Why Religious Leaders Are Worried
THE leaders of every major religion in Christendom are worried. As Canadian minister Bruce McLeod said: “The church isn’t working the way it used to and they’re scared.”
It is not only changes in church teachings or ceremonies that worry the clergy. A far more serious kind of change worries them. What is that?
For the first time in centuries almost every orthodox religion in Christendom sees the ranks of its clergymen growing smaller. Each year more and more are leaving. Enrollment at most seminaries sinks even faster. And now there is also a drop in church attendance. Hence, many religious leaders fear that their churches are dying!
True, you personally may not have noticed all this. Or it may be that your community, your church, has not been affected greatly so far. But this religious decline is going on all over the world. Nothing like it has happened in centuries. A former counselor to Pope Pius XII said of his church: “The crisis that the Church is going through is more serious than the Protestant Reformation.”
Before commenting on why all this is happening, let us first look at what is happening. When we examine the facts, they show that the situation is far more serious than most people suspect.
One of the most worrisome problems for church leaders is the growing number of clergymen leaving the ministry now. The well-known Presbyterian minister David Poling stated bluntly: “We are watching the collapse of an historic profession—the clergy.”
For centuries the ranks of the clergy grew. However, some years ago the increase slowed down, then stopped. Now it is in reverse! In the last few years more and more clergymen of different religions are leaving. Last year, 1969, saw the greatest exodus of all.
Pope Paul VI said that the defections of Catholic priests were his “crown of thorns.” But his church is by no means alone. In the book The Last Years of the Church clergyman Poling correctly observes: “The disillusionment of ministers and the general disarray in their ranks is just as complete in the Protestant churches, though not so obvious because of the many divisions and denominations.”
So the trend is the same everywhere. For instance, in Greece some dioceses of the Greek Orthodox Church are 50 percent understaffed. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that in every diocese of northern Greece “a quarter of all benefices (priestly positions) were vacant. . . . With 250 benefices becoming vacant every year, the situation was worsening steadily.”
Sweden has seen a drop in the number of priests of the State Church. But the so-called “Free Churches” there are also having sharp losses. Note this sample:
Baptist ministers 324 256
Salvation Army officers 1,326 1,055
Mission Alliance pastors 675 617
The situation in the Roman Catholic Church is striking. Newsweek described it in this way:
“Everywhere they turn, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church are faced with statistics underscoring what many of them—out of personal experience—already know: that more of their priests are leaving the ministry. . . . In the next decade, predicts sociologist Father Andrew Greely, the church in America may well lose half its 59,000 priests.”
A report showed that the number of American priests leaving the ministry in 1968 was up 31 percent over a similar period in 1967. And Chicago Today said: “What was then [two years ago] a trickle of Roman Catholic clergy leaving the religious life has swelled into a stream that threatens to become a torrent.”
From all over the Catholic world come similar reports. Of the Netherlands, the New York Times states: “The number of priests leaving the ministry is five times what it was in 1965.” For 1968 in that country the following figures were given:
Priests who left ministry 196
Priests who died 189
New priests ordained 145
1968 Deficit— 240
According to the Catholic source Herder Correspondence, “where figures are available, they are alarming.” In the Netherlands diocese of Haarlem, “Vicar-Monsignor” H. Juipers says: “In 1968, 46 priests in our diocese left the profession. . . . In the same year only two priests were ordained.”
An official investigation in Brazil revealed that 643 Brazilian priests left their duties from 1960 to 1968. In Peru El Comercio reports: “The Church of Peru is decimated,” noting that there are now “scarcely 400 Peruvian priests for a population that nears 14 million.” During 1969 Argentina saw the worst crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in that land: 28 priests resigned at one time in the Rosario archdiocese alone.
So the alarm of church leaders is well-founded. Indeed, if you were the captain of a large passenger liner, would you not be alarmed if you saw more and more of your crew abandoning ship?
