Will importing priests serve the church's long-term good?

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns


In the course of the past decade, I have written four columns on the priest shortage in the United States and the growing practice of importing priests from foreign countries. Readers with long memories will know that I have been critical of the practice, and have pointed out that it seems to be more common in dioceses whose bishops are opposed to any long-term solutions to the priest shortage, such as a relaxation in the rules regarding obligatory celibacy and, beyond that, to the ordination of women or even to a careful study of the possibility.

What prompts a return to the subject now is a brief article that appeared in the Dec. 18-25 issue of the Jesuit weekly America. The article is entitled “Priests and Nurses: a tale of two shortages” by Father George B. Wilson, SJ, a church-organizational facilitator based in Cincinnati.

Father Wilson compares the Catholic Church’s response to its current priest shortage in the United States with the medical profession’s response to the shortage of nurses here as well. In both instances, the solution to the shortage has been short term and with negative consequences for the countries from whom the priests and nurses have been recruited.

Wilson evenhandedly notes that the practice of importing priests “seems so far to be a helpful stop-gap measure,” but he also acknowledges that there have been significant cultural problems associated with it, namely “seriously deficient communications skills and authoritarian, sometimes patriarchal styles of pastoral ministry.” Again, in an effort to be objective and fair, Father Wilson acknowledges that steps have been taken in some dioceses to address these problems.

He asks, however, whether the practice of importing priests will serve “the long-term good of the church universal.”

He notes a front-page story in The New York Times last May that reported on a similar problem in the U.S. nursing profession. To fill the gap created by the shortage of nurses, nursing schools and hospitals have recruited students and professionals from poorer countries, such as the Philippines.

“While the practice appears to be beneficial for the United States,” Father Wilson writes, “the article highlighted the adverse effect on the countries from which the nurses come.” The Times story reported that health care has deteriorated in the Philippines as tens of thousands of nurses have moved abroad, a point confirmed by the president of the Philippine Nurse Association.

Father Wilson asks, “What attention is being paid to the ‘brain drain’ or ‘skills drain’ in the countries that send priests to serve in U.S. parishes? How can we justify this when the explosion of converts in some of those countries requires ever more sophistication in leadership, planning and management of the church’s future there?”

It is difficult, the Times pointed out, “for nurses from developing countries to ‘resist the magnetic pull of the United States’.” Father Wilson suggests that the same is true of many international priests.

The Times reported that nurses overseas “send home billions of dollars each year to their families.” Not to question pastoral motives, but ministerial service by priests from other countries provides similar opportunities, if on a lesser scale.

Bishops release these priests for service in U.S. dioceses in the hope that they will return with enriched pastoral experience and skills that will enable them to improve their native churches in Africa, Asia, Central Europe or wherever.

But too often, Father Wilson points out, the reality is that “once the priests have tasted the affluence of the United States, many are reluctant to return to their country of origin. It would take an angelic view of ministerial calling to deny that economics plays a role in some priests’ eagerness to go on ‘reverse mission’ to the United States in the first place.”

In the process, Father Wilson asks, are the resources of the poor being exhausted to serve the short-term needs of the rich? Is it “simply another example of the American penchant for the quick fix? And beyond its consequences for the developing churches, what are its consequences for the U.S. church?”

“Band-Aids,” Father Wilson’s article concludes, “are for minor cuts, not cancer.”

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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