Holy Thursday commemorated the day Jesus “conferred his priesthood on his Apostles” (Chrism Mass). Most of those apostles were probably married. In doing so, Jesus effected a pastoral reset. That memory suggests the Church in the US could use a strategic pastoral reset and ordaining married men needs to be part of it. For our current strategy seems headed toward catastrophe — sacramental drought and Eucharistic starvation.

Observers might reasonably conclude that the Catholic Church’s pastoral strategy in the US is bigger is better, so merge/close/megachurch. In the north, we are merging parishes and closing churches, disrupting many communities of faith. Across the south, we are building mega-churches or grouping several small parishes, often separated by large distances, under one pastor.

This strategy is driven by multiple factors: the movement of urban Catholic populations in the north to suburbs or to the south/southwest, the financial stress of settlements for clergy abuse, and the declining number of priests available to pastor parishes.

The rapidly declining number of priests seems to be the tail that is wagging the dog. It is that factor this essay addresses. It is that factor that most needs to be reset, for bigger entails less engagement by more Church members, more passivity when we are called to be more missionary. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing rapidly, in part because it limits its base congregations, called wards, to 25-500 active members and assigns most members specific responsibilities, with no full-time, paid clergy!

Mergings and closings

In the 1980s, the late Cardinal Edmund Szoka of Detroit took the dramatic step of merging and closing dozens of parishes and churches. That was four decades ago. Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of mergings and closings in US dioceses from Boston to Cleveland and beyond. Between 1991 and 2013, the Archdiocese of New York closed 43 parishes, then in November 2014 announced the merging of 112 of its remaining 368 parishes and the closing of 31. In May, the archdiocese said it would merge an additional 31 parishes into 14 new parishes. When the mergers are completed in August, the total number of parishes in the New York archdiocese will go from 368 a year ago to 296. That’s a body blow!

Typically such plans are prepared through consultation and the reasons for the decisions are explained to parishioners. Nonetheless, the strategy nearly always provokes anguish, consternation, and alienation among clergy and faithful. Most often these steps are rationalized on financial or demographic grounds. The growing shortage of priests is unavoidably mentioned, but seldom is the truth of the matter flatly stated: We simply don’t have the priest personnel available to staff all these churches.

A few statistics may help. As detailed by Christine Schenk in a Feb. 26 essay for the National Catholic Reporter, New York’s 1991 numbers reported 2,177 priests serving 2.24 million Catholics (1 priest per 1,030 Catholics) in 411 parishes (5.3 priests/parish). The 2013 numbers report 1,343 priests serving 2.62 million Catholics (1 priest per 1,950 Catholics) in 368 parishes (3.7 priests/parish).

The national picture

A March 6 Commonweal essay by CARA’s Mary Gautier reports that since 2000, just 15 years ago, the number of parishes nationally has declined 7.1% to 17,800 while the number of Catholics has risen 17% to 66.6 million. There are today fewer than 26,265 diocesan priests in the US, of whom only 17,900 are in “active ministry.” That means on average 1.006 priests per parish serving 3,741 people per parish and 3,720 people per diocesan priest. The other 8,365 of today’s diocesan priests are formally retired. Happily many of them continue to serve in some way, but it’s about to get much worse: “half of all priests currently in active ministry also expect to retire by 2019” according to an NCR front page story, using CARA statistics. Half in the next four years! That’s crippling.

Gautier reports that the decline in the number of priests has been in process since the late 1960s, but the problem is becoming ever more severe. “Only about a third of the number needed to replace priests who are retiring, dying, or leaving” each year are being ordained. “More priests die each year than are ordained.” That means we face a 67% decline in priests available in the coming decades. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics keeps growing.

This reality is crushing priests carrying the growing burden of priestly ministry. They have hunkered down to carry on, but many are discouraged, if not panicked. Many are scandalized that episcopal leadership seems unalarmed by this situation and uncreative in responding to it. For 40 years, our hierarchy has proposed that the solution is to pray for vocations, increase vocational PR, and trust in God while they merge/close/mega-church their parishes. Other steps, if any are being taken, are not shared or discussed publicly. Priests are concerned that the Church they care about and have served faithfully is about to go over a cliff.

One favored response is to recruit “international priests.” Their number has grown from 3,500 in 1999 to nearly 7,000 today (Gautier). That tactic has brought successes, but also problems and failures. It also depletes the priests available in lands where the Catholic population is exploding or recovering from decades of Communism. This suggests that the Catholic Church in the United States has become a mission church again rather than a missionary church, a shrinking Church needing outside help rather than a thriving one sharing with others. Dare we say a failing Church? We look big and prosperous, but we are collapsing. Even with such recruiting, nearly 3,500 of the now 17,800 parishes in the United States are without a resident priest pastor.

However much this pastoral strategy of merging/closing/mega-churching may seem to alleviate the crisis of insufficient priest personnel, it merely covers a festering wound. The wound is getting worse, and the patient’s condition is increasingly critical. However much our current strategy seems to address the problem, its de facto impact is to deny laity everywhere ready access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. It imposes a fast from our most basic nourishment, forcing laity to travel further – sometimes much further — to find celebrations occurring at times available in their jammed and complicated schedules. It imposes a crushing burden on priests, forcing them to spend more time and energy managing and running from one responsibility and location to another. It sounds callous, but it in effect says, “Let the people do without and let the clergy carry their cross.”

