically receiving the Eucharist at Mass. If there are fewer priests and more Catholics in the future, how will the sacramental life of the Catholic Church be different? 

Predicting the future is always difficult. There are so many unknowns, and historical trends are by no means guaranteed to continue.  

This package utilizes the best and most recent data available to predict how the Catholic Church in the United States might look 25 years from now. Given recent trends, this is a future that can be expected to have fewer priests. 

Mark M. Gray, Ph.D. is a CARA research associate and director of CARA Catholic Polls (CCP). His research focuses on trend analyses of Catholic Church data and surveys of the adult Catholic population of the United States.

How a decline in priests will impact ministry needs

In 2009, there was slightly more than one active diocesan priest per parish (1.05) in the United States. If the number of parish closings and mergers continue in future decades at the same rate that these occurred from 2000 to 2009 (a loss of 6.2 percent of parishes for the decade), the number of active diocesan priests per parish will still likely fall well below 1.0 and is estimated to reach 0.84 in 2035. In that year, the assumptions and projections lead to the estimate that there will be 12,520 active diocesan priests and 14,825 parishes (similar to the total number of parishes in the United States in 1948). 

If no additional parish closings or mergers occurred and the Church maintained the same number of parishes in 2035 that it had in 2009, the number of active diocesan priests per parish would fall to 0.7. 

Staffing parishes with priests in the future will likely require continued parish closings and mergers as well as some combination of more parish assignments per priest, increasing the use of international priests and maintaining as many assignments to religious priests as possible.

Growing population 

This will occur as the Catholic population likely continues to experience growth in the United States. Assume that in the next 25 years the Catholic population grows 25 percent as it has since 1985. Note this simply implies relative stability with Catholics continuing to be about 23 percent of the total U.S. population as it has for almost the entire post-World War II period. 

This is a very conservative scenario, as many predict even higher rates of growth through recent immigration from predominantly Catholic countries and higher fertility rates among these populations. Some of that growth, though, will be offset by those who choose to leave the Faith. Yet, according to surveys conducted by CARA and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Catholics, in comparison to those of other religions, are among the most likely to retain the faith they were raised in as adults (estimates range from 68 percent to 72 percent).  

There is no period of time in recent decades where one can identify a mass exodus from the Catholic faith; instead, these changes appear to have occurred gradually year to year — most often among those in their teens and early 20s. The number of Catholic baptisms per 1,000 Catholics in recent years also closely mirrors the crude birthrate for the United States (number of births per 1,000 residents) indicating that most Catholics are baptizing their children. 

If the 25 percent growth projection turns out to be accurate, the number of self-identified Catholics in the United States (as currently estimated by national surveys) will have increased from 70.5 million in 2009 to 88.1 million in 2035. This will result in the number of Catholics per active diocesan priest increasing from 3,687 in 2009 to 7,039 in 2035. 

Also assume that the weekly Mass attendance rate remains at the plateau of 31 percent, as it has for nearly a decade in CARA surveys. Note that this is the percentage of Catholics attending in any given typical week — for example, other than Christmas, Easter or Ash Wednesday. It is not the percentage of Catholics who say they attend Mass every week — that is, 23 percent. The number of Mass-attending Catholics per parish in 2035 would be 1,866 and the number of these individuals per active diocesan priest would be 2,210. 

Crowded pews

Given recent changes in numbers of parishes and normal variations in the number of Masses offered, the current weekend seating capacity of the Catholic Church in the United States (the aggregated number of seats multiplied by the number of Masses per parish) is difficult to know. However, this can be estimated using data from CARA's National Parish Inventory (NPI), a database of parish life in the United States. The NPI includes information about the seating capacity and number of Masses in more than seven in 10 parishes in the United States (seating capacity for 71 percent of parishes and number of Masses for 78 percent of parishes). The estimates made below use imputed regional averages for seats and number of Masses for any missing observations at the parish level. Further, the overall total capacity is adjusted down to account for the number of parish closings and mergers that have occurred in recent years since much of the NPI data was collected (a reduction of 5.9 percent). 

Using these methods, the current estimate for the building seating capacity of Catholic parishes in the United States includes spots for more than 8.8 million people and that there are about 63,800 Saturday Vigil and Sunday Masses in an average week — that is, in October, a period outside of the summer vacation season and within Ordinary Time for the Church. 

