THE BLOG
07/09/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

Education Debt and the Vocation Crisis: Prospective Priests Can No Longer Afford Poverty

Students from around the country are facing doubled interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans after efforts to stop raising rates fell apart in the Senate prior to the July 1 deadline. Rates will go from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent and, according to estimations from the Joint Economic Committee, will cost an additional $2,600 for students, unless Congress lowers them before students return in the fall.

The increase will not only impact students -- members of the Catholic Church fear this will also affect faith. Graduates with large amounts of debt will now be less likely to pursue priesthood and will contribute to a significant shortage of priests in the U.S.

"In Los Angeles, as well as across the country, this has become a rising problem -- not just for seminaries but for every institution -- to accept someone who is saddled with great debt," says Father Jim Forsen, who has been vocations director for the last ten years at the LA Archdiocese. Because priests do not have the resources to pay down their loans, the religious institutions that accept them must bear the burden. As a result many institutions are turning away applicants.

"We don't have the numbers at all," says Father Forsen. "We have nowhere near what is necessary in order to replace the number of priests who are dying or retiring," he says.

A report conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) shows that the shortage is not a result of lack of interest but inability to pay interest -- there has been a rise in the number of men and women who have considered entering consecration and that Millennials are even more likely to pursue vocations than the generation that preceded them. Still the steep increase in education debt, which now totals close to $1 trillion in the US, has taken a toll.

According to the Center for College Affordability, Tuition for American colleges and universities has risen sharply, at more than double the rate of inflation, resulting in a 1,120 percent increase since 1978 when records were first taken. Despite this increase, the US Census Bureau reports that more Americans than ever before in history are pursuing a college education and over 30 percent above the age of 25 have a degree. Many have relied on student loans to finance their education, which is why student debt has surpassed both credit card and auto loan debt and is the highest form of consumer debt after mortgages.

"The average age of those who come to religious life is 30 years old. About 80 percent of them would have a college diploma or graduate diploma. So if you are looking at the statistics nationally for student debt it makes sense that they will be carrying some debt if they had pursued studies before coming to religious life," says Brother Paul Bednarczyk, the executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC).

The NRVC commissioned the CARA study conducted in 2012, and found that close to 70 percent of religious institutions have turned away applicants because of student debt. Far more have asked applicants to delay until their debt has been decreased.

"It is certainly a priority for us at the National Religion Vocational Conference. According to our research we are definitely losing people in the process," says Brother Bednarczyk. "So this is only going to become an increasingly large problem in the future if nothing is done."
The NRVC is working on a book of guidelines to help religious institutions deal with the issue set to be published on their website next Spring. Brother Bednarczyk also says they are putting together a proposal to establish a national fund for educational debt relief that will award grants to communities accepting debt-ridden applicants.

Until then, a privately run nonprofit organization has taken up the issue and is helping potential priests pay off their loans. The Mater Ecclesiea Fund for Vocations has been awarding grants to young men and women hoping to enter religious life to help cover the monthly costs of their loans.

"The grant is essentially an agreement between the fund for vocations, the religious institute in question, and the individual who gets the grant, that says we are on the hook for keeping the loans current," says President Corey Huber, who started helping people out of his private fund in 2004.

MEFV pays the minimum monthly payment while the person is in formation and pays off the loan on the fifth anniversary of their final vows. Those who decide to leave must also give up their grant.

The Fund has helped over 100 people since its inception in 2006 but nearly just as many have had to be turned away. As the dollar amounts continue to climb Huber says he must make hard decisions and cannot finance higher levels of debt. "Now it is not uncommon for us to see much higher debts. $60,000, $80,000 -- we have seen as high as $150,000. We just can't afford those."

Huber believes the problem will only get worse but says he MEFV will continue to help as many as they can until a solution is found. Father Forsen from the LA Archdiocese suggests there aren't any answers yet. "This issue is of growing concern, and it is one that is slowly being addressed, but as of right now we have no concrete solution to it."