Many church leaders are even more alarmed at what is happening in the seminaries of most religions, where future clergymen are trained. David Poling says, in The Last Years of the Church:
“If the church watchers had kept a journal or diary of the early warning signs of decline in ecclesiastical control, they might have first noted the slip in seminary enrollment. What has become an alarming drop in recent years began a decade ago with just a faint decrease from one year to the next.
“So now seminaries are closing, and some rushing to last-gasp mergers.”
Similarly, The Australian said just a few months ago: “Even more striking than the defection from the priesthood, however, is the 25 percent drop in the number of men studying for the priesthood within the past four years [in Australia] . . . with indications of a further significant drop this year.” In Chile, Mensaje says: “Today the big seminaries stand out like empty barracks.”
Ordinations for the priesthood in the Netherlands decreased 36 percent in just the last two years. In France, the archbishop of Lyons revealed a 41 percent drop in the number entering Catholic seminaries there in 1969. In England, the number becoming Anglican priests fell by 22 percent in the last five years.
A similar condition has overtaken religious orders. The Windsor Star of Canada reports this from Ireland: “Many convents in Ireland will have to be turned into hotels in the next 10 years, a Franciscan priest said there recently.”
In the United States, the 1969 Official Catholic Directory showed a huge decrease of 9,175 nuns from the year before. Catholic clergyman Ernest Bartell of Notre Dame University stated: “All of the religious orders have had a large drop in new enrollments. I know of one which has a new building designed for the training of 100 girls, and now they have only four.” Similar reports come from almost every country in Christendom.
Church Attendance Down
Growing losses in clerical ranks are matched by losses in church attendance. It is not just the ‘crew’ that is abandoning ship. The ‘passengers’ are too!
Church attendance in England has seen a fantastic drop: only 8 out of every 100 baptized now attend Anglican services on Easter! In Canada, typical is this report from the Toronto Daily Star: “If membership of the 150 United churches in Metro Toronto continues its alarming drop there will be no churches or members left within 15 years.” And the Catholic Church in Germany estimates that it is losing members at the rate of 50,000 a year.
From the Netherlands De Stem relates: “Church attendance in the Netherlands is decreasing, not only with the Roman Catholics but also with the Protestants.” The Catholic parish of Zeist gives this typical report:
Such drops in attendance reflect the attitude that people have toward religion these days. A Gallup poll in 1957 found that only 14 percent of those interviewed felt that religion was losing its influence. But in 1969 a similar poll found that five times as many—70 percent—said that religion was losing its influence!
This is affecting the financial support that people are giving the churches, and their school systems. For instance, in the past six years more than 1,000 Catholic parochial schools in the United States have shut down. Enrollment dropped by 771,000—14 percent.
What Is Ahead?
When church leaders look into the future, their gloom grows. The West Australian quoted clergyman David Woodroffe as saying: “Nothing now can stop the disintegration of church institutions and structures.”
Bishop Ralph Dean, who in disgust quit his job as the worldwide executive officer of the Anglican Church, stated: “The church as it is structured today may have ceased to exist by the end of 10 years.” His successor, Bishop John Howe, agreed.
An article by Catholic priest Joost Reuten in Limburgs Dagblad of the Netherlands was headlined: “Last Moment of the Church Has Arrived.” He said:
“I really mean it that the very last moment for the church in the Netherlands has arrived. I have two reasons for this: First, no new generation of ministers is forthcoming, and second, the group in the 18 to 35 years bracket falls away from the church.”
Pope Paul VI also expresses alarm often, declaring recently: “The Church is experiencing a time of disquiet, self-criticism, one would even say of self-demolition.” He said it was being ‘crucified.’
Yes, the ‘captains’ of religion are alarmed. But if you were the captain of a ship, would you not be alarmed too if you saw both your crew and your passengers abandoning ship?
Why are these amazing events taking place? What has led to this swift decline? Where will it end?
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Pope Paul VI says that defections of priests are his “crown of thorns”
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“Time” magazine says: “England’s 10,000 country churches are sad reminders of a vanishing way of life. . . . Each year their congregations grow ever smaller.”