When we begin to think about the current priest situation faced by Catholics in the United States and the Western world in general, it is necessary to consider the various sides of the problem and the implications afforded by the many solutions.
The statistics show that from 1970 to 2007 the number of diocesan priests fell from 36,005 to 27,971. Including religious priest the numbers fall from 59,000 in 1975 to about 41,500 last year.
Listed as causes for the drop are: trends of smaller family sizes; a sexualized culture where celibacy seems like an impossibility; negative views of the priestly ministry following the sexual abuse scandal; a culture that overvalues wealth; the audacity of a lifelong commitment to a single occupation. The one, however, most considered is celibacy.
Parts of the Church clearly call out for a married priesthood. Numerous theologians argue that a married priesthood is the stimulus needed to solve the "number problem". Rev. Donald Cozzens of John Carroll University said in an interview,
I think celibacy is a great gift, and it's wonderful for people who have the grace and the gift and the calling, but it can be a very difficult situation for men who feel called to the priesthood but not to celibacy. Over the past half dozen years, I've asked probably two dozen men if they've ever thought of being priests, and every one of them has said yes, they have thought of it, but then they add, "I really feel also called to the sacrament of marriage, I'd like to be a husband and a father."Though a consensus concerning celibacy appears far off, the demographic issue will continue to affect the life of the Church. It surprises me, however, how many commentators tip-toe around the main question. Why? More specifically, what are the underlying foundations for arguments on both sides?
The approach which values both tradition and the status-quo states that a male-celibate priesthood is the proper order given to the Church. Relying on centuries of precedence the reasoning holds well. Even though the celibacy of the clergy is not dogma, and can change, there are theological knots to untie with a married priesthood.
If the priest's vocation is to be one person for many, and a married person's vocation is to be one person for his or her spouse, the lines cross quite clearly in a married priesthood. Can a man give himself totally to a spouse and at the same time give himself to a priestly ministry? If the love of a priest is to mirror the love of Jesus Christ in an analogous way, as one for many, is a married priesthood adding insult to injury when priests are currently overworked and suffering burnout?
The second approach which calls for change does so in clear response to a certain more contemporary phenomenon. The obvious drop in numbers presents a clear dilemma and has been mentioned already.
Without denigrating the gravity of this situation, a few things should be understood. First, priest shortages have happened previously; this is not the first, and this will not be the last. Although distinct historical circumstances should be considered distinctively, the Church should not be quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater due to a singular event.
Second, and perhaps more weighty, to what extent should an issue such as priestly celibacy be an answer to a simple numbers problem, a pragmatic answer? Should the Church immediately change because she is faced with a problem? Inundated with such ideas as natural selection, we hastily choose adaptation for survival over hope in order.
Arguing against pragmatism in Church politics can go either way. My hope for the Church is for Hope. The celibate priest may be a symbol of something quite foreign now in the days following a sexual abuse scandal and in the midst of a highly sexualized culture, but the impetus for change cannot be merely a survival ploy or a number crunch. If we change our understanding of the priesthood it must be for the good of a Church that is everywhere, that is past, present and future.