The shortage of Catholic priests is an economic drama playing out across major countries to a yawn by the news media.

In the United States, 20 percent of parishes have no priests. Since 1995, bishops have sold more than 1,700 churches – on average, that’s a church shuttered once a week for 18 years — down-sizing a religious infrastructure that had grown steadily between the end of the Civil War and the 1969 voyage that put Americans on the moon.

The pastor is the fundraiser at every parish. Healthy parishes offer a range of services, from food pantries to therapeutic counseling, in addition to Mass, baptisms, weddings and funerals. Most of the non-sacramental work is done by lay people because of a growing personnel crisis.

The budget that lay staff uses to run offices and social outreach depends on the pastor’s appeal to the flock. Without a pastor, parishes struggle to pay for themselves.

For every 100 priests who retire, only 30 men are ordained, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate.

In 2006 the US had one priest for every 1,510 Catholics. That’s more than Mexico, which has a majority Catholic population, yet only one priest for every 6,276 Catholics.

The most potent protest over the root problem — mandatory celibacy that bars a married clergy — has come from Austria, which has only 3,800 priests, but a lightning rod in Helmut Schüller, an otherwise mild-mannered priest who saw things he didn’t like, and spoke out.

Once the vicar-general, or top assistant, to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, in 2011 the 64-year old Schüller promoted an “Appeal to Disobedience”, endorsing communion for divorced Catholics as one symbolic gesture in calling for the church to embrace a program of realistic change.

In response, Pope Benedict had Schüller stripped of his status as monsignor.

Schüller, still a priest, has a popular support base for his reform agenda, which has drawn interest in the United States, where he embarks on a 15-city speaking tour on July 16. His tour is sponsored by a consortium of reform groups under the rubric Catholic Tipping Point, and he will speak in Chicago, Cleveland, San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, Cincinnati, New York, among other stops and speak July 22 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Most of these dioceses have been rattled by parish closings, financial stress or fall out from litigation over clergy sex abuse. San Diego and Portland weathered draining bankruptcy proceedings before agreeing to large settlements.

The pinch caused by the shrinking numbers of priests is becoming a front-burner Catholic issue.

“We’re closing parishes rather than opening ordination,” Sister Christine Schenk, a founder of the Cleveland-based FutureChurch, told GlobalPost. “The Austrian priests' initiative goes to the heart of governance in the church, involving lay leaders, and the opening of ordination so we have both married and women.”

Boston and Detroit have seen dozens of churches shut and sold over protesting parishioners, as bishops guided restructuring plans. Soup kitchens, services to homeless, food pantries and other threads in the church-run social safety net dissolve when parishes disappear. The economic forces behind the closures vary.

In Boston, clergy abuse settlements took a huge toll. Detroit, a moribund city since white flight to suburbs after the race riots of the 1960s, is an archdiocese saddled with a heavy white elephant. Cardinal Adam Maida built a cultural center named for John Paul II in Washington, DC, but failed to generate support of other dioceses. The center was recently sold at a huge loss. In both Detroit and in Boston, closed churches were sold to stanch operating deficits.

“The church is built on the congregation,” Father Schüller told the New York Times in 2011. “You can’t reduce the churchgoer to a consumer, receiving a service.”

The Vatican’s latest response to the Austrian priests’ initiative came when Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig, prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, said that remarried divorcees can never justify receiving communion at mass because marriage is “a divine norm...not at the church’s disposal to alter.”

But Schüller’s group has growing popularity, as one outgrowth of a grassroots protest against the Vatican sparked in 1995 when Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, the archbishop of Vienna, resigned amid accusations that he sexually abused youths in a Benedictine monastery years earlier. Groër denied the accusations; Austrian bishops rallied around him, only to change their mind as a chorus of victims emerged. Schönborn eventually spoke out against Groër, but failed to persuade Pope John Paul II to publicly acknowledge Groër’s wrongdoing. In 1998, when John Paul visited Austria, maintaining his silence on Groër, 500,000 Austrian Catholics had joined the We Are Church movement.

“They want qualified laity to be able to give sermons and believe that churches should have a stronger local presence, rather than relying on sermons from traveling ‘celebrity’ priests,” the German newsweekly Der Spiegel reported last year of Schüller’s group. “The movement has its roots in Austria, where it counts more than 400 priests and deacons as members. But it is gaining ground across Europe with sympathetic clergy in France, Ireland and other countries expressing support.”

“The average age of the US priest is 63,” said Sister Schenk. “In 1970 it was 45. We know in next ten years a cataclycsm will happen because of priest availability without a fundamental change.”

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