Catholic Priest Shortage

Lately, I've been participating in a bible study at my church, reading C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity" and following the health of the Pope. These activities have led me to do some deep thinking on spiritual and religious matters.

During our bible study group meeting this past Sunday, the issue of the shortage of priests serving the Catholic Church was discussed.

That there is an issue with a shortage of priests, I do not disagree. I grew up in a small town in southeastern Iowa. Fortunately (or unfortunately, as some of his detractors would assert), my church was served by a full time priest as I was growing up. Later, when my childhood priest retired, he was replaced with a priest that also served as the local prison chaplain. My guess is that when the current priest retires, there will not be a replacement in my former small parish, and the inhabitants of my old town will have to travel the 15 or 20 miles to the nearest Catholic Church with a priest.

What is the solution to this problem?

In one sense, it is good for Catholicism that there IS a problem. The flip-side of having a shortage of priests means that there is a population of Catholics large enough to create a situation where a shortage can exist. Indeed, the Catholic Church is growing. In some ways, this growth is good. In others, bad. But, that is a different topic.

The two most common suggestions for addressing the priest shortage problem are:
1. Allow women to become priests
2. Allow priests to marry

I suppose a third alternative would be a combination of the above, in which we could have women priests that are allowed to marry.

While I don't assail the intentions of the proponents of either of these two potential solutions, I adamantly oppose the second solution--allowing priests to marry.

I am aware that the Catholic Church has indeed allowed married priests to serve the church at various times in its long, storied and often turbulent history. I am also aware (to the degree of fatigue) of the criticisms of the policy of non-marriage and the connections that some make to the child abuse in which a number of priests criminally engaged. I believe this connection to be a base accusation without merit. Even if the connection were valid, it would not be the fault of the policy. It would remain, as it should, the fault of the priests that engaged in the heinous acts. Of course, this is not to excuse any "cover-up" by the church hierarchy. Once again, however, I am getting off topic.

I believe that the policy of priestly non-marriage (for lack of the official terminology) is well supported in Scripture. Despite the fictional hypotheses of Dan Brown's DaVinci Code book (which I enjoyed immensely), I don't believe that Jesus was married. Catholic priests are to use Jesus as a model for their ministry. By not being married, priests are indeed allowed to devote themselves entirely to their church family. There is no potential conflict of interest between a priests devotion to his wife/children and his church. His church is his life's love and work. Just as a man should not be married to more than one woman at a time (at least, not outside of Salt Lake City), a priest should not be married to his church and a woman (or a man, for that matter!) Becoming a priest requires a huge sacrifice--and, it should. Becoming a husband requires a sacrifice also. When any of us choose a vocation, not matter what it is, if we are truly choosing it, it requires us to give up other previously held freedoms. These freedoms are worth exchanging for the spiritual growth and wholeness that our vocation brings us. Sure, mistakes are made. People will get divorces and priests will give up the cloth. That is all part of our humanity shining through. However, these mistakes are often the result of not taking the necessary time and effort to discern what our true vocation is. We should all encourage those that have not yet chosen a vocation to think deeply about the commitments and sacrifices that accompany the path that is chosen.

On a personal level, I am grateful that I have a priest that serves my church as an unmarried pastor. I have greater confidence in going to him to discuss my sins and errors. I feel that he is a part of my family, and that he is indeed a leader of the entire church family. If he were married, I would feel that his service were more of a job and less of a vocation. He would be more like a guidance counselor than a personal confessor through which I could feel a Godly connection. Once again, I remember that Jesus serves as the example of what the ideal priest should be. Of course, there is not and cannot be an ideal priest. But that does not excuse them from trying to be ideal, in the sense of being the best that they can be.

I hope that I have laid out my argument clearly. It is a complex subject, but one that I feel strongly about. In fact, of all the differences between Catholicism and other Christian denominations, one of the aspects that continually draws me to Catholicism is the idea of men and women entering service to the Church with their whole unmarried being. As with so many other areas of faith, why I feel so strongly about it is a mystery. I've done my best to explain it, but aspects of it remain unexplainable.

I trust in the wisdom of theological experts that have a much better understanding on such matters to come up with wise alternatives to address the priestly shortage. Above, I noted that another potential solution often thrown about is the inclusion of women in the priesthood. Personally, I think this an infinitely better solution than the idea of allowing priests to marry. Unfortunately, I think the chances of it occurring are slim, but that is based on bits and pieces that I've read, and not on any prolonged study of the issue. I know that proponents of male-only priesthood cite Scripture and the model of Jesus as theological underpinnings for this policy. Still, it seems to me a better solution to allow women to become priests than to allow priests to marry, if it came down to a choice between these two options. As I have learned in my bible study, women were and are an invaluable arm of the Church. During Christ's suffering, the women were the only disciples that did not abandon him. Once again--another issue and topic altogether.

Whatever the eventual solution to the priest shortage, I hope that the church does not sacrifice vital ideals and theological truths to address an inherently human problem. If need be, although I wouldn't like it, I could travel the extra miles to a church, and I could put up with a larger congregation. Like many others, I like the idea of a small and intimate church in which everyone knows one another. However, maybe this is not the way in which God is calling humanity to organize its worship. We always need to be open to changes, and that includes my belief that priests not be allowed to marry. In the end, it is my personal relationship with God that I must nurture and take comfort in when faced with any human challenges.


Sean said…
good thinking and good reasons. i respectfully disagree.of course, i'm a raging protestant who's liberal on the equality of women, so i think all 3 of the options you mentioned should be up for grabs, as well as unmarried women!

singleness is a calling for some, but not for every pastor/priest.

married pastors should model healthy vocation and family life for a congregation (not that many do), or at least wrestle with the issues with them.

and how many people have thought, in counseling or preaching, that the priest didn't really have first-hand experience (not that that's a deal-killer, but it's a factor).

all of that disagreeing aside, i agree with you that we should be open to alternative organization, including much more organic associations, with part-time and team leaders.

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