The Polish National Catholic Church (PNCC) was unable to elect a new bishop for its Central Diocese during its last synod in October 2022. The current bishop has reached retirement age and had submitted his resignation prior to the synod Unfortunately, no one was willing to stand for election. In the interim, the incumbent has agreed to stay for a short period and the Prime Bishop will pitch in to help out as well. The logical but by no means certain resolution to this situation would be merger with one of the other dioceses. No one wishes to do this since it signals a somewhat troubling future: a shrinking religious group.
The sad fact there were no willing candidates for the episcopacy might be explained by any one of a number of reasons. The first that jumps to mind is the daunting nature of the position. Church attendance in the PNCC has been falling, no different than in many other Christian denominations. Churches have been closing left and right in all denominations including the PNCC. For instance in the last ten years at least two parishes of the PNCC in New Jersey have closed that I am aware of and another is in serious operating straits. Building up one parish is a difficult task, let alone an entire diocese. Surely, this is a thankless assignment. It would take an extraordinary person with superhuman energy to even attempt this task. Another reason is the relatively small size of the PNCC also limits the “talent pool”, or the number of candidates for the position.
The PNCC is also not the only denomination that has had problems finding new leaders in recent years. The American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese could not produce a suitable replacement for the deceased Metropolitan Nicholas in 2012. Eventually, he was replaced by someone of Greek and not Slavic ancestry, the currently reigning Metropolitan Gregory. It is possible to aver this not a strictly analogous situation, as the Orthodox Church does not permit married bishops and the ACROD clergy in the United States are overwhelmingly married. Orthodox bishops are historically chosen from the celibate monastic clergy. Unfortunately for ACROD, monasticism has fallen on hard times in the United States and a suitable candidate from those ranks could not be produced. PNCC bishops are allowed to marry, so the same logic doesn’t hold here, at least at face value Despite the ritual differences, the real issue in both denominations appears to be the shrinking number of clergy in general, reducing the number of potential candidates. As local congregations contract, the number of clergy the denomination produces shrinks.
Even the mighty Roman Catholic Church may eventually fall into this predicament, but again for different reasons. The celibacy requirements for the priesthood and the recent bad press from the sexual abuse scandals all have contributed to a reduced number of clergy. The overall number of priests in the U.S. has decreased from about 59,000 to 35,000 from 1970 to 2021. The current priesthood is also “graying: The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) already stated the average age of a priest in 2009 was 63 and had increased by an average of 20 years since 1970. That age has almost certainly increased since then.
There is no help on the way. CARA more recently reported there were about 3,100 men studying for the Catholic priesthood in the United States in 2021, compared to about 8,200 in 1968. Pre-theology students (those aspiring to the priesthood taking additional college courses preparing for the seminary) also dropped from 4,900 to about 2,300 during the same time frame.
Each of the three denominations mentioned (the PNCC, ACROD, and the Roman Catholic Church) all exhibit the same results (a reduction in the clerical talent pool) but for ostensibly different reasons. These are but symptoms of the real problem: the diminishing status of organized religion in a secular society. No matter how you look at it, or try to explain it, the outlook is grim.
Philip Jenkins wrote an amazing book named “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died”. He pointed out how once vibrant churches were consigned to oblivion for various reasons that may not have seemed apparent at the time. Hopefully, organized religion in the United States will not go that route. Devout Christians believe Jesus promised His Church will continue until the end of time. However, Jesus did not specify which branch of His Church would fulfill that promise. There is one thing for certain. We (and the Holy Spirit!) will need to work overtime to make sure that doesn’t happen.