While on his way to largest funeral in history, former U.S. President Bill Clinton ruminated aloud about Pope John Paul II’s legacy.
”He centralized authority in the papacy again and enforced a very conservative theological doctrine,” Pastor Bill explained to reporters aboard Air Force One. “There will be debates about that. The number of Catholics increased by 250 million on his watch. But the numbers of priests didn’t.”
Bill’s conclusion? “He’s like all of us. He may have had a mixed legacy.”
Comparisons are odious, and for many Catholics, Clinton’s comparison of the pope’s legacy to his own was especially so. But he did raise an interesting point, one that has been bandied about in recent days: The idea that the pope’s record is tainted by the priest shortage that plagues parts of the Catholic Church, particularly in North America and western Europe. As Bill O’Reilly roared during a recent edition of The O’Reilly Factor, “Priests are down . . . nuns are down . . . It’s a catastrophe. People are walking away from the Catholic Church and things are going south fast. I think this pope was a saint, but I’d like to see a more practical pope.”
Thankfully for the Catholic Church, the Bill Clintons and Bill O’Reillys of the world will not be in the Sistine Chapel choosing a successor to St. Peter. That job belongs to the Church’s College of Cardinals, men who, one hopes, have a better grasp of clergy statistics and a more universal picture of the Catholic Church.
The true picture is much rosier than the one generally painted by American journalists. Though the number of priests in North America dropped from about 72,000 in 1961 to about 58,000 in 2001, and the number in Europe fell from about 251,000 to about 207,000 priests during that time, other parts of the world have seen a simultaneous explosion of priestly vocations. Between 1961 and 2001, the number of priests in Latin America rose from about 43,000 to about 63,000, the number in Africa climbed from about 17,000 to about 28,000, and in Asia, their ranks shot up from about 26,000 to about 45,000. Last year, the Vatican counted about 405,000 priests worldwide, up from 404,000 in 1961.
The net worldwide increase of priests is offset by the rapid growth of Catholicism and the world’s population. There are now more than one billion Catholics in the world, and nearly 15 percent of Catholic parishes today were created in the last 30 years. In many places, more priests are desperately needed to administer to the sacraments to the faithful. But the higher demand for those sacraments is hardly an indictment of Pope John Paul’s leadership. If anything, it is a testament to his great gift as an evangelist who traveled to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As for the Catholic Church in America, there are signs that a renewal is underway. The Church continues to attract a steady stream of American converts: More than 150,000 Americans joined the Church last year. The example of this pope has inspired a new generation of young Catholics to embrace a robust, committed Christian faith, and some of these young men and women are following that faith into seminaries, monasteries, and convents. These aspiring priests, monks, and nuns are attracted not to the most culturally accommodating religious communities but to the most orthodox, the ones that most closely follow the traditions of the Catholic Church and the teachings of the pope.
At the St. Cecilia motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters in Nashville–a religious community of women who wear full-length habits, live in a tight-knit community, and follow a strict schedule of prayer and worship–the only vocations crisis is the problem of finding enough space to accommodate all of the young women who want to join the order. That’s the same problem faced by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a relatively new religious order brimming with young men who wear long beards, gray robes, and simple sandals in imitation of St. Francis while living an austere lifestyle of prayer and service to the poor in the Bronx. The order is growing by leaps and bounds, populated by men who wanted to follow the example of their beloved John Paul, by giving up their own desires and following the will of God wherever it may lead. There are seminaries and convents in many parts of America where vocations directors struggle to find housing for their many recruits, where every other aspiring priest seems to have chosen the name “John Paul,” where young Catholics swap conversion stories that begin with a World Youth Day trip or an experience of hearing the words of their beloved Holy Father.
Polls show that this new generation of priests has been profoundly influenced by John Paul’s orthodoxy. In 2002, the Los Angeles Times found that American priests under age 41 were more loyal to the Church’s hierarchy, more supportive of traditional Church teachings, and more opposed to homosexual acts, abortion, and contraception than their elders in the priesthood. Three quarters of them said that they were “more religiously orthodox than their older counterparts.”
They may also be more committed. Last year, the Vatican announced that there were nearly 50,000 more seminarians in 2001 than in 1978, and the attrition rate for seminarians had fallen during John Paul’s pontificate from 9 percent in 1978 to 6.9 percent in 2004. In his Holy Thursday letter to priests that year, the pope acknowledged that there is still a serious shortage of priests in many parts of the world, but he also thanked God for this “promising springtime of vocations” that had begun to bloom.
That springtime of vocations is only one part of a larger springtime of faith that is blossoming in the Catholic Church, something for which John Paul prayed and struggled throughout his 26-year pontificate. His is not a mixed legacy but one pregnant with possibility, a legacy still unfolding in the lives of young Catholics around the globe.
–Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.