Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Historic Statistics for Ordinations and Priest numbers

After another session in the archive, we have been able to extend the historic data to as far back as it will go. It seems that for numbers of priests this is 1841, the fourth year of the publication of the Catholic Directory; for ordinations, it is 1846. The 'Laity's Directory', which was in many ways the predecessor publication (though they overlapped for two years), does not give this information.

We have also tidied up the methodology of collecting the data and made some corrections. A full and complete set of Excel files of the raw data can be downloaded from the LMS website here.
Numbers of Priests ordained for the Dioceses of England and Wales, and for Religious Orders here, from 1847.

 The growth in the period up to the Great War is steady and workmanlike. The period from 1925 to 1964 represents a new phase: recovery from the each World War but heightened growth going somewhat beyond that. And then, after 1964, a catastrophic and unprecedented decline.

The red line, for religious orders, which is steadier, shows a very clear trend over a century up to the mid 1960s. It is impossible to describe the figures for the 1930s or 1950s as frothy or unsustainable: they were just the culmination of a long period of growth. Perhaps they kept their heads better than the secular seminaries in those decades. But they certainly lost them after 1960.

Numbers of priests in England and Wales, 1841 to 2010
The big jump in 1890 is unexplained; a decision to include regular clergy for the first time would fit the bill, however. There were 1,475 of them in 1912, when a separate total for them is included for the first time; there could very well have been 1,100 or so in 1890.

Again the boom starting in the 1920s is preceded by a long period of steady growth; it didn't come from nowhere, and that is important to stress. The unprecedented decline starts early - numbers peak in 1965. Even the large number of ordinations that year, 225, was not enough to offset the number of priests dying or being laicised. Laicisations must have had something to do with it, because assuming priests had an average life-span after ordination of 30 years or more, the cohort of priests going to their reward in 1965 had been ordained, on average, before ordinations went over 150 a year. It looks as though about 75 priests more disapear from active service than you'd expect.

Of course, once we have the double whammy of ordinations dropping and the extra-large cohorts of priests ordained 1925 to 1965 dying, the decline in priest numbers accelerates. There were also, of course, a very significant number of laicisations in the following decades as well. We have increasing life-expectancy to thank for it not looking a lot steeper; as it is they've started counting 'Retired Priests' (who are still included in the total), and we have now about 800 of these, 15% of the total. Even with the latest medical technology the '60s generation isn't going to live forever, so we can expect this graph to look more like a cliff in the next decade.

I photographed the tables called the 'Recapitulation of Catholic Statistics' from every volume of the Catholic Directory in which they appeared (not counting the ones which appeared twice); anyone who'd like to see them can view them on my Flickr page here. You can see, for example, breakdowns by diocese for many of the statistics.

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