Civiltà Cattolica devoted its April 21 edition to a study on the defections and re-integrations of priests. Its author, Fr. Gianpaolo Salvini s.j. observes: “There are no reliable statistics enabling us to know the present number of priests who have married after abandoning their priesthood.” However, he gives the official figures from the Holy See. In 40 years, 69,063 priests have left the priesthood. Over the same period, 11,213 have come back to the priesthood. “This means that may be no more than 57,000 married priests today. There are probably even less, because in 40 years a certain number of them died,” notes Fr. Salvini. According to him, the figures given by the press and the associations of married priests, which speak of 80,000 to 100,000 ex-priests, are without basis.
The Jesuit notes that, presently, defections are slightly increasing, but it is nothing to be compared with those in the 70’s, after the Second Vatican Council. Between 2000 and 2004, the defections of priests averaged 5,383. As a rule, the priests who ask to leave the priesthood are in their fifties and already have some 13 years of active ministry. 50,2% of them are already civilly married, 14,5% live in common law and 35,2% are celibate.
But, over the same period, the number of those who asked to be re-integrated rose. Out of 1,074 defections every year, 554 priests (mainly members of religious congregations) make this official by asking for a dispensation of their priestly obligations: celibacy and recitation of the breviary. Out of the 522 others, 74 ask to be re-integrated into the active clergy every year. However, the Vatican still knows nothing about 2,240 priests who left their priesthood between 2000 and 2004.
“The reasons for leaving – at least those which are declared – are quite diverse,” emphasizes Fr. Salvini. “Most of the requests for a dispensation are due to situations of “affective instability”, “depressions”, “serious behavioral limitations”, but also “crises of the faith,” and “conflicts with superiors or difficulties with the Magisterium.”
As for those who return, Fr. Salvini specifies that some press to be readmitted to the priesthood but without abandoning their married life, something which the Church cannot accept. Thus many of them minister in Protestant denominations or in sects.
The heads of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia had reaffirmed together with Benedict XVI the necessity of celibacy for priests, on November 16, 2006, during a meeting convened by the pope at the Vatican. This extraordinary meeting had studied in particular the requests for a dispensation of celibacy which had been presented during recent years, and the possibility of readmittance to the priesthood.