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At the Last Supper, Jesus said, ‘Do this in memory of me.’ He did not say, ‘Be celibate.’

Also remembering women were at the Last Supper and Jesus welcomed women in public to what was considered a scandalous degree in his time. The Church’s open commensality attracted so many in the first couple centuries, including women deacons, ministering especially to other women. Do we want to choose to exclude or to welcome “todos, todos, todos”? So many women are called…– Ed.

National Catholic Reporter, Fr. Thomas Reese SJ, The Catholic Church needs married priests now, 7 March 2024 Share on FacebookShare on TwitterEmail to a friendPrint

Last year, the Vatican reported that while the number of Catholics worldwide increased by 16.2 million in 2021, the number of priests decreased by 2,347. As a result, on average there were 3,373 Catholics for every priest in the world (including retired priests), a rise of 59 people per priest...there are still many Catholics who are willing to take up this vocation. People are being called to priesthood, but the hierarchy is saying no because those who feel called are married, gay or women...A 2006 survey by Dean Hoge found that nearly half of the young men involved in Catholic campus ministry had “seriously considered” ministry as a priest, but most also wanted to be married and raise a family…every employer will tell you that if you increase the number of candidates for a job, the quality of the hire goes up.

Concelebrating priests pray as Pope Francis presides over Mass at the Vélodrome Stadium in Marseille, France, Sept. 23, 2023. (CNS/Lola Gomez)

Concelebrating priests pray as Pope Francis presides over Mass at the Vélodrome Stadium in Marseille, France, Sept. 23, 2023. (CNS/Lola Gomez)

Without the Eucharist, it seems obvious: There is no Catholic Church. It feeds us as a community of believers and transforms us into the body of Christ active in the world today. But according to Catholic theology, we cannot have the Eucharist without priests.

Sadly, in many parts of the world, there is a eucharistic famine, precisely because there are no priests to celebrate the Eucharist. This problem has been going on for decades and is only getting worse.

Last year, the Vatican reported that while the number of Catholics worldwide increased by 16.2 million in 2021, the number of priests decreased by 2,347. As a result, on average there were 3,373 Catholics for every priest in the world (including retired priests), a rise of 59 people per priest.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reports that in 1965 there were 59,426 priests in the United States. In 2022, there were only 34,344 . Over much the same period, the number of Catholics has increased to 72.5 million in 2022, from 54 million in 1970.

Priests are also getting older. In 2012, a CARA study found that the average age of priests rose to 63 in 2009, from 35 in 1970. When a Jesuit provincial, the regional director of the order, told Jesuits at a retirement home not long ago that there was a waiting list to get in, a resident wag responded, “We are dying as fast as we can.”

In many rural areas of the United States, priests no longer staff parishes but simply visit parishes once a month or less frequently. In 1965, there were only 530 parishes without priests. By 2022, there were 3,215 according to CARA.

All of these numbers are only going to get worse.

In the early 1980s, the archbishop of Portland, Oregon, came to a rural parish to tell them they would no longer have a priest and that most Sundays they would have a Scripture service, not a Mass.

A parishioner responded, “Before the Second Vatican Council, you told us that if we did not go to Mass on Sunday, we would go to hell. After the council, you told us that the Eucharist was central to the life of the church. Now you are telling us that we will be just like every other Bible church in our valley.”

Many American bishops have tried to deal with the shortage by importing foreign priests to staff parishes, but Vatican statistics show that the number of priests worldwide is also decreasing. New U.S. immigration rules are also going to make it more difficult to employ foreign priests in the United States.

The Catholic hierarchy has simply ignored the obvious solution to this problem for decades. Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the discussion of married priests was forbidden. Leaders in the hierarchy tended to live in large cities where the shortage had less of an impact than in rural areas.

Even Pope Francis, who expressed his respect for married clergy in Eastern Catholic churches, did not respond positively when the bishops meeting at the synod for the pan-Amazon region voted 128-41 to allow married deacons to become priests. At the recent meeting of the synod on synodality, the issue of married priests was hardly mentioned.

