A crisis in priest numbers is a serious threat to the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland according to new figures released by the Vatican Library.

And one leading cleric has warned that Irish priests will have virtually disappeared 20 years from now unless the Church considers married clergy and female clerics.

Fr Brendan Hoban made his remarks in response to a new survey of the Catholic church’s strength in Ireland.

The number of serving Diocesan priests in Ireland dropped 13 per cent in the 10 years between 2002 and 2012 according to the Statistical Yearbook of the Church.

The Irish Times reports that the Vatican Library publication shows a similar fall in the number of priests in religious congregations and orders.

And the number of nuns in Ireland dropped by 23 per cent in the decade.

The annual Vatican Library publication says the number of diocesan priests in Ireland dropped from 3,203 in 2002 to 2,800 in 2012, a fall of 403.

The number of religious priests - members of congregations and orders - dropped from 2,159 to 1,888 in 2012, a fall of 271 or 12.5 per cent.

The drop was even bigger in female congregations, down from 8,953 in 2002 to 6,912 - a fall of 2,041.

The paper reports that the number of laymen who have taken temporary or perpetual vows also fell.

In 2002 they numbered 869, but by 2012, they were down to 628, a drop of 241, or 28 per cent, in the decade according to the Vatican figures.

However the number of students of philosophy and theology at diocesan and religious centers in Ireland showed a smaller decline over the 10 year period.

That figure was down from 206 in 2002 to 181 in 2012, a drop of 25 or 12.1 per cent.

The Irish Times also reports that the decline in clergy numbers prompted the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) to seek a meeting with the bishops last month.

Fr Brendan Hoban of the ACP leadership team, writing in the Western People newspaper, said: “We talked to the bishops about the crisis in vocations. We quoted statistics from their own website.

“We explained in graphic terms that in 10 to 15 to 20 years time Irish priests - apart from a tiny cadre of aged individuals - would have virtually disappeared.

“In Dublin diocese, with 199 parishes to pastor, there are now just two priests under 40 years of age.

“The crisis is now mathematically certain. If we keep going the way we are, the future of the Irish priesthood is now unsustainable.”

Fr Hoban added that the ACP proposed three strategies to the bishops at their meeting.

He said: “We said that we can ordain married men of proven responsibility and virtue, there are thousands available in the parishes of Ireland.

“Secondly we can invite priests who left the priesthood to get married to return to ministry. Many would be happy to respond to the call.

“Thirdly, we could extend to women ordination to the permanent diaconate.

“However we knew we were pressing buttons that the bishops would prefer we left untouched. If the bishops don’t bite the bullet on this one, we will really know who is to blame.

“Doing nothing is not just irresponsible but a counsel of despair. Denial is no longer an option.”