Some day soon the next pope will call his Vatican advisers together to face what he will describe as the church's most pressing issue. It won't be AIDS in Africa, Christian-Islamic relations, global poverty, birth control, or converting people to Christianity. It will be the church's intensifying worldwide priest shortage.

Then the pope will gather his cardinals at a gigantic meeting, where he'll admit the problem, and the surprisingly simple solution: allow marriage as an option for priests.

Think it's impossible? Some of the men now being discussed as potential popes are among the cardinals publicly worrying about the priest shortage, though not-yet-about married priests as a solution. Among them are Cardinal Camillo Ruini of Italy, Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Belgium, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, and Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes.

Conservative Catholics may say otherwise, but increasing numbers of observers inside and outside the church say the figures don't lie: the shortage is a crisis. "The priesthood is going downhill fairly fast," says Dean Hoge, a Presbyterian who is a Catholic University of America sociologist and expert on the Catholic priesthood.

Even the Vatican admitted, in a little-noticed survey released two weeks before Pope John Paul II's death, that the number of Catholic priests in the world is lagging behind the needs of the church. Worldwide, the number of priests is not much less than it was in 1975--405,000 then, versus about 397,000 today. But Catholics meanwhile increased worldwide by 52%, to 1.1 billion people.

As a result, while there were 893 Catholics for every priest worldwide in 1958, today there are 2,677. The figure is likely to grow until at least 2050, according to the Vatican. Meanwhile, in Latin America today there are 8,000 Catholics for every priest. In Europe, the ratio is 1 to 1,400; in America it is 1 to 1,200; in Africa the ratio is 1 to 4,000, according to the Vatican.

Additional signs of the problem abound:

  • Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops' conference, warned that in a few years, the shortage will be acute in Italy. One diocese hasn't ordained a local priest in 16 years.
  • Honduras has fewer than 400 priests to serve 5 million Catholics.
  • Nearly half (105,530 of 218,196) of the world's parishes and missions do not have a resident priest, according to 2001 Vatican statistics.
  • According to sociologist Lawrence Young, author of one of the most important statistical surveys of the U.S. priest shortage, in 10 years there will be a 46% decline in priests-a total of 16,000 men. The number of U.S. priests has declined from 1975 to the present, from 58,000 to 46,000-but one-third of those priests are retired, sick, or absent, according to a Catholic News Service analysis. There are more American priests over age 90 than under age 30. Meanwhile, the total number of U.S. Catholics is expected to increase by 65% in the next decade.
  • Allowing priests to marry would, according to Hoge, alleviate the problem. He helped conduct a 1987 study that he said concluded "you would have a four-fold increase in seminarians if you had optional celibacy. It's the biggest deterrent."

    Not everyone is convinced. "I'm not denying it's a serious problem," Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, said in 2002. "I just don't think there's a crisis."

    She also says celibacy isn't the issue. "The seminaries would not fill up tomorrow with young men," she said. "Young people are not making long-term commitments to anything."

    Archbishop Elden Curtiss, the conservative leader of the Diocese of Omaha and a former seminary rector and vocations director, told Catholic World Report in 2001: "It seems to me that the vocation 'crisis' is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the church's agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines these ministries."

    Curtiss and others argue that in conservative dioceses there are more candidates to the priesthood than in liberal dioceses precisely because a priestly vocation is demanding and counter-cultural.

    There are compelling arguments to be made for celibacy. First, it reaffirms the importance of marriage because it demonstrates that sexual urges can be channeled for spiritual purposes. Second, Jesus-who was celibate--speaks of celibacy in Matthew 19, saying "Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Whoever, can accept this ought to accept it."

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