Ireland Running Out of Priests
Ireland, one of the most devoutly Catholic countries on the planet, is having serious problems recruiting the next generation of priests.
Earlier this month, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, made a grim prediction about the future of the church in Ireland: If more young priests aren’t found quickly, the country’s parishes may soon not have enough clergy to survive. He told the congregation at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin that his own diocese had 46 priests aged 80 or over, but only two under 35 years old. It’s a similar story all over the island. According to a 2007 study of Catholic dioceses in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, about half of all priests are between the ages of 55 and 74.
Ireland’s ties to the Catholic Church run deep. The ordination of a family member was once regarded as a moment of great prestige, especially in rural areas. Even as recently as 1990, over 80% of Irish people said they attended Mass at least once a week. But the country’s relationship with the church began to change dramatically in the mid-1990s when Ireland’s economy began to take off, ushering in years of unprecedented growth. Soon, disaffection replaced devotion among Ireland’s newly rich younger generation. Most devastating of all, however, were the sex-abuse scandals involving pedophile priests that surfaced around the same time.
But more was still to come. Last May, the government published the findings of a nine-year inquiry into child abuse at church-run schools, orphanages and hospitals from the 1930s to the 1990s. The report, which described “endemic sexual abuse” at boys’ schools and the “daily terror” of physical abuse at other institutions, shook Ireland to its core and left the reputation of the church and the religious orders that ran its schools in tatters. Then, this week, another government inquiry found that the church and police colluded to cover up numerous cases of child sex abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese from 1975 to 2004, prompting the head of the Catholic church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, to apologize to the Irish people. “No one is above the law in this country,” he said. There are now calls for similar inquiries to be held in every diocese in Ireland. (Read: “For Ireland’s Catholic Schools, a Catalog of Horrors.”)
The scandals have undoubtedly made it difficult to bring new men into the priesthood. Father Brian D’Arcy, superior of the Passionist Monastery in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, says the only way to reverse the trend may be to relax the strict rules governing priests’ lifestyles. Top of his list? The vow of celibacy. “Of course it would be a big help if priests were allowed to marry or if we could ordain married men,” he says.
But some clerical leaders say that allowing married or female clergy won’t solve the problem. “They’re easy solutions on paper but the crisis is deeper,” says Father Patrick Rushe, vocations coordinator for the 26 dioceses in Ireland and Northern Ireland. He points out that the Anglican Church, which permits both married and female clergy, is also facing a shortage of vocations. “[Becoming a priest] is a lifetime commitment and a sacrifice. I think that’s what’s putting people off. It’s not just celibacy,” he says.
All of the above make for a brutal combination. The sacrifices required for the priesthood are more starkly in contrast with everyday life than ever before and the status of priests is at an all-time low.
The Church’s reputation can be restored over time. But absent radical changes in the conditions of service, the priesthood will become an artifact of the developing world.