Fewer people choosing to join consecrated life

The steep decline in the number of monks at Saint Martin’s Abbey isn’t unusual for Roman Catholic monasteries.

“If you take a look at Catholic consecrated life across the United States, many congregations would say their numbers are down,” Owen Cummings of Mount Angel Seminary near Salem, Oregon, said.

Last year, there were 38,275 Catholic priests in the United States, more than 20,000 fewer than in 1965, according the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Georgetown University-affiliated organization that studies trends in the Catholic Church.

The decline in “religious priests” — those who live in a priestly community such as a monastery — took an even sharper dive, falling to 12,010 from 22,707 in the same time frame.

Meantime, the number of “religious brothers,” which includes unordained monks, dropped to 4,318 from 12,271, according to the center.

Part of the decline in consecrated life stems from rules changed during Vatican II in the early 1960s, Cummings said. The new rules allowed lay people to perform some church duties that previously were exclusive to priests, nuns and monks.

Other theories for the decline include a fall in birth rates, a society more based on consumerism and the church dropping its ban on letting girls help priests during Mass in the early 1980s.

Some believe also it is tied to the sex and child abuse scandals that have rocked the church and led to congregation declines over the past three decades.

It continues to be a difficult situation for the church that has touched Saint Martin’s. Four men sued in 2008, alleging they were abused as boys during the 1950s by Father Leonard Feeney, who died in 1980.

In 2011, a different Saint Martin’s priest was placed on leave for alleged sexual abuse of a minor while he served at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lacey during the 1980s.

The priest, who is still at the monastery, denies the allegations and was not named in any lawsuit or charged with a crime, according to Saint Martin’s Abbot Neal Roth.