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Costs of clerical celibacy are rising

G.K. Chesterton once said that the Catholic church can’t win on celibacy. “If you have it, they make a fool of you and if you break it, they make a fool of you,” he wrote, and there’s a fair bit of truth in that.

In today’s post-sexual-revolution culture, celibacy strikes many as an unhealthy astringency bordering on madness. Yet in Catholicism and many other spiritual traditions, celibacy has over the centuries allowed believers to offer themselves unreservedly to God. Celibacy does not in itself connote a negative view of sexuality. Indeed, for some mystics celibacy is the highest praise of sexual expression, since only by surrendering it can they can feel the emptiness that opens the soul to God. Celibacy can thus be natural, purposeful and a rich form of spiritual practice.

As a mandatory obligation for the clergy of the Latin church, however, celibacy is eroding Catholicism.

New evidence for this claim appears in the Fall Ministries section in this issue, in an essay by a superb Catholic numbers-cruncher from Seattle named Joseph Harris. Harris has studied the clerical staffing patterns of 11 dioceses and archdioceses and projected the results for the entire U.S. church. His conclusion is powerful: “Management choices seem to lie somewhere between giving up the ideal of priest-as-pastor and closing one-third of the parishes in the country.”

Factoring in resignations, retirements, and deaths, Harris estimates the number of working priests in the United States will drop from 23,098 in 1998 to 15,136 by 2010. In order to maintain the current ratio of 1.77 priests to a parish, the church would have to close 6,773 of the country’s 19,800 parishes. The other alternative is to dramatically increase the number of priestless parishes in the United States, already more than 2,000.

The reality to which Harris points holds true across the developed world. In France the number of priests fell from 41,163 in 1976 to 28,694 in 1995; in Germany the decline was from 24,001 to 20,896; in Belgium from 13,432 to 9,158. Today many European priests cover three or four parishes (in France some priests are responsible for as many as 10), and the demands created by the shortage will only worsen in the years to come.

Ordinations are booming elsewhere -- Africa above all -- but even if it were desirable ecclesial policy, the number of new Third World ordinands is not sufficient to cover all the priestless parishes in the church. In any event, there’s no reason not to assume that as development levels rise across the Third World, the same crisis will eventually afflict the church there.

The reasons for the priest shortage are complex and cannot be reduced to a simple reaction against mandatory celibacy. What is clear is that mandatory celibacy renders impossible the most obvious solution -- the ordination of married men (and, many would argue, women).

Mandatory celibacy has other corrosive effects. In the past 15 years, the U.S. church has spent an estimated $1 billion to cover court costs, attorney fees, settlements and victim/survivor awards in clergy sexual abuse cases. Again, this is a complex phenomenon, but surely one factor in the crisis of sexual misconduct within the clergy is the inability of priests to form open, healthy sexual relationships.

John Paul II said in 1993 that celibacy “does not belong to the essential structure of the priesthood.” That fact is embedded in canon law: Of the 22 Catholic churches sui iuris in union with the bishop of Rome, only the Latin church requires celibacy of all its priests. In addition, more than 100 former Protestant ministers today serve across the United States as married Catholic priests.

Celibacy is a beautiful gift for those capable of living it with integrity. But as retired Bishop Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck, Austria, pointed out in 1998, “Even in the words of Jesus there is no hint that this elite number should conform to the theological necessities of a living church.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has linked resignations from the priesthood to accelerating divorce rates in Western societies, calling both symptoms of a “crisis of fidelity.” A relaxation of the celibacy requirement, he says, would amount to surrender to this crisis. As much as the remark may sting, there is truth in it. Perhaps we have become too undemanding of ourselves, and celibacy like monogamy offers important counter-cultural witness. Catholics should continue to cherish celibacy as a spiritual ideal for those who feel called to it. But allowing priests to marry is no concession to the Zeitgeist, since the demands of loving and faithful marriage are hardly less daunting than those imposed by celibacy.

Former Tanzanian president Julius Nyere once asked with respect to the international debt crisis, “Must we starve our children to pay our debts?” Since Catholics believe the Eucharist is the bread of life, we might reformulate the question about the crisis in the priesthood: “Must we starve our people to maintain mandatory celibacy?”

In practice, the church is answering that question in the affirmative. When the cardinals of the world next gather to select a successor to Peter -- who was himself married -- Catholics will be waiting to see if they offer a different response.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999