The decline in the number of vocations has many explanations depending on whom you ask. Conservatives blame the reforms coming out of the Second Vatican Council.

Certainly, the council did emphasize the holiness of marriage and the vocation of the laity. Priests seemed less special after the council. Prior to the council, only a priest could touch the consecrated host. Today, lay ministers of Communion do so at nearly every Mass.

However, sociologists note that vocations decline when families have fewer children and when children have greater educational and employment opportunities.

Thus, in a family with only one or two children, the parents prefer grandchildren to a son who is a priest. And, in the past, priests were the most educated person in the community and therefore had great status. Today, parishes can have many lawyers, doctors and other professionals, and becoming a priest does not confer the status it used to.

Those who point to the continued increases in vocations in Africa and Asia need to listen to the sociologists. Already, there are fewer vocations in urban areas of India where families have fewer children and more opportunities for education are available. Africa and Asia are not the future of the church. They are simply slower in catching up with modernity.

Anticlericalism has also impacted vocations, first in Europe and now in America. Priests are no longer universally respected. They are often treated with ridicule and contempt. Being a priest is countercultural. 

Despite this, there are still many Catholics who are willing to take up this vocation. People are being called to priesthood, but the hierarchy is saying no because those who feel called are married, gay or women.

A 2006 survey by Dean Hoge found that nearly half of the young men involved in Catholic campus ministry had “seriously considered” ministry as a priest, but most also wanted to be married and raise a family.

Having a married clergy will not solve all the church’s problems, as we can see in Protestant churches. Married ministers are involved in sex abuse, have addictions and can have the same clerical affectations as any celibate priest. But every employer will tell you that if you increase the number of candidates for a job, the quality of the hire goes up.

Nor is allowing priests to marry simply about making them happier. For the Catholic Church it is a question of whether we are going to have the Eucharist or not. At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me.” He did not say, “Be celibate.”


Related: Synod on synodality report is disappointing but not surprising

For Pope Francis, the first session of the synod on synodality was never about resolving the controversial issues facing the church. Even so, there were those who hoped for forward motion on married priests, women deacons and LGBTQ issues. They will be disappointed by the final report issued by the synod on Oct. 28. For Francis, it was not about the hot-button topics. It was always about the synodal process, which he hoped would overcome divisions in the church and recommit us to the mission of Jesus — of proclaiming the Gospel of the Father’s love and compassion for all of humanity and the Earth. 

The 40-page report shows that power in the church, at least in the synod, has moved from the Global North (Europe and the United States) to the Global South (especially Africa). Africans were able to insert into the report pastoral concern for those in polygamous marriages…The treatment of LGBTQ issues in the synod’s working paper, or instrumentum laboris, was better than in the final report. The report did not even describe the debate in the synod. On the other hand, the synod did not close discussion of LGBTQ issues or use language like “intrinsically disordered.” Rather, it says, “Certain issues, such as those relating to matters of identity and sexuality … are controversial not only in society, but also in the Church, because they raise new questions.”

One gay advocate responded, “Have they been asleep for the last 50 years to think these are new questions?”

The report continues on a slightly open note:

Sometimes the anthropological categories we have developed are not able to grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences and require greater precision and further study. It is important to take the time required for this reflection and to invest our best energies in it, without giving in to simplistic judgements that hurt individuals and the Body of the Church.

Although this leaves the question open for discussion, the general impression given is, “We have the right answers, we just don’t know how to communicate them.”

“I’m disappointed not only that LGBTQ were excised,” Jesuit Fr. James Martin, who ministers to the LGBTQ+ community and was handpicked as a delegate by Francis, told The Washington Post, “but also that the discussions we had, which were passionate on both sides, were not reflected in the final document.”

