The National Catholic Review

Silence and fervent prayer for vocations are no longer adequate responses to the priest shortage in the United States. As the church prepares to observe the Year of the Priest, which begins on June 19, open discussion about how to sustain the church as a eucharistic community of faith and fortify the pastoral life of Catholic congregations has become imperative. For making do within the limits set by present demographic trends presents a double threat to Catholic life: Catholic communities will become only infrequent eucharistic communities, or eucharistic communities will be severed from the pastoral care and public witness of priests.

In 2008 the sociologist Dean Hoge said: “We need at least a doubling of ordinations to maintain the American priesthood as we know it now. But this is impossible.” Of current diocesan priests, only 70 percent are available for parish ministry, with the rest sick, retired or absent for a variety of reasons, according to Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. An increasing number of Catholics are unable to participate in a Sunday or weekday Mass. All this prompts the question, Will the priest shortage impose a eucharistic famine on the Catholic people?

The de facto remedy already applied in many places— making the priest a circuit rider moving from parish to parish to dispense the sacraments—risks narrowing the ministry of the priest and impoverishing the Christian life of the communities he serves. A narrowly sacramental definition of priesthood satisfies the requirements of only one of the three canons that define the pastoral responsibilities of the priest, Canon 530. As a consequence the sacramental office is as a practical matter severed from its integral connection with comprehensive pastoral care. Canons 528 and 529 provide a broader understanding of the priestly ministry. The first sees the priest as one who instructs, catechizes, fosters works of justice, shows special care for the education of children and brings the Gospel to those who have ceased to practice the faith. The second requires that he should come to know the faithful entrusted to his care, visit families, share their concerns, worries and griefs, help the sick and seek out the poor, the afflicted and the lonely. Diminishing numbers make it difficult to carry out this holistic vision of the priest’s pastoral ministry.

We hope that the upcoming Year of the Priest will lead to a broader discussion of the priesthood in the contemporary world and, in particular, will open examination of the various ways the shortage of priests can be addressed honestly and with imagination. New vocations can be promoted through youth rallies, the Internet and, as always, with prayer. In addition, the pastoral needs of parishes may also be met in part by more effective pastoral assignment of permanent deacons and by increased leadership by lay men and women.

What about the recruitment and training of married men as priests? Married priests already minister in the Catholic Church, both East and West. Addressing the married clergy of the Eastern Catholic churches, the Second Vatican Council exhorted “all those who have received the priesthood in the married state to persevere in their holy vocation and continue to devote their lives fully and generously to the flock entrusted to their care” (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests,” No. 16). That exhortation now applies to the more than 100 former Anglican priests and Lutheran ministers who have entered the Catholic Church, been ordained and now serve in the Latin rite. As we face the challenges of the priest shortage, some of the more than 16,000 permanent deacons in the United States, many of them married, who experience a call to priestly ministry might be called to ordination with a similarly adapted discipline. In addition, the views and desires of some of the more than 25,000 priests who have been laicized (and are now either single or married) should also be heard.

Our plea is modest. The bishops of the United States should take greater leadership in openly discussing the priest shortage and its possible remedies. These should not be conversations in which we face a problem only to find every new avenue of solution closed. Rather, they should be exchanges fully open to the possibilities offered by the Spirit.

In March, Cardinal Edward Egan, the newly retired archbishop of New York, said in a candid moment that the topic of married priests “is a perfectly legitimate discussion.” He added, “I think it should be looked at.” The cardinal later nuanced his statement, but the need for a creative re-visioning of priestly life to sustain the eucharistic life of the church in its fullest sense can no longer be delayed.


