The number of Catholic diocesan priests in Ireland dropped 13 per cent in the decade between 2002 and 2012, according to new figures. The fall in the number of priests in religious congregations and orders was similar, while the number of nuns dropped by 23 per cent. The figures are contained in the Statistical Yearbook of the Church, an annual Vatican Library publication.
They show the number of diocesan priests in Ireland dropped from 3,203 in 2002 to 2,800 in 2012, a fall of 403 in the decade. Over the same period, the number of religious priests – members of congregations and orders – dropped from 2,159 to 1,888 in 2012, a fall of 271 (12.5 per cent).
For the female congregations, the drop in numbers was bigger, down from 8,953 in 2002 to 6,912 – a fall of 2,041.
The number of laymen who have taken temporary or perpetual vows also fell. In 2002 they numbered 869, but by 2012, they were down to 628, a drop of 241, or 28 per cent, in the decade. On a more positive note for the church, the number of students of philosophy and theology at diocesan and religious centres in Ireland during the same decade showed a smaller decline. It was down from 206 in 2002 to 181 in 2012, a drop of 25 or 12.1 per cent.
The decline in clergy numbers prompted the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) to seek a meeting with the bishops on June 4th last.
Writing about the meeting in his Western People column, Fr Brendan Hoban of the ACP leadership team said: "We talked to them [bishops] about the crisis in vocations. We quoted statistics from their own website. We explained in graphic terms that in 10 to 15 to 20 years time Irish priests – apart from a tiny cadre of aged individuals – would have virtually disappeared. In Dublin diocese (with 199 parishes to pastor) there are now just two priests under 40 years of age.
“The crisis is now mathematically certain. If we keep going the way we are, the future of the Irish priesthood is now unsustainable.”
The ACP proposed three strategies, he said: “(i) ordain married men of proven responsibility and virtue (there are thousands available in the parishes of Ireland); (ii) invite priests who ‘left the priesthood’ to get married to return to ministry (many would be happy to respond to the call); and (iii) to extend to women ordination to the permanent diaconate.”
However, he continued, “we knew we were pressing buttons that the bishops would prefer we left untouched. If the bishops don’t bite the bullet on this one, we will really know who is to blame. Doing nothing is not just irresponsible but a counsel of despair. Denial is no longer an option.”