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."

    Third, celibacy emphasizes the special role of the priest as a representative of the church. Finally, celibacy allows the priest's first priority to be the church.

    Many Catholics reject those arguments, however, particularly in the face of the priest shortage. Unlike many Protestants, Roman Catholics recognize the Eucharist as the heart of Catholicism. But the only people who can officially celebrate the Eucharist are ordained priests.

    Viewed in that light, "not having a married priesthood is wrong," says Catholic theologian Anthony Padovano, the founder of the liberal group CORPUS, which advocates for a married priesthood. "Even under John Paul II you had an incredible breakthrough on this to allow priest converts from Protestantism to stay married. You also had (married) deacons ordained, if they promised they wouldn't get married again if their wife died. And even then, if you could show you were needed as a deacon and you have small children and don't want to leave them 'motherless,' then you can marry again."

    No surprise: Padovano is convinced the next pope will get the ball rolling on optional celibacy, with the cardinals in strong support. But first they must elect someone who will make it happen. How will they do it?

    "They operate with code," Padovano says. "They'll say, 'We want a pope who is more open to collegial discussion. We want a pope who will discuss the problems of ministry."

    For the last 20 years, Padovano and other American liberals have been laughed off as out of touch with reality, or too focused on problems in the American church. Yet far from a liberal American fantasy, optional celibacy seems to be an ever-increasing probability, and for a variety of reasons.

    First, as Padovano points out, during his pontificate John Paul relaxed the celibacy rules, allowing already-married Protestant ministers who convert to Catholicism and become ordained priests to remain married. There are now more than 100 such priests in the United States.

    Second, the Catholic Church has had a married priesthood for 2,000 years-in its Eastern Rite churches. These are eastern European Christians who follow the Vatican but retain their own liturgical traditions. When the Eastern and Western churches split in 1054, Western (Roman) Catholics began their transition to a celibate priesthood, particularly to clamp down on married priests who were leaving the church's assets to their sons. Meanwhile, the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches retained the older tradition of married priests. About 11 million Catholics are members of these Eastern churches; the largest is the Ukrainian Catholic Church, with about 4 million members.

    Third, priests are flouting the rules, particularly in Africa and parts of Latin America, according to church experts. In Africa, where the culture emphasizes marriage and children, priests routinely marry-usually secretly but sometimes not so secretly. In 2001, Archbishop Emeritus Emmanuel Milingo of Lusaka in Zambia publicly married a woman named Maria Sung in a Unification Church ceremony. After the bizarre story unfolded, he reconciled with the Vatican and renounced his marriage-but he also continued to reject publicly the church's teaching on celibacy.

    Fourth, the top national church hierarchies in Brazil, Indonesia, and Canada have in the last few years officially requested that the Vatican lift the marriage ban in their countries as a way to deal with the critical priest shortage. This is a particularly important development in Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world and the current home base of Cardinal Hummes, a papal contender.

    Another reason-though a more minor one-is a widespread concern that the priesthood in the United States is rapidly becoming a "gay profession." Sociologists such as Hoge and Young have done surveys estimating that between 30% and 75% of American priests are gay. According to a 2001 study by Hoge, more than half of U.S. priests say they perceive a gay subculture in their diocese or religious institute, with 19 percent saying it clearly exists. Gay priests aren't a negative per se-the problem is the potential for the church's leadership to be made up primarily of gay men, while the flock is overwhelmingly heterosexual.

    For these reasons and others, there is a surprising momentum moving the church toward grappling openly with married clergy:

  • In January 2005, the National Council of Priests of Australia called on the Vatican to make celibacy optional.
  • A 2004 survey of priests in 53 dioceses found that 67% of responding priests (2,589 of 3,846) said yes to the question: "Do you favor an open discussion of the mandatory celibacy rule for diocesan priests?"
  • Irish priests surveyed anonymously by telephone in April 2004 support optional priestly celibacy (69%), according to The Tablet.
  • A report commissioned by the Australian Bishops found that 55% of Australian priests believe celibacy should be optional and an another 16% believe obligatory celibacy had had a negative impact.
  • In 2003, more than 160 priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee signed a letter to the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urging that the priesthood be opened to married men.
  • Upon being elevated to Cardinal in 2003, Archbishop Keith O'Brien of Edinburgh said of married clergy, "What I would ask for in the Church at every level, including the cardinals and the Pope, is to be able to have full and open discussion about these issues and see where we stand and what the need is."
  • Last year 41% of Brazilian Catholic priests admitted to having had a sexual relationship.
  • Will a married priesthood solve the church's problems? Even zealous supporters say no.

    "If you're looking to a married priesthood to solve the church's problems that's absurd," says Padovano. "You'll have sex abuse, divorce, and remarriage--but that's the human condition.

    "So whenever a bishop says to me that we can't change the celibacy rules because of those problems, I look at them and say, 'Well, thank God celibacy is working perfectly." Pause. Then he laughed.

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