Lately something curious has been happening in the Catholic Church—and it’s not, as some would have it, that Pope Francis is rewriting the Catechism on social issues. According to a new book by Anne Hendershott and Christopher White, the Church is actually thriving where it is most orthodox.
For several decades, ordinations in America plummeted, and churches reached a critical low of priests. Progressive Catholics seized on this, arguing that unless the Church began accepting female and married priests, the priesthood would disappear. When news of the sex scandals broke, people around the world predicted the demise of Catholicism.
Vocations in America had begun to pick up starting in 2000. The number of new candidates increased, and their average age decreased. That number of seminarians has increased every year since, and seminaries that were once struggling to stay open are now turning candidates away.
But this increase has not been level across all dioceses. Arlington, Va. once had one of the highest ordination rates in the country, but in recent years those rates have nosedived. Meanwhile in the diocese of Boston, Mass., rocked by sex scandals only a little over 10 years ago, the number of seminarians has nearly tripled since 2003.
Renewal’s answer to this puzzle is that the rekindling of the faith is happening in precisely the opposite way that progressives envisioned: ordination rates are highest in dioceses with the most outspokenly orthodox bishops.
The authors drew the inspiration for their study from Archbishop Elden Curtiss, formerly of the Diocese of Omaha, who wrote an article several years ago making a similar claim. He dismissed the ordination crisis as "media hype," and said that the most orthodox dioceses have the greatest number of vocations. "Young people do not want to commit themselves to dioceses or communities that permit or simply ignore dissent from Church doctrine," he said.
Curtiss also said that the alleged crisis was a myth fabricated by progressive Catholics with a mission to liberalize the Church. In his view, to the extent that there was a crisis, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Progressive Catholics had taken over vocation offices and purposefully discouraged the orthodox young people who otherwise would have pursued vocations.
An earlier study from 2001, "Do Bishops Matter?" by Andrew Yuengert of Pepperdine University, claimed to show a relationship between a bishop’s "theological attitude" and ordination rates in his diocese. He controlled for other factors, and discovered that there was a clear correlation between the bishop and his ordination rates. Under a progressive vision of Catholic leadership, church structure would become more "horizontal," more democratic and lay-driven.
Like Yuengert, however, Renewal counters that the Church hierarchy matters: a bishop’s leadership can make all the difference between a flourishing diocese and a struggling one.
Renewal’s authors provide a more in-depth look at the characteristics of these successful bishops. They note that sociological studies show that religious organizations are successful to the extent that they alienate themselves from, rather than blend with, the rest of society. Religions that are the most demanding also prove to be the most attractive.
Consequently, bishops who oversee the most vocations aggressively defend unpopular Catholic doctrines such as opposition to abortion and a female priesthood. They ask their parishioners for fasting, prayer, and sacrifice. They affirm that the Catholic Church depends on sacred revelation, not on social trends.
These findings challenge the core of progressive Catholicism, which maintains that rigid Catholic doctrine only drives people away from the Church. Renewal discusses the rise (and, if their predictions hold, imminent fall) of this faction, born from the rampant confusion that followed the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, or Vatican II.
The council was intended to clarify old teachings and develop new ones, but misinterpretation coupled with social upheaval in the 1960s resulted in a new wave of Catholics who rejected the Church’s ancient hierarchical structure. These Catholics chose to read calls for more church participation from the laity as a call for the end of the male, ordained priesthood altogether.
But here, again, the tide is changing. Renewal cites a study from the Catholic University of America in which 70 percent of older priests said that they favored "optional celibacy" versus only 30 percent of younger priests. A recent survey found that younger lay Catholic leaders hold more conservative views on church structure and the priesthood than the Vatican II generation.
Some of Renewal’s work is anecdotal, since the authors aim to describe the particular charisma of the most successful bishops. In an effort to address remaining problems in the Church, the authors touch on an array of topics from how Catholic colleges, such as Notre Dame, lost their religious identity, to the overwhelming support among nominal Catholics for same-sex marriage and the conservative pushback against them. At times this feels as though the text is jumping around, not because the topics are unrelated, but because one book can only focus on so many things at once.
Regardless, Renewal is an extremely informative commentary on the fight between the orthodox and progressive Catholic camps. The study of poor ordination rates in parishes that have turned their administration primarily over to lay people, rather than to parish priests, is particularly fascinating.
To their credit, the authors admit that some of their findings are not conclusive. Correlation cannot prove causation. But this correlation shows, at the very least, that progressive Catholics were almost certainly wrong on one count. If the numbers tell us anything, it is this: Orthodoxy is not driving vocations away.