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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

A straight line to no more priests

Today’s Catholic hardliners, it appears, are less concerned about the possibility of married priests than the signal such a change would convey on a broader range of issues. From this point of view, a change in this medieval discipline and a return to the church’s apostolic roots, whatever its theoretical merits, is a camel’s nose under the tent.

What could follow? Genuine respect for the laity? Women priests? The list is well known.

Twenty-five years into the papacy of the ailing John Paul II, the reactionary forces in the church fear a pendulum swing, a return to the dreaded “spirit of Vatican II.”

They are right to be concerned, for the arguments in favor of optional celibacy are compelling.

First, married priests exist today. Having relaxed the rules to allow hundreds of married Anglicans into the Roman Catholic clergy, it is impossible, short of calling for the laicization of these men, for the hardliners to maintain any intellectual consistency in their arguments.

Next, as is often pointed out, priestly celibacy is a church discipline, not a doctrine or dogma. It can be changed with the stroke of a papal pen.

Third, no responsible party is calling for the elimination of priestly celibacy. Allowing some priests to marry does not mean all priests will marry. Even in a time of optional celibacy, the church will continue to benefit from the charism of those who remain single.

Fourth, we need priests. Today, there are approximately 21,000 active diocesan clergy, down 40 percent since 1965. And the numbers will keep dropping. There are more American priests over age 90 than under age 30; by 2010 the number of active diocesan clergy (just over 15,000) will be less than the country’s 19,000 parishes (assuming no widespread parish closures). The number of “priestless parishes” -- those without a resident priest -- will rise from the current 3,000 (16 percent of U.S. parishes), even as seminaries graduate only one new priest for every three clerics (average age approaching 60) who retire, die or resign.

If demographics is destiny, then the American priesthood is heading toward extinction.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of American priests favor an open discussion of the mandatory celibacy discipline (see related story, Page 8). Though the FutureChurch/Call to Action survey may be the most comprehensive to date, there’s little new in the findings. Other studies came to similar conclusions: Those most affected by the clergy shortage and the discipline of mandatory celibacy want its merits fully debated and discussed.

But such a discussion is the hardliners’ worst fear. It cannot be tolerated, lest the persuasiveness of the aforementioned arguments becomes even clearer.

The hardliners, however, have reason to hope. The only category of priests opposed to discussing the merits of mandatory celibacy are those between the ages of 25 and 40 -- the John Paul II generation. Given the precipitous and continuing decline in vocations, their numbers are relatively small, but more than 50 percent of them don’t even want to talk about optional celibacy.

This John Paul II generation of clergy has a very different view of church than their older brethren and the lay ministers who increasingly carry out the day-to-day parish work that is the average person’s connection to this institution.

And they will lead the fight against a discussion of mandatory celibacy, which to them is a first step on a slippery slope away from the teachings of the pope who inspired their priestly calling.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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