All this is largely due to a lack of strategic creativity, fear about changing the status quo, and resistance to alternate pastoral strategies. Chief among those alternatives is the possibility of ordaining married men to provide priestly ministry to local communities of faith, as Jesus did on that first Holy Thursday.

What can be done?

There are to be sure several factors at play, but I focus on the declining number of priests available to serve our growing Catholic community. That shrinking number is the result of the shrinking number of candidates. Factors contributing to that shrinkage include certainly the smaller number of children in families, the reduced number of Catholic schools, and the reduced number of Catholic children attending those schools. Talented men also have an increased number of attractive career options in our society and economy, even in the Church.

Younger Catholics have grown up during an increased affirmation of marriage as a path to holiness and the hyper-sexualization of our culture. Today’s parents look forward to the time of becoming grandparents, a hope invested in their few offspring. Some argue that women have been so offended by various aspects of Church discipline and behavior toward them and their daughters that they do not encourage their sons to become priests — perhaps even discourage them.

These complex factors result in a hugely reduced pool of candidates for the priesthood. The insistence of our leadership on limiting the pool to men willing to accept celibacy has contributed greatly to our priest famine. The Vatican’s hitherto refusal to seriously explore the option of ordaining married men, silently acquiesced by our US bishops, dooms our Church to a failing pastoral strategy. We need a reset.

Fortunately we currently have a Pope whose mind is not closed to exploring that option. Pope Francis has stated his readiness to consider requests from episcopal conferences for permission to ordain married men of proven quality to meet pastoral needs. To my knowledge, no episcopal conference has yet made such a request. To my knowledge our own US Conference of Catholic Bishops is not even talking about the possibility. Their public strategy remains ‘pray, promote vocations, trust God, merge, close and mega-church.’ We have been doing that for 40 years. Perhaps God is answering our prayers by inviting us to explore expanded consideration of whom God might be calling and whom the Church might ordain.

Ordaining married men is not an outrageous idea. I need not repeat here the many arguments for entertaining the idea — the fact of married priests through several centuries of our Roman Church’s life, the fact of married priests serving the Orthodox churches and also many Catholic Rites other than our Roman tradition from the beginning to this day, the fact that we already have married Roman Catholic priests serving our people as ministers of other traditions ‘turn to Rome,’ the enrichment of experience and wisdom a married and celibate clergy could bring to the service of God’s people, strengthened credibility of the Church in dealing with family and sexual matters.

To be sure, instituting such a component of an alternate pastoral strategy would require adjustments, bring different challenges, and introduce new sets of problems. But it can be done, and it could bring near-term relief.

One immediate avenue could be to call select men from among married deacons to priesthood. The Catholic Church in the United States today has some 18,725 ordained deacons, 94% of them married men and 12,358 of them in their 50s and 60s, according to CARA’s 2013-14 study for the USCCB. A few single and/or widowed permanent deacons have taken additional training, become priests within a few years, and are serving well. The same could be done with select married permanent deacons, individuals of proven qualities discerned apt to serve as priests, able and willing to do so.

If just 10% of our 18,725 permanent deacons were discerned and called to priesthood in the next few years, the looming disaster of losing 50% of currently active priests to retirement would be alleviated — not sufficiently, but somewhat. That could provide breathing space for the Church to train and prepare many other married men willing to serve as priests.

Such priests would not have to be full-time Church employees. Many, if not all, could be tent-maker clergy, maintaining their careers and day jobs, as was St. Paul and as are most permanent deacons today.

The alternative is to continue telling Catholics, in effect, ‘you will just have to do with less. We have no solution. Your/our prayers are not being answered,’ … so we have to close your church and you’ll just have to travel further to get to Mass and have a priest available to serve you.

We need a reset. We need at least to look at such a reset.

Such exploration of a different pastoral strategy could open still other helpful pastoral avenues. It would enable communities to identify potential leaders from within their communities and propose them for training and ordination, including women as deacons. It might lead to restoring to service some of the many men ordained to celibate priesthood in recent decades who resigned the priesthood to live the vocation of marriage. Many of them continue to see themselves as priests, ordained to serve, and strive to minister to God’s people to the extent they can within Church law. They are many. They are willing. They are waiting to be asked.

The Church in the United States faces a deepening of the crisis we have been experiencing for five decades — the declining number of ordained priests to serve the growing number of Catholics. Our overall pastoral strategy has not addressed that situation and our current pastoral strategy is more destructive than effective. If continued, it will be increasingly disastrous. The Church in the United States needs to reset its pastoral strategy, soon. Ordaining married men of proven ability and character would be one step in that direction.

The Rev. Bernard R. Bonnot is a priest and pastor of the Diocese of Youngstown ordained in 1967. He serves also as chairman of the Leadership Team of the Association of US Catholic Priests (AUSCP), which has endorsed this essay.