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Patrick Flynn | 4/24/2009 - 4:44pm
The priesthood lost much of its appeal when priests no longer appreciated their own meaning and role in the church. Another blow to vocations was the loss of the sense of the sacred in Catholic ritual. Finally, the priestly vocation attracted more applicants when priests were seen as elite, due to rigorous training, but also the sacrifices the job entailed. In this time of apparent religious decline, we need a strong core of priests who know and appreciate their true role- not mere presiders, but the ones who make Christ truly present on the altar. We can attract these new priests by making the Mass a sacred, sublime and solemn occassion. And we need to challenge our new priests by giving them quality schooling, and demanding lives that inspire by their sacrifices. If this can include married priests, so be it. My fear is that a married priesthood will be a part of the general downward spiral that, in the end, will be no solution at all.
Catherine McKeen | 4/24/2009 - 4:06pm
A married male priesthood is what seems now to lurk under America's commentary. Wirth Abbey's Christopher Jamison said recently celibacy (which he described as the core ascetical activity of the spiritual life) is not salable in our world. And because the church is managed by men and wants to reproduce its kind, it is trying various half-way measures, for example, married deacons. To my mind one of the key offenses is to prohibit even the diaconate to women while lowering standards so that hardly any man can be turned away from serving at the altar, whatever his life choices have been. Meanwhile, the great hidden charitable work of the church continues to be done primarily by women. Catherine McKeen
Mary Kay | 4/24/2009 - 3:59pm
Has the author explored the possibility of ordaining women? There is another equally legitimate and viable option for correcting this burgeoning problem. The Church would be well advised to take this into serious consideration. Ordination of women would finally "permit" the Church to include women in full mutuality and at the same time help combat this "Sacramental Famine" that we are facing.
William Rydberg | 4/24/2009 - 3:09pm
Discussing strategies to increase vocations via lifting current discipline is in my opinion yet another short-sighted knee-jerk half measure. The real problem is the glaring lack of emphasis on holiness of life as evidenced by the lack of adequate renewalof popular piety and devotions. Pope Leo in his letter to American Bishops about "Americanism" spoke of a stubborn contempt by the larger society, including clergy of the "angelic virtues". Speaking plainly, until we recover a reverence for poverty, chastity and deep listening (i.e. obedience), we won't make a fig of progress. Chastity isn't an extra. Happy Easter! Alleluia! Alleluia!
kathy Pesta | 4/24/2009 - 2:40pm
The "modest proposal" is intelligent, rational, imaginative, and just. It should be considered without prejudice or fear. St. Paul tells us, "Do not block the Holy Spirit." One wonders if the Church has unintentionally been doing that for some time now. A serious and thorough look at the issue will, hopefully, ensure that the Holy Spirit is getting through.
kathy Pesta | 4/24/2009 - 2:39pm
The "modest proposal" is intelligent, rational, imaginative, and just. It should be considered without prejudice or fear. St. Paul tells us, "Do not block the Holy Spirit." One wonders if the Church has unintentionally been doing that for some time now. A serious and thorough look at the issue will, hopefully, ensure that the Holy Spirit is getting through.
Leonard Nugent | 4/24/2009 - 2:39pm
Your reference to the discipline of the Eastern Church is to the point. One of the great beauties of the Eastern Church is the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Perhaps if liturgy in the Roman church were elevated to such a level that it made sense to devote your life to it the priest shortage would be reduced to a certain degree. And No, I’m not talking about the Tridentine mass, just the de-sillifacation of the one we have now.
Michael R Saso | 4/24/2009 - 2:37pm
As a former Jesuit, who married with Rome's permission, was later re-incardinated and allowed to function as a priest again, the people in the parishes I have served, San Jose, Pacific Grove, and Asia. do not notice or even avert to the fact that I have 2 daughters; I refuse all stipends, re-imbursements, and salary for work I do in the parish. A recent survey in Yahoo showed that piests are one of the happiest and most fulfilled of all professions, celebrating the Eucharist, bringing care for the sick and dying, teaching prayer, forgiveness, and compassion.
Elizabeth Burr | 4/24/2009 - 2:35pm
