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Vocations In France: Apres Nous le Deluge?

31 July, 2014 3 Comments

by Lyle Dunne, 31 July 2014.

Half-hearted priests, heretics and time-servers, paradoxically, are not available on the export market, since dioceses that have them tend to have priest shortages. This, it seems to me, can only redound to the good.

Abbey de Beauport, Britttany

In May of this year I posted Vocations and Adorationwherein I compared vocation numbers among dioceses, noting that those where Adoration was practised had rather more vocations.

This was itself a follow-up to The Economics of Religion, in which I noted that while some Australian dioceses were doing well, others, if they were companies, would be in receivership.

Extending the argument, a reason for cautious optimism has since occurred to me: those dioceses that are more fully Catholic in belief and practice will be the ones with a (relative) surplus of priests. Other dioceses will have a shortage – which they will have to make up from the healthy dioceses, whether locally or overseas. Half-hearted priests, heretics and time-servers, paradoxically, are not available on the export market, since dioceses that have them tend to have priest shortages. This, it seems to me, can only redound to the good.

Now our friends at the blog Centurio have been doing some research into a related matter, focussed on France but closer to the specific concerns of Oriens, projecting total numbers of priests, and the number in traditional communities, to 2050.

The results are, to say the least, startling: “by 2038, traditional priests will outnumber priests celebrating the new mass”.

Before sending you over to read it, though, a few words of caution.

They say if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The reference to 96 ordinations in the most recent year (2013?) seems about right; this is the same number as in 2010, and about what we’d expect given the 700-odd seminarians in France (widely reported in 2012 as the fewest since the French Revolution). Some of this decline is attributed to demographic change: the postwar baby boom has ended, and fertility remains low, including among Catholics – possibly masked, at the national level, by higher fertility among Islamic immigrant groups. But clearly this is a minor factor.

However, even though the average age of priests in France may be 75, I find it hard to believe that the number of “non-traditional” priests will fall from the current number of around 14,000 to the 3,000 shown in chart 1 – a drop, no, a plummet, of more than 75% – by around 2021. And quite apart from whether the data support this, one imagines that if the French Church were heading for this kind of catastrophe, there would be attempts to address it but greatly increasing the importation of priests from overseas – say Francophone Africa, where vocation numbers are healthy.

(We should bear in mind that the drop in vocations in the West in recent years has been offset by an almost exactly equal numerical growth in vocations in the parts of the world we read about less often in the news.)

DICI, the SSPX communication agency (who one imagines would not be over-optimistic on the subject) quotes a spokesman for the French Bishops saying there are eight (8) French priests dying for each ordination – a horrific statistic to be sure, but 800 (700 net) is a less disastrous annual attrition rate than the 3,000-odd implied in the article.

Nevertheless it is clear that if we exclude ordinations of traditionalist priests and priestly immigration, then the “mainstream” French Church is in free-fall.

If we took out the disproportionate contributions from communities who are closer to tradition like the “Reform of the Reform” Community of St Martin, whose founder was an oblate of Fontgombault, with 80 priests and 40 seminarians, and the tradition-friendly diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, where ordinands are offered the choice of ordination in the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form, it’s even worse. [NB I’m informed that this choice is no longer available, sadly – Ed.]

On the other side, I’m not sure we have quite enough data to project reliably the growth of traditional vocations over the next three or four decades: anyone whom claims to be able to predict the position of the SSPX (the most numerous of the several organisations involved) in the Church over this time period is braver than I.

So on balance I’m a little sceptical of the graphs, and the claim that “traditional priests will outnumber priests celebrating the new mass” by 2038. But the real problem is that I don’t buy the claim that this S-shaped curve is ‘very characteristic of introduction (“diffusion”) of innovative or ground-breaking ideas’, nor consider this cause for rejoicing, as the effect is mainly driven not by growth in traditional clergy, but by a massive (projected) fall in numbers of other clergy.

We’re talking about a fall in total clerical numbers from the present 14,000 to somewhere around one thousand. If we assume – boldly – that traditional clergy numbers will continue to double every 35 years, then it would take about two hundred years to make up for that loss.

The temptation to Schadenfreude is great, but we should remember that such a fall would represent huge numbers of citizens of the “Eldest Daughter of the Church” being deprived of the sacraments.

Above all, we should pray that the huge fall in total clerical numbers projected here does not happen.

But, with those numerous caveats, you should definitely read the article.

Comments (3)

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  1. Vocations in Australia : Oriens | 29 January, 2015
  1. Dan Marsh says:

    This is much easier to calculate than one might suppose: At the current rate of priestly ordination, presuming an active career of 40 years, there should be a little under 4,000 priests in 40 years. Since the article seems to suppose about 500 traditionalist priests in 2035, one would suppose, therefore, about 12% of priests in 2035 would be traditionalist.

    • Dan,

      I agree – in fact that reminds me I was going to post an article about vocations in Australia using exactly that approach. (Watch this space!) Shorter-term predictions, however, depend on the age-profile of the present clergy, which I don’t know. And it’s all subject to heroic assumptions about present trends continuing.

      I still think the main news is that, even on the most optimistic assumptions, France has fewer than a third of the new priests needed to sustain the current numbers.

      Lyle Dunne, Editor.

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