Saturday, April 27, 2013

Ordination Statistics for England and Wales

The diligent Rev Stephen Morgan (@trisagion) and some chums have been through a huge pile of old Catholic Directories to answer the question posed by Catholic Voices and the Vocations Office: how do ordinations today, with their current upswing, compare with those of previous decades? I've parked his raw data on the Latin Mass Society site here.

To recap, the Vocations Office printed some very strange-looking figures for the period before 1980, with average annual numbers of ordinations given for each decade weirdly low: 6 for the 1930s, for example. Catholic Voices posted an article on their own blog which leapt on these to make the counter-intuitive claim that we are enjoying a higher number of ordinations now than in the 1950s. When questioned on this, the Vocations Office pulled their pre-1980 figures. Catholic Voices say they are 'looking into it.'

As TTony might say, hmm.

I have turned Deacon Morgan's columns of figures into two graphs: one showing ordinations, the other, the total number of clergy. These are figures from the Catholic Directory year by year, and they stop in the 1980s, when the Directory stopping publishing them (at least, in the same format). Where a Directory was missing from the archive he was using, there is a gap in the line, but the general picture remains very clear.  I have added the year-by-year numbers since 1980 given by the Vocations Office, as a separate line. The Directories distinguished ordinations for Secular and Religious clergy; I include both lines of numbers plus a 'total' for the two together; the Vocations Office statistics are supposed to be secular clergy only.

(Double-click to see them bigger.)

The Vocations Office is clearly counting differently from the Directories, and have higher figures where the two series overlap. There are a number of possible explanations. (Are they counting ordinations to the permanent diaconate? Is there some inconsistency between the two series about the treatment of non-religious communities of priests like the Oratorians?) It doesn't matter: they show they same trend, of steep decline starting in the mid 1960s.

In the 1950s and 1960s there were, almost every year for which there are figures, more than 200 ordinations. The twin bounces provided by the Papal Visit of 1982 and the Anglican influx after 1992 are very visible; we even managed just over 100 for two years. This year we are overjoyed to be anticipating 41 secular ordinations, not counting the Ordinariate, which (Catholic Voices say) should add another 11. Great. In 1937, the number of secular vocations was over 150; that was in a year that the religious orders ordained 80 men to the priesthood.

Another source has scanned the relevant pages of the Directory for 1940 and 1941; I have put these on my Flickr page. If you need persuading that this avalanche of clergy in the mid century was real, you can read their names. (And you can note, they aren't all Irish names.) Under 'Ampleforth' I see the legendary Fr James Forbes, later a Master of St Benet's Hall. Oh, these chaps were real enough.

I sincerely hope that Catholic Voices has the sense to modify or scrap that blog post of theirs. In the interests of posterity, here is the money quote in a screenshot taken today.

The obvious fact about the statistics is the horrible and persistent decline which started in the mid 1960s, in both ordinations and clergy numbers. The latter reflects the tragic mass laicisations of the 1970s and 1980s.

Now I am by no means a fundamentalist when it comes to explaining everything in terms of Vatican II: I've blogged about the broader social factors at work. But facts must be faced. The blips upwards in the 1990s were just that - blips. You can see the trend reasserting itself after the bulge, as if nothing had happened. That trend would have taken us to zero by now had it continued.

It hasn't. Just before the crash landing things changed. This is now the fifth year running of improving numbers. It is nothing like enough to replace the priests dying and retiring: the ones ordained forty years ago. But it a lot better than nothing. It is not to be minimised, but not to be exaggerated either. Let's be sensible about it for heaven's sake, and pray for vocations.
2011 05 21_9818
A newly ordained Englishman of the Fraternity of St Peter, with Bishop Bruskevitz of Lincoln, Nebraska


  1. I do hope he changes his statements as these are misleading. Anyone who has lived as long as I have can see the difference. In my home diocese, there will be 15 active priests for 100,000 Catholics in two years. The retirement age is now until a priest cannot work anymore. Many priests are in their 80s and working.

  2. The Nottingham Diocese will also be at breaking point in ten years time and even now it represents a similar situation to that noted by supertradmum.

    The Catholic Voices statements must be removed/corrected because they are erroneous.

  3. Interesting to see that 1936 in when things really changed, it was all down hill from there

  4. The peak before the War is interesting, but I wouldn't say it was downhill from there. The War must have depressed seminary life as well as entry into seminary, but things were picking up strongly in the 1950s. The downtrend took hold after 1964.

  5. Excellent piece of work from Rev Morgan and team, and well done for getting the data together in Excel for us to play with. I would have expected closer correlation between secular and regular in the days when the orders ran so many of our parishes.

    WWII has an analogous effect to WWI, it seems. How many ordinands in the 20s and 30s were second generation British? The surname isn't quite the give-away it might be: an Irishman ordained at Maynooth for the Salford Diocese (for the Missions!) is a different sociological case that the son of an Irishman who came to England in the 1880s. I wonder if anybody has ever studied this.

    This is very stimulating: but the people at the top of CV should have realised that the figures they had been given were bunk, in the same way as we did. If they didn't realise instinctively that something was wrong, they don't know the Church in E&W well enough to speak for it.

  6. Another feature to consider is that the ratio of priest to laity has rarely changed in the last 100 years.

    The key problem is the war as has been correctly stated.

  7. thank you, Maths! I knew something was wrong here...

    -random seminarian

  8. PS - thanks for the spreadsheet, I've been collecting various bits of data on the 20th Century Church and this has saved me a lot of work.

  9. PS kavi is

  10. You have demonstrated what we all intuitively knew, that the priesthood started to decline sharply from the mid 60s as Catholicism-lite took over and the Western Church abandoned the wisdom of our Catholic ancestors. I suspect the trends for Mass attendance have fallen more sharply than for the priesthood.

    All trends tend to level out, the “smaller Church” that Benedict XVI has spoken of, and we will have to start again just as we have several times before in the last two millennia.

    What is important now is that we have good bishops and priests, not necessarily more, and also that the Novus Ordo form of the Latin Rite, surely the predominant one for decades to come, is re-formed to once again express the infallible teaching of the Church.

    So pray for vocations, yes, but the right sort!


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