By Elizabeth A. Oldmixon
Crux recently reported an uptick in suicides among Catholic priests in Ireland. “At least eight priests in Ireland have committed suicide in the past 10 years,” and there is growing concern for priests’ morale and mental health as they grapple with a drop in vocations, the sexual abuse scandal(s) that came to light in the 1990s, and a drop in religious practice among the Irish people. As Tom Inglis argues, the Catholic Church maintained a “moral monopoly” over Irish society and politics for many years. As the monopoly slowly erodes, the effects redound to clergy in the form of loss of esteem, loneliness, and exhaustion.
Brian Calfano and I have studied this and published our research in several outlets, along with Melissa Michelson and Jane Suiter (here, here, here, and here). The underlying theme of our research is that against the backdrop of sociological tumult, priests face institutional stress. It’s not just that fewer Catholics attend mass on a weekly basis than they did 20 years ago, and it’s not just that there are fewer priests to carry the workload. Adding to this, priests are, in effect, agents responsible to two different principals—the hierarchy and their parishioners. Their bishops determine their chances of career advancement, while parishioners determine parish-level financial health. To the extent that these principals are not aligned, priests risk alienating one or the other in the course of their ministry.
In our 2011 survey of Irish clergy, we found that about 25% agree that they are burned out and/or fatigued due to their parish ministry, but Catholic clergy are no more burned out and/or fatigued than Protestant clergy in Ireland. Only about 8% of clergy report depersonalization vis-à-vis parishioners (e.g., not caring what happens to them), while about 75% report a high sense of professional accomplishment. But, the level of depersonalization is slightly higher among Catholic priests, while their aggregate sense of professional accomplishment is slightly lower.
Putting some of this in context, Ireland’s 2015 suicide rate is 11.1 per 100,000 in the population. That’s up from 10.7 in 2005. It is just below the E.U. average of 11.2, but relatively high as compared to the U.K rate of 7.4. Within the U.K., Northern Ireland’s suicide rate is the highest. Thus, the uptick in priest suicides might reflect a larger societal pattern.
Given the cross-sectional nature of our research we cannot say how current levels of burnout, fatigue, and depersonalization compare to a generation or two ago. Even so, the levels we find are worrying. The human cost of these developments obviously merits central concern. From the perspective of political science, however, these developments suggest that Irish priests face tremendous psychological, institutional, and sociological barriers to the extent that they attempt to exercise political leadership in the context of their ministry.
Elizabeth A. Oldmixon is associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas and editor-in-chief of Politics and Religion. She can be contacted via Twitter. Further information can be found on her personal website.