In 1970, there was one priest for every 800 Catholics in the United States. Today, that number has more than doubled, with one priest for every 1,800 Catholics.
Globally, the situation is worse. The number of Catholics per priest increased from 1,895 in 1980 to 3,126 in 2012, according to a report from CARA at Georgetown University. The Catholic Church in many parts of the world is experiencing what is being called a “priest shortage” or a “priest crisis.”
Last month, Pope Francis answered a question about the priest shortage in a March 8 interview published in the German weekly Die Zeit. The part that made headlines, of course, was that about married priests.
“Pope Francis open to allowing married priests in Catholic Church” read a USA Today headline. “Pope signals he’s open to married Catholic men becoming priests” said CNN.
But things are not as they might seem. Read a little deeper, and Pope Francis did not say that Father John Smith at the parish down the street can now ditch celibacy and go looking for a wife.
What the Holy Father did say is that he is open to exploring the possibility of proven men (‘viri probati,’ in Latin) who are married being ordained to the priesthood. Currently, such men, who are typically over the age of 35, are eligible for ordination to the permanent diaconate, but not the priesthood.
However, marriage was not the first solution to the priest shortage Pope Francis proposed. In fact, it was the last. Initially, he didn’t even mention marriage.
Pressed specifically about the married priesthood, the pope said: “optional celibacy is discussed, above all where priests are needed. But optional celibacy is not the solution.”
While Pope Francis perhaps signals an iota more of openness to the possibility of married priests in particular situations, his hesitance to open wide the doors to a widespread married priesthood is in line with his recent predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as the longstanding tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
So why is the Church in the West, even when facing a significant priest shortage, so reticent to get rid of a tradition of celibacy, if it is potentially keeping away additional candidates to the priesthood?
Why is celibacy the norm in the Western Church?
Father Gary Selin is a Roman Catholic priest and professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver. His work Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations was published last year by CUA press.
While the debate about celibacy is often reduced to pragmatics – the difficulty of paying married priests more, the question of their full availability – this ignores the rich theological foundations of the celibate tradition, Selin told CNA.
One of the main reasons for this 2,000 year tradition is Christological, because it is based on the first celibate priest – Jesus.
“Jesus Christ himself never married, and there’s something about imitating the life of our Lord in full that is very attractive,” Selin said.
“Interestingly, Jesus is never mentioned as a reason for celibacy. The next time you read about celibacy, try to see if they mention our Lord; oftentimes he is left out of the picture.”
Several times throughout the New Testament, Christ praises the celibate state. In Matthew 19:11-12, he answers a question from his disciples about marriage, saying that those who are able by grace to renounce marriage and sexual relations for the kingdom of heaven ought to do so.
Nevertheless, it took a while for the “culture of celibacy” to catch on in the early Church, Selin said.
Christ came to earth amid a Jewish people and culture who were instructed since their first parents of Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28, 9:7) and were promised that their descendants would be “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). Being unmarried or barren was to be avoided for both practical and religious reasons, and was seen as a curse, or at least a lack of favor from God.
The apostles, too, were Jewish men who would have been a part of this culture. It is known that among them, at least St. Peter had been married at some time, because Scripture mentions his mother-in-law (Mt. 8:14-15).
St. John the Evangelist is thought by the Church fathers to be one of the only of the 12 apostles who was celibate, which is why Christ had a particular love for him, Selin said. Some of the other apostles likely were married, in keeping with Jewish customs, but it is thought that they practiced perpetual continence (chosen abstinence from sexual relations) once they became apostles for the rest of their lives. St. Paul the Apostle extols the celibate state, which he also kept, in 1 Corinthians 7:7-8.
Because marriage was such an integral part of Jewish culture, even for the apostles, early Church clergy were often, but not always, married. However, evidence suggests that these priests were asked to practice perfect continence once they had been ordained. Priests whose wives became pregnant after ordination could even be punished by suspension, Selin explained.
Early on in the Church, bishops were selected from the celibate priests, a tradition that stood before the mandatory celibate priesthood. Even today, Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, most of which allow for married priests, select their bishops from among celibate priests.
As the “culture of celibacy” became more established, it increasingly became the norm in the Church, until married men who applied for ordinations had to appeal to the pope for special permission.
In the 11th century, St. Gregory VII issued a decree requiring all priests to be celibate and asked his bishops to enforce it. Celibacy has been the norm ever since in the Latin Rite, with special exceptions made for some Anglican and other Protestant pastors who convert to Catholicism.
A sign of the kingdom
Another reason the celibate priesthood is valued in the Church is because it bears witness to something greater than this world, Selin explained.
Benedict XVI once told priests that celibacy agitates the world so much because it is a sign of the kingdom to come.
“It is true that for the agnostic world, the world in which God does not enter, celibacy is a great scandal, because it shows exactly that God is considered and experienced as reality. With the eschatological dimension of celibacy, the future world of God enters into the reality of our time. And should this disappear?” Benedict XVI said in 2010.
