01: What is undisputed is that the actual number of Roman Catholic priests is declining.
The ratio of Catholics per priest has risen from 652 to 1 in 1950 to 1,257 to 1 in the year 2000. The question in the American Catholic Church is whether this decline represents a priest shortage or not. The answer, according to Professor Dean R. Hoge at the Catholic University of America, depends on one’s opinion of the need for reforms in the Church. In a presentation at the annual meeting of the Society of the Scientific Study of Religion in Houston in October, Hoge outlined the debate over the priest shortage and characterized it as a proxy debate over whether married men or even women should be eligible for the priesthood.
Those who do not believe there is a priest shortage point to the historical numbers. While there has been a marked decline in priests since 1950, the numbers have not been as dramatic when compared to a hundred years ago. They argue that the Church is simply growing out of a priest surplus. Additionally, the ratio of Catholics to priests in North America is lower than anywhere else in the world. (The ratio in Europe was 1,336 to 1 in 1998 while the ratio in South America was 7,094 to 1.) And what’s more, with the increase in lay participation and ministry in recent decades, especially after the Vatican II Council, the requirements on the number of priests has eased.
Those who believe that there is a shortage of priests say that perception is the problem, not historical numbers. They assert that the 1950-2000 time frame is most relevant because that is the time span that most Catholics can remember, and it is in the minds of lay people that the perception of a priest shortage lives. They point to the growth in the size of Catholic parishes – the average Catholic parish is a “megachurch” by Protestant standards — as evidence that the number of priests is not increasing to meet the needs of the Church.
Hoge himself came down on the side of those who advocate that there is a genuine priest shortage in the U.S. Catholic Church. He pointed to studies which indicate a growing acceptance of the limited availability of priests by Catholic lay people (51 percent in a recent survey indicated that a priestless parish was “Somewhat Acceptable” or “Very Acceptable.”) He also pointed to surveys of priests who report increasing stress from overwork and “unrealistic demands and expectations of lay people.”
— By Cody Clark
02: Those purchasing New Age books and other products are more likely to be Generation Xers, the unemployed, and high school drop outs than the stereotypical female baby boomers, according to a recent study.
In the journal Sociology of Religion (Fall), Daniel Mears and Christopher Ellison analyze data from a recent poll of Texan residents and find surprisingly high rates of agreement with New Age-oriented teachings, including the views that “we can heal ourselves” (43 percent) and that the “truth comes from within” (66 percent). Also unexpected was the fact that 22 percent of respondents reported purchasing New Age materials during the year preceding the survey, particularly in a conservative state such as Texas.
The demographics of the New Age buyers were equally surprising to Mears and Ellision. The purchase of New Age materials is distributed “rather evenly across most segments of the population.” The purchase of such products does not vary much by gender, income, education level, or membership in the baby boomer generation. These buyers were more common among the less educated, the disabled, the unemployed and persons age 18-29.
Another finding of the study is that the purchase of New Age materials is not as individualistic and solitary as some have theorized; purchasers were “exceedingly likely to have social or familial ties to other New Age consumers.”
(Sociology of Religion, 3520 Wiltshire Drive, Holiday, FL 34691)
03: A majority of U.S. Protestant pastors support school voucher programs and school prayer, according to a new poll.
The polling firm Ellison Research found that 73 percent of all ministers support the idea of school voucher programs to assist parents in sending their children to private schools. The survey was conducted among 500 Protestant ministers from denominations affiliated either with the National Association of Evangelicals or the mainline National Council of Churches. The poll additionally found that 93 percent of these ministers agreed that student-led prayers at public events in public schools should be allowed, and 83 percent would support laws permitting prayers in the classroom.
While there was a sharp division between conservative and liberal clergy on the voucher issue, that, surprisingly was not the case on school prayer. The issue is often thought of as a conservative rallying point, but the poll found a large number of those ministers calling themselves political liberals supporting school prayer. Sixty seven percent favor allowing student-led prayer at public events, and 39 percent favor allowing corporal prayer in the classroom, even when led by a teacher.
(Ellison Research, www.ellisonresearch.com)
04: In a nationally conducted survey poll of some 605 teenagers in September, the Barna Research Group finds significant decline in the acceptance of Biblical truths among this age group.
Director George Barna finds three eye-cathing areas where today’s teens are not following in the traditions of their churches or parents: the reality of Satan, salvation by good works, and Jesus’ human nature. Most of those interviewed stated they were Christians, their denominational loyalties followed national patterns, and they took seriously the role of the churches in their lives. But two-thirds also reported that Satan was not a living being but only a symbol of evil.
Some sixty percent said a good, moral person can earn eternal salvation through good works. Finally, some 53 percent stated Jesus committed sins when on earth. A Gallup poll finds that teens rely on themselves and others in decision-making rather than God or religious teachers. Emerging Trends (September), the Gallup newsletter on religion, reports that six out of 10 teens say they pay the most attention to their own views and the views of others.
(www.barna.org, Emerging Trends, 47 Hulfish St., Princeton, NJ 08542)
— By Erling Jorstad
05: It seems that the more money one has, the less spiritual value is attached to it. Martin Marty reports in his e-newsletter Sightings (Oct. 9) on a recent Gallup poll that asks whether money can lead to spiritual growth or decline.
Those with incomes of less than $15,000 see money leading to spiritual growth or decline in about even terms (47 percent for the former and 48 percent for the latter). In the $30,000 to $49,000 bracket, 39 percent thought wealth advanced spirituality while 53 percent saw decline. Marty sees the most significant finding among those making $50,000 or more: only 25 percent of these people conceived of wealth as promoting spiritual growth, while 62 percent associated it with decline.
06: “Militant atheists” are just as good at warding off depression as the very devout, according to a recent German study.
Most studies relating religious belief and adherence to mental health have found that those with a strong faith have lower incidence of depression than those with less or no religion. But in one of the first studies to examine a population of “resolute atheists,” psychologist Franz Buggle finds that it is more the half-believers and doubters with ties to religion that have the highest rates of depression.
Writing in the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry (Fall), Buggle finds in his survey of 174 people that the less religious do have higher rates of depression (on a diagnostic scale of 4.0 for the moderately religious and 6.0 for the less religious) while strong believers only have a 3.4 depression score.
But the problem is that past studies have included atheists in the “less religious” category, even though these non-believers are a very small segment of the population. In Buggle’s study, he included resolute atheists who subscribe to an atheist magazine and broke away from their religious upbringings. He finds that they have a depression score of 3.2–less than the strict believers. He writes that “This means that fanatical Christians and militant atheists are least prone to depression, whereas wavering atheists and the half-heartedly religious” are the most depressed.
Buggle concludes that atheists who have made a clean break from religious faith differ in their “psychic condition…from those who, though quite obviously with a guilty conscience, do not keep the church’s rules, but never seriously analyzed their own religious education and their obviously persistent secret, religion-based convictions.”
(Free Inquiry, P.O. Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226-0664)
07: British researchers have found that the usual biological and psychological factors cited for near-death experiences do not full explain this phenomenon.
A year-long study of heart attack survivors at Southampton General Hospital concluded that the near-death experiences they reported were not caused by drugs or lack of oxygen, typically mentioned to explain away the phenomenon. “If the mind and brain can be independent, then that raises questions about the continuation of consciousness after death,” said consultant neurophysicist Peter Fenwick, one of the study’s authors.
“It also raises the question about a spiritual component to humans and about a meaningful universe with a purpose rather than a random universe.” Several of the patients interviewed after their recovery recounted feelings of peace and joy, time speeded up, heightened senses, seeing a bright light, and entering another world, reports Charisma News Service (Oct. 27).