Thank you, Editors, for taking such a sensible solution to a complex problem for the Catholic Church. I would only suggest that the pool that could be the fastest and best (in terms of training/retraining)for the Church to draw upon for this dire need, should be priests who have already been ordained and who have served, but left the priesthood (laicised) for their own reasons. There are many of these who would gladly open their arms to serve again. Elizabeth Burr, Ph.D.
Frank Stella | 4/24/2009 - 2:35pm
Actually, I have A Modest Proposal of mine. It is one which I have advanced before, many times: Asking the Meek Mindless Mammals who occupay dutifully the Sundays Pews, to come forward and speak their minds! In order to validate this "Revolutionary Concept" it would suffice to point out that The Venerated Bishops (Cardinals) Geminianus of Modena (Mutina) and Ambrosius of Milan (Mediolanum) were chosen in the 4th century Vox Populi Vox Dei, with a direct Democratic Vote, pretty much the same way as President Obama was chosen by the good American Folks. Now, before scratching you head, asking yourself ... what has this tirade to do with the shortage of Priests ... I would suggest that you ask yourself if the Church has strayed off the good Path, and where it is going ...
James Lindsay | 4/24/2009 - 2:31pm
The editors provide some interesting options which should be considered. Of course, per Vatican direction, they ignored the other half of the solution, which is regretable. There is scriptural support for the notion that the Church of Rome was initially founded by Priscilla, who was its benefactor - likely the original benefactor. If she were also what was called the Overseer, what we would now call the Pastor, it is sad that her successors continue in their obstinency on the question of ordaining pastors who share her gender.
Fred Hofheinz | 4/24/2009 - 2:28pm
I commend the AMERICA editors for this forthright and candid statement. Alas, my own experience convinces me that your plea to the American bishops to take a leadership position on this issue is in vain. In the early 1980s -- when the priest shortage was only slowly becoming apparent -- I served as Progam Director for Religion at the Lilly Endowment. During that period we awarded a number of grants to the Bishops' Conference to research and address this growing problem. Premier among those Lilly-supported efforts was a magisterial diocese-by-diocese analysis of priesthood numbers and ordination trends by the late sociologist Richard Schoenherr of the University of Wisconsin. When his research pointed to the conclusion that the shortage by the end of the 20th century would reach crisis levels, a number of senior bishops -- led by Cardinal Roger Mahoney -- blocked discussion of this research within the Conference and even attempted to stop its publication, stating that "the call to the priesthood is a gift of the Holy Spirit and not a matter to be discussed by sociologists." That attitude delayed serious consideration of this issue at a time when it might possibly have made a difference. I suspect, regretfully, that this is still the mindset of many bishops. I certainly do not believe that any serious discussion of the recruitment and ordination of married men (let alone women, married or celibate) is likely to happen any time soon. Anyone interested in the Schoenherr research should read his 1993 book "Full Pews and Empty Altars: Demographics of the Priest Shortage in U.S. Dioceses" and his own observations on the practical implications of his research published posthumously in 2002 as "Good-bye Father: The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church." If AMERICA editors and readers wish to continue pursuing this issue, I highly recommend these books as well as Dean Hoge's 1987 book, based on Shoenherr's research, "The Future of Catholic Leadership." You will find them remarkably prescient. Fred Hofheinz, Retired Lilly Endowment Program Director
Tom Howarth | 4/24/2009 - 2:14pm
We should pray about the real problems besetting humankind like homelessness, war and social injustice. Why should we pray about a shortage of vocations? There is no such shortage. There are plenty of vocations among women and married men but there is a lack of justice and imagination. If we are going to bother God with our pleas, we should be clear as to what the problem is.
West Cosgrove | 4/24/2009 - 2:13pm
I have long believed that the answer to the priest shortage is for the Catholic Church to make its vast resources open to all. Open the seminaries and houses of formation to all who have experienced a call to ministry and who desire to serve God and God's people. We could indeed once again, "fill the seminaries". Once there, we train all and help each person discern whether they will live out their call as a priest, sister, lay person, married, single, etc. I truly believe that we would end up with more men (and one day women) choosing priesthood if we started with the call to ministry as the central call and the details to be worked out with the beloved community.
