The University of Wisconsin Press

Sociology / Religion

Full Pews and Empty Altars
Demographics of the Priest Shortage in United States Dioceses
Richard A. Schoenherr and Lawrence A. Young, in collaboration w/ Tsan-Yuang Cheng

“Richard Schoenherr’s monumental work is a gold mine of statistics that cause one to think. Even if one rejects his assumptions and conclusions, one has to wrestle with the facts that he presents.”
—Most Reverend Rembert G. Weakland, O. S. B., Archbishop of Milwaukee

The Roman Catholic Church faces a staggering loss of diocesan priests in the United States as it moves into the twenty-first century, and there is little chance of reversing this trend in the lifetime of the current generation of church-goers. Full Pews and Empty Altars predicts that by the year 2005, there will be twice as many parishioners per priest as there were in 1975.

Constructing a census-registry of some 36,000 priests in the years from 1966 through 1984, and using life-table techniques to forecast the Church’s future, Richard A. Schoenherr and Lawrence A. Young portend a forty percent loss in the diocesan priesthood population, from 35,000 in 1966 to 21,000 in 2005. Along with the decline in priests will come a dramatic increase in the churchgoing population: from 45 million to 74 million.

Using a novel application of the demographic transition model and multiple regression models to explain the causes of change, Schoenherr and Young find that only six of every ten priests who leave the active ministry through resignation, retirement, sick leave, or death are replaced by ordination. Two of every five pastoral positions vacated each year go unfilled.

Schoenherr and Young maintain that in a society dominated by large and powerful organizations, organization demography must take its place among the other tools of social analysis. They tie their analyses to concerns of the population approach, integrating the study of declining organization size, the political economy framework, and Perrow’s qualified power model. Full Pews and Empty Altars is one of the first major comparative studies of organizations to use the emerging organization demography approach. As such it breaks new ground both substantively and methodologically.

Richard A. Schoenherr is professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is an inactive priest ordained for the Archdiocese of Detroit and coauthor of The Structure of Organizations. Lawrence A. Young is assistant professor of sociology at Brigham Young University.

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View inside a Catholic church facing the altar from a parishoner's point of view

August 1993

LC: 93-022427 BX
460 pp.   6 x 9
32 charts/graphs

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Paper $24.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-13694-9
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The cloth edition ISBN 978-0-299-13690-1 is out of print.

“Vital to understanding what is occurring in the Roman Catholic Church today.... The policy implications of the study are of paramount importance to administrators both in the Church itself as well as to leaders in all types of religious groups who are dependent upon religious personnel to carry on the activities of the group. I am convinced the study is a classic work on religious clergy and will be cited as such for years to come.”
—Helen Rose Ebaugh, University of Houston

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Updated June 21, 2013

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