Demographic Transitions in Religious Organizations: A Comparative Study of Priest Decline in Roman Catholic Dioceses

  • Schoenherr R
  • Young L
  • Vilarino J
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Our aim is to adapt the theory of the demographic transition to the analysis of social change in religious organizations. Assuming the demographic transition of the clergy to be the driving force for pervasive structural change in the Roman Catholic church, we analyze the component processes of the transition as it unfolds over eight decades and document its consequences for changing the size and age distribution of the clergy population. The data are drawn from a nineteen-year census-registry constructed with the help of church officials in a diocese in the United States and one in Spain. Results show that the two dioceses lost almost 15 and 30 percent of their active priests, respectively, between 1966 and 1984. Projections based on the historical trends indicate that the losses could reach 45-65 percent by the turn of the century. In addition to the precipitous decline in numbers, the clergy is aging rapidly. The analysis describes the movement of a large, young and growing population of diocesan priests through theoretically predictable phases of transformation which include, midway, a stage depicting an old declining population and, eventually, a final stage with a pyramid reflecting a small, young and stable population. We conclude that the well-known structure of the societal demographic transition characterizes, "mutatis mutandis", the process of population transformation that takes place in organizations undergoing sustained membership decline.

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  • Richard A. Schoenherr

  • Lawrence A. Young

  • José Pérez Vilarino

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