Jim McCrea | 4/24/2009 - 1:46pm
The times are validating one of the positions that helped get this bishop in trouble. Will the church recognize his wisdom and the error of her ways? "It is the present day mission of the Church that defines the priesthood (i.e., celibate or married), not yesterday's priesthood that defines the mission of the Church." Bishop Jacques Gaillot of Evreux, France.
Mary Haggerty | 4/24/2009 - 1:39pm
I understand your need to be cautious. The Pope and Cardinals have refused to look at any creative options and instead have chosen to blame parents and the faithful for not stepping forward. It is a delicate subject and one that must be handled with care in order to be heard. However, I MUST adress the obvious fact that you did not mention ordaining women as priests. I am disappointed that you, the Editors of America Magainze, would not take that risk.(It's appalling that it must be seen as a risk, but that is for another discussion!) How long will we be so cautious that the faithful have little spiritual leadership left? There are vocations out there if we are willing to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Please, AMERICA, don't remain part of the problem. Have the courage to speak up.
Jackie Quinto | 4/24/2009 - 1:33pm
You've disproved your own point. The Eastern Churches are lacking for priests--even more so than the Western--and they have married priests! What you suggest doesn't make any sense. I don't know why I am always surprised to see so many teachings which go against Catholicism posted in America. After all these years, I would think I could no longer be shocked by you. What next? Ordination of women?
DONALD CHAPIN MR/MRS | 4/24/2009 - 1:23pm
This request is a start, albeit a timid one -- single or married men, single or married women, as priests -- all possibilities should be discussed! So many qualfied people are ready! And one only needs to travel in France or Italy to see so many permanently closed small churches -- this is not just a U.S. problem. It is a problem in western Europe as well.
JERRY VIGNA | 4/24/2009 - 1:14pm
Bravo, America! A courageous statement that has been long in coming. A married priesthood is no panacea for the priest shortage, as you undoubtedly know; the clerical career is a demanding one. Nonetheless, you have brought forward excellent reasons from canon law, a theology of priestly ministry, and the reality of married priests already serving in the church.
Leonard Villa | 4/24/2009 - 12:40pm
The notion that "married priests" would be cavalry coming to the rescue/a solution to the priest-shortage is a red herring. What needs to be projected is a clear masculine image of the priesthood according to Catholic teaching, which was obscured/denied after the Council because of focus on the laity and bad/false theology about the priesthood and the Eucharist. Many abandoned Catholic teaching on the priesthood/Eucharist in favor of a Protestant notion of ministry denying the sacrificial nature of the Mass and the ontological change of Holy Orders that the priest acts in the very person of Jesus Christ. How many groups have abandoned the word "priest" in favor of "presider" a word which in my view should be banned from current vocabulary describing the priest. Add to this the unwillingness by and large of the Holy See and the American bishops to confront this bad teaching on the priesthood head on and remove those responsible for it. Merely issuing documents/exhortations etc. have not cut it. Wolves have remained in place in seminaries and theological faculties. Also the clericalization of the laity as a "solution" has been a big mistake and an abuse. The Catholic Faith in the U.S. was served and spread in an acute priest-shortage by few priests/bishops putting in long hours without extraordinary ministers, priestless parishes,and bad theology on the priesthood. In fact this clericalization of the laity has exacerbated the vocation crisis insultating the faithful from the pain of the lack of priests by "discovering" more things that can be given to the laity not to mention folks using these "ministries" for extraneous agendas often at odds with Church teaching on the priesthood like the push for women priests/secular feminist ideology and the like. Add to this-and this is big-the crisis of men in society and in the Church in an era of societal and ecclesial feminization.


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