Ordinations in England and Wales: an apology

We recently published a post claiming that new figures published by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales’ National Office for Vocation (NOV) showed ordinations to the diocesan priesthood currently exceeding those of the 1950s. We added: “If ordinations to the priesthood are a sign of religious vitality, in other words, the Church in England and Wales seems to be in robust good health.”

Our claims were deduced in good faith from the figures supplied by the NOV stretching back to the 1930s, and both the statistics and the conclusions we had drawn were checked with the NOV at the time of publication.

However, it turns out that the pre-1980s statistics which NOV had inherited were very far from reliable, and our headline conclusion therefore untrue. NOV is currently investigating the source of the errors. We have taken down the offending post.

The first paragraph of our story, relating to recent figures, remains sound:

New figures for 2012 show numbers of men and women entering religious orders have risen for the third year running, while ordinations to the priesthood have reached a ten-year high. There were 29 people entering religious life in 2010, rising to 36 in 2011 and 53 in 2012. Meanwhile, 20 men were ordained to the diocesan priesthood in 2011 and 31 in 2012, with 41 diocesan ordinations projected for 2013.

But this recent, healthy rise is a relative one, and needs to be set against a long-term downward trend after the 1950s-60s. We apologise for the error.

The unreliability of the NOV figures was demonstrated by the Rev Stephen Morgan of Portsmouth Diocese after sifting through previous Catholic directories. His raw data, as well as a blogpost analysing them (and the untruth of our headline claim) by the chairman of the Latin Mass Society, Joseph Shaw, can be found here.

But we are also grateful to CV Joe Ronan, who has put the data into a table showing decadal moving average (PDF: ordination_statistics_1912-1995). His table shows that the bulge in the 1960s is not much greater than the bulge in the 1990s; the longer-term trend has been down since the 1930s.

According to Ronan, “there seems to be a 30-year cycle involved” — and  the recent upward trend may be the beginning of another such cycle. The tables also show that short-term trends can have a marked effect on the numbers of diocesan ordinations, both positively (the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982, or the influx of former Anglican clergy) and negatively (World War II, the clerical sex abuse crisis etc.).

Drawing grand conclusions about historical trends — whether in support of a thesis of ‘decline’ or ‘revival’ — is therefore a risky business, especially as ordinations to the diocesan priesthood are only one among many indicators of Catholic life, and always relative. (The Catholic Church in Europe has a far higher number of priests per faithful, for example, than areas of the developing world now considered Catholic heartlands).

But having fallen into that trap ourselves, we are hardly in a position to throw stones.

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