Using the NPI data, we can thus estimate that the total weekend seating capacity for the Catholic Church is currently about 33.4 million. In other words, on an average weekend, 66.3 per-cent of seats are filled by an estimated 22.1 million attendees. On a typical weekend, the average total number of Saturday Vigil and Sunday Masses per parish is 3.6 with an average church seating capacity of 492. 

Assume that in 2035 that the typical number of Masses and number of seats per parish remains unchanged and that the number of parishes has declined at the 6.2 percent per decade rate consistent with the 2000 to 2009 period. If this were to occur, the number of Mass-attending Catholics per parish would increase from 1,233 now to 1,866 while the total weekend seating capacity would drop to 27.6 million. The number of seats filled at Masses on a typical weekend would essentially rise to capacity in 2035 if there were no increases in the average number of Masses offered per parish. 

On Christmas, Easter and Ash Wednesday, when CARA surveys indicate 68 percent of Catholics may attend Mass, parishes would exceed the capacity to serve all those who wish to attend even with the addition of more Masses. The pews would be full with only 31 percent of Catholics attending. 

Emerging models

Currently, the Catholic Church, on most weekends, is more than able to meet Mass attendance demands. However, this excess capacity in Ordinary Time could be momentary if current trends continue. As the Catholic population grows — even with stable levels of Mass attendance — the physical capacity of the Catholic Church — for example, number of parishes, seats and/or Masses — will require growth. Yet it would be challenging to increase the number of Masses offered if active diocesan priests decline in number as projected. 

Even as numbers of many of the sacraments celebrated per 1,000 Catholics have declined slightly in recent decades, nearly all Catholic parents baptize their children and nearly seven in 10 Catholics attend Mass at least a few times a year. CARA surveys also reveal that most Catholic parents say it is "somewhat" or "very" important to them that their children receive their first Communion (81 percent) and confirmation (77 percent). Marriage in the Church has declined more steeply in recent decades. Yet, CARA surveys also indicate that 75 percent of adult Catholics who have never been married anticipate marrying in the future, and 72 percent of these respondents say marriage in the Church is of some importance to them (46 percent say this is "somewhat" or "very" important to them and 26 percent indicate this is a "little" important). Even with smaller percentages of Catholics celebrating some of the sacraments there will still likely be increasing demands for Church ministries in the future as the Catholic population grows. 

Catholics may also have to travel farther to parishes in the coming years if Mass offerings decrease in number. Trends in the development and use of emerging models of parish life may also expand with more merging of parishes, the sharing of clergy and lay ministers among parishes, and deacons and laypersons being entrusted with the care of a parish under the supervision of a nonresident priest. 

None of the projections presented here are guaranteed. Far from it. These are simply a glimpse of a likely future given a review of recent trends and the demographic composition of various populations within the Catholic Church in the United States. Other outcomes are possible. Ordinations could increase, Catholic population growth could slow, or more international priests may be utilized. 

The only sure bet is that there is significant change ahead.

A question of numbers

Discussions of the changing numbers of priests in the United States in the media and elsewhere often use data that can be somewhat misleading. A count of "total priests" includes too many priests who are retired or not involved in parish ministry. Today, about 30 percent of all diocesan priests are retired, sick or absent. Also, "total priests" includes religious priests, such as Jesuits or Franciscans, who make up about a third of this number, but less than a quarter of them are in parish ministry. 

Many parishes around the world have no resident priest. The percentage of these parishes in any given country is closely correlated to the number of diocesan priests per parish. In the simplest of terms one might think that only when the number of diocesan priests per parish falls below 1.0 would a country need to potentially close parishes, have these administered by nonresident priests with multiple assignments, or entrust the care of these parishes to someone other than a priest (see Canon 517.2). Yet in practice these other options are often used well before the ratio approaches 1.0. 

In the United States there are 1.6 diocesan priests per parish, and 18 percent of parishes are either administered by a nonresident priest or entrusted to someone who is not a priest. By comparison, countries with many diocesan priests per parish such as Uganda (3.3 diocesan priests per parish), South Korea (2.4 diocesan priests per parish), and the Philippines (2.8 priests per parish) have less than 1 percent of their parishes without a resident priest. At the other extreme, in areas where there are too few diocesan priests per parish, such as in France (1.0 priests per parish), Belgium (1.0 priests per parish) and Switzerland (1.0 priest per parish), nearly half of parishes do not have a resident priest. 

