The Growing Cost of Mandatory Celibacy

National Catholic Reporter
October 17, 2003

Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the U.S. bishops’ conference, took a glass half-full approach when he responded earlier this year to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan regarding an initiative of 169 Milwaukee priests who urged a reexamination of the discipline of mandatory celibacy for diocesan clergy.

Said Gregory, “I understand that the archdiocese of Milwaukee itself has experienced a significant increase in seminarians this very year.”

First, there’s the matter of the record. According to archdiocesan officials, Milwaukee currently has 28 seminarians in its collegiate and graduate programs; last year it had 25. The prior two years it had 30.

Gregory’s response is emblematic of the two prevailing reactions that church leaders seem to have when the priest shortage is put on the table. The first is to look for the slightest uptick in the numbers -- an ultraconservative seminary that’s attracting students; an additional two or three ordinations in a diocese; an increase in seminarians in the developing world -- and conclude that the problem is on the way to being fixed. The second is to cite church teaching and practice and conclude that no change should be made in existing rules, thus eliminating the need for any further discussion.

Neither reaction leads to an honest or correct assessment of the problem.

As noted in this week’s cover story (see story), the priest shortage is real and getting worse. Without significant changes, the next generation of American Catholics simply won’t know priests or what they do. Why then should they consider them valuable?

Meanwhile, we’re still awaiting seminary recruitment figures that track the clergy sex abuse scandal, but it’s a safe bet that the scandals have not been a boon to recruitment.

Despite the preponderance of evidence, some still argue that the priest shortage is not a crisis. They note, for example, that “orthodox” dioceses and religious orders do relatively well in their seminary recruitment. And there is some truth to that -- but not nearly enough to have a significant effect on the overall trend.

Recruitment of foreign-born priests is another solution commonly advanced. There’s a lot of this going on right now, much of it positive. The church in America, and particularly our fast-growing immigrant communities, is frequently well-served by the Latin American, African and Vietnamese priests among us. There’s a lot we can learn from them.

But perhaps just as frequently our parishes are ill-served by the foreign recruits, many of whom, not having been called to service by the community, don’t appreciate the relatively open culture of the post-Vatican II American church.

Equally troublesome is the prospect of wealthy American dioceses enticing priestly recruits from countries where the priest-to-Catholic ratios are higher than our own. At best, it’s unseemly; at worst, sinful.

Over the next 30 years, unless something is done to alter the trend, our priests will be increasingly remote, solitary figures running from parish-to-parish, the human equivalent of sacrament vending machines. John Paul II’s idea of the priest as one who “presides over the Christian community on liturgical and pastoral levels” will be quaint nostalgia.

Is there a way beyond the seeming stalemate?

We think so, but it would first require a different response to the priests who sent the letter on celibacy and it would, further, require talking to the people most affected, Catholic in the pews and the lay people who increasingly are called upon to maintain the functioning of the church.

Among the ironies of the priest shortage is the fact that it has given rise to exactly the type of lay involvement so feared by those who value the status quo. There are now thousands of vibrant priestless parishes dotting our landscape. These are communities where non-clerics provide the Eucharist to the faithful, preach the Word, and administer the life of the Christian community. Among the further ironies, however, is that just as lay people are being called on to take up duties that once were reserved for priests, the Vatican is moving on several fronts to shore up the distinctions between lay and ordained. What we need is discussion of how these new structures, made necessary by the priest shortage, are to be managed, so that lay people can feel confident in what they are doing and priests not feel the need to be antagonistic toward their new partners in leadership.

No one disputes the value of celibacy -- and no one suggests that it should be done away with. Nor can anyone serious about discussing the future of the church and the priesthood argue that ending celibacy is a certain cure for the current crisis. At the same time, celibacy is a significant factor in the diminished numbers entering seminary and priesthood and it would be foolish to continue to ignore the obvious implications of loosening the rules on celibate priesthood. Perhaps the wider church could learn something from the married Episcopal and Lutheran ministers who have been ordained to the Catholic priesthood. Much like the increased role of laity, the use of married priests is already underway; change is occurring whether we like it or not. We might as well engage the issue and have some say in directing the changes.

Within our priesthood, there will always be those who embrace the freedom the charism of celibacy provides -- the opportunity to take chances for God and community that those with family responsibilities cannot readily embrace. Celibacy is a good thing, and a wonderful gift, for those who can freely embrace it.

But celibacy is not an end unto itself; it is a means to serve the people of God.

And we need to talk about whether, given the sacramental needs of our people, we can still afford to make it mandatory.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.