Christ himself said that no one would be married or given in marriage in heaven, and therefore celibacy is a sign of the beatific vision (cf. Mt 22:30-32).
“Married life will pass away when we behold God face to face and all of us become part of the bridal Church,” Selin said. “The celibate is more of a direct symbol of that.”
Another value of celibacy is that it allows priests a greater intimacy with Christ in more fully imitating him, Selin noted.
“The priest is ordained to be Jesus for others, so he’s able to dedicate his whole body and soul first of all to God himself, and from that unity with Jesus he is able to serve the church,” he said.
“We can’t get that backwards,” he emphasized. Often, celibacy is presented for practical reasons of money and time, which aren’t sufficient reasons to maintain the tradition.
“That’s not sufficient and that doesn’t fill the heart of a celibate, because he first wants intimacy with God. Celibacy first is a great, profound intimacy with Christ.”
A married priest’s perspective: Don’t change celibate priesthood
Father Douglas Grandon is one of those rare exceptions – a married Roman Catholic priest. He was a married Episcopalian priest when he and his family decided to enter the Catholic Church 14 years ago, and received permission from Benedict XVI to become a Catholic priest.
Even though Grandon recognizes the priest shortage, he said opening the doors to the married priesthood would not solve the root issue of that shortage.
“In my opinion, the key to solving the priest shortage is more commitment to what George Weigel calls evangelical Catholicism,” Grandon told CNA.
“Whether you’re Protestant or Catholic, vocations come from a very strong commitment to the basic commands of Jesus to preach the Gospel and make disciples. Wherever there’s this strong evangelical commitment, wherever priests are committed to deepening people’s faith and making them serious disciples, you have vocations. That is really the key.”
He also said that while he’s “ever so grateful” that St. John Paul II allowed for exceptions to the celibate priesthood in 1980 – allowing Protestant pastor converts like himself to become priests – he also sees the value of the celibate priesthood and does not advocate getting rid of it.
“…we really do believe the celibate vocation is a wonderful thing to be treasured, and we don’t want anything to undermine that special place of celibate priesthood,” he said.
“Jesus was celibate, Paul was celibate, some of the 12 were celibate, so that’s a special gift that God has given to the Catholic Church.”
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is another married priest, who resides in Dallas and is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. He recently wrote about his experience as a married priest, but also said that he would not want the Church to change its celibacy norm.
“What we need is another Pentecost. That’s how the first ‘shortage’ was handled. The Twelve waited for the Holy Spirit, and he delivered,” Whitfield told CNA in e-mail comments.
“Seeing this crisis spiritually is what is practical. And it’s the only way we’re going to properly solve it….I’m simply not convinced that the economics of (married priesthood) would result in either the growth of clergy or the Church.”
Pope Francis’s solutions: Prayer, fostering vocations, and the birth rate
Pope Francis, too, does not believe that the married priesthood is the solution to the priest shortage. Before he even mentioned the married priesthood to Die Zeit, the Pope talked about prayer.
“The first [response] – because I speak as a believer – the Lord told us to pray. Prayer, prayer is missing,” he told the paper.
Rose Sullivan, director of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, and the mother of a seminarian who is about to be ordained, agrees with the pope.
“We would not refer to it as a ‘priest shortage’ or a ‘vocation crisis.’ We would refer to it as a prayer crisis. God has not stopped calling people to their vocation, we’ve stopped listening; the noise of culture has gotten in the way,” she said.
“Scripture says: ‘Speak Lord for your servant is listening.’ So the question would be, are we listening? And I would say we could do a much better job at listening.”
Another solution proposed by Pope Francis: Increasing the birth rate, which has plummeted in many parts of the Church, particularly in the west.
In some European countries, once the most Catholic region of the world, the birth rate has dipped so low that governments are coming up with unique ways to incentivize child-bearing.
“If there are no young men there can be no priests,” the pope said. The vocations of marriage and priesthood are therefore inter-related, said Ward.
“They compliment each other, and are dependent upon one another. If we don’t have families, we don’t have anything to do as priests, and families need priests for preaching and the sacraments.”
The third solution proposed by Pope Francis was working with young people and talking to them directly about vocations.
Many priests are able to trace their vocation back to a personal invitation, often made by one priest, as well as the witness of good and holy priests that were a significant part of their lives.
“A former vocation director took an informal poll, and he asked men, ‘What really got you thinking about the priesthood?’ And almost all of them said ‘because my pastor approached me’,” Selin related.
“It was the same thing with me. When a priest lives his priesthood with great joy and fidelity, he’s the most effective promoter of vocations, because a young man can see himself in him.”
Monsignor Thorburn added: “There is no shortage of vocations.”
“God is calling a sufficient number of men in the Western Church, who by our tradition he gives the gift of celibacy with the vocation. We just have to make a place for those seeds to fall on fertile ground.”