The number of diocesan priests per parish is a very good predictor of the likelihood of parishes having a resident priest among those countries with at least 1 million Catholics and 250 parishes. Currently, the "tipping point" ratio in these 64 nations is at about 1.8 diocesan priests per parish. Among those with a ratio of at least 1.8 diocesan priests per parish it is relatively uncommon to have parishes without a resident priest. 

If current trends continue, the United States is likely to move even further away from this critical benchmark in the coming decades.

Priest projection: Using the past to predict future

A projection is only as good as its underlying assumptions. Fortunately, one of the most remarkable aspects of a priest-projection equation is the stability in many of the "inputs" and "outputs" in recent years. 

Although the aggregate numbers of priests have declined in recent decades, this is almost entirely a function of the age distribution of this population. The annual number of ordinations, deaths of priests and even the number of those leaving the priesthood are remarkably stable over the last decade or more. 

It is also important to look back before one looks forward. Many compare the Church today in the United States with the way it functioned in the 1950s and 1960s, when, indeed, there were large numbers of priests. Yet these two decades are really the exception rather than the rule, and in no other span in Church history in the United States has this country experienced such an abundance of clergy. If you start from the highest point, you will always notice the steepest decline. 

The recent past may be the best prediction of the near future. In the last decade, the number of ordinations of diocesan priests in the United States has averaged 383 per year, with very little variation from year to year. In the projections made below, we assume that the number of diocesan ordinations per year will remain stable at the current average of 383 per year.  

The age structure of new priests is defined by CARA's recent survey of the class of 2010. The assumption is made that the age structure of ordinands will mirror those of recent classes where the median age for new diocesan priests is 33. 

Not all priests remain in the priesthood. In the most recently available data, 0.38 percent of diocesan priests leave the priesthood per year. The assumption made for the projection is that this rate will be similar in the future.

Aging population 

The single most important factor driving future changes in the priesthood is age. In the 1960s and 1970s, about one in 10 diocesan priests active in ministry were 65 or older. In 2009, a third of all active diocesan priests were 65 or older. 

A 2008 CARA survey of Catholic diocesan priests revealed that half of currently active diocesan priests plan to retire in the next 10 years (before 2019). Many may continue some active ministry during retirement, though. The projection conservatively assumes that 80 percent of priests between the ages of 65 and 74 will continue to have some activity in ministry after retirement and that 35 percent of priests over the age of 74 may as well.  

Even with increasing life expectancies in recent decades, mortality will eventually take the biggest toll on future numbers of priests available for ministry. The projection uses a Social Security Administration actuarial table to predict remaining years of life and work expectancy. 

Steady decline 

The late Dean Hoge, who was a professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America for 34 years, noted that the number of priests in the United States has been declining at about 12 to 14 percent per decade since 1985. Given the assumptions above, all of which are relatively conservative, the number of active diocesan Catholic priests in 2020 will likely have declined from today's numbers by 16.7 percent, followed by a similar decline in the following decade (16.8 percent). Starting in 2030, declines will ease if the current level of ordinations remains stable. 

Twenty-five years from now, the projection estimates that there will be about 12,520 diocesan priests active in ministry in the United States. This represents a 34.5 percent decline from the number of active diocesan priests in ministry today. It is important to note this is very similar to the 35.3 percent decline in active diocesan priests from 1985 to 2009. The future is likely to repeat itself in the next 25 years with continued steady change.

International pastors 

Many Catholics today worship in parishes that have international priests. In CARA surveys, 34 percent of adult Catholics indicate that a priest from outside of the United States has come to their parish to serve regularly in the last five years. Most have been pleased with the ministry provided. Fifty-three percent of those who have been in these parishes say they are "very" satisfied with the ministry of this priest, and 34 percent indicated they were "somewhat" satisfied. If current trends continue, international priests may become even more common in parishes in the United States. Yet, the irony is that this may exacerbate priest shortages elsewhere in the world.