The discussion of women deacons neither advanced nor set back the issue. Rather the report describes the state of the question, which was not changed by the synod:

Different positions have been expressed regarding women’s access to the diaconal ministry. For some, this step would be unacceptable because they consider it a discontinuity with Tradition. For others, however, opening access for women to the diaconate would restore the practice of the Early Church. Others still, discern it as an appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times, faithful to the Tradition, and one that would find an echo in the hearts of many who seek new energy and vitality in the Church. Some express concern that the request speaks of a worrying anthropological confusion, which, if granted, would marry the Church to the spirit of the age.

Again, the role of the African members was important here. While the synod on the Amazon favored women deacons, the African church does not have many deacons at all. Catechists play a much more important role in Africa. It is no wonder that there is little interest in women deacons in Africa where there are few male deacons. Women in Africa are dealing with patriarchy and clericalism on a larger scale.

Surprisingly, the possibility of having married priests got less attention at the synod than women deacons. One delegate told me that only three interventions discussed optional celibacy. Others said it never came up in their small groups.

Here, all the synod could say was:

Different opinions have been expressed about priestly celibacy. Its value is appreciated by all as richly prophetic and a profound witness to Christ; some ask, however, whether its appropriateness, theologically, for priestly ministry should necessarily translate into a disciplinary obligation in the Latin Church, above all in ecclesial and cultural contexts that make it more difficult. This discussion is not new but requires further consideration.

If after a month that is all they can say, why did they bother?

This brings us back to Francis’ view of the synod as a way of overcoming divisions and modeling how decisions should be made in the church.

For almost all the synod members, the experience was positive. The conversations in the Spirit at roundtables of about 10 members were especially good.  At first, some bishops were not used to being told by a laywoman that their four minutes were up and they had to stop talking. But most accepted the process and learned how to participate in a setting where bishops, priests, religious, and lay men and women were all listened to with respect.

The problem now is how to repeat that experience around the globe in the year of consultation prior to the next session of the synod in October 2024. Few people are going to read the 40-page document. Pastors need a simple set of instructions on how to continue the conversation in their parishes. Hopefully, the synod secretariat will come up with a simple road map for the interim discussions.

Related: Francis wants the synod in every parish. Here’s how to bring it to yours.

In addition, there are lots of interesting and important items in the report about refugees, migrants, human trafficking and poor people. It recognized the need to foster peace and protect the Earth. It stressed the importance of ecumenism and interreligious cooperation. It argued for the church to be more synodal, and expressed a desire for better formation of clergy and laity, as well as the “need to make liturgical language more accessible to the faithful and more embodied in the diversity of cultures.”

Every bishop and pastor should be able to find something in the 40 pages to discuss with his community. 

Attempting to write a 40-page document in the last week of the synod was a mistake, especially when dealing with a multicultural international group of 364 members. More than a thousand amendments were offered to the first draft.

The official text was Italian with an interim English translation, which I used in this column. No other translation was available, which left Spanish speakers out in the cold. The solution was to read the entire 40 pages to the assembly with simultaneous translations before the report was voted on paragraph by paragraph. No one knows when the official translations will be published.

In his homily at the synod’s concluding Mass, Francis acknowledged that the work of the synod is not done.

“Today, we do not see the full fruit of this process, but with farsightedness we look to the horizon opening up before us,” he said. “The Lord will guide us and help us to be a more synodal and missional church, a church that adores God and serves the women and men of our time, going forth to bring to everyone the consoling joy of the Gospel.”

Now that the first session of the synod is over, the ball is in everyone else’s court. We are invited to continue the conversation in the Spirit. Those like me who are impatient for change need to remember the words of Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich who described the church as “the people of God, walking through history, with Christ in her midst.”

“It is only normal that there is a group walking at his right, another at his left, while some run ahead and others lag behind,” explained Hollerich. “When each of these groups looks at Christ our Lord, together with him they cannot help but see the group that is doing the opposite: those walking on the right will see those walking on the left, those running ahead will see those lagging behind. In other words, the so-called progressive cannot look at Christ without seeing the so-called conservatives with him and vice versa. Nevertheless, the important thing is not the group to which we seem to belong but walking with Christ within his Church.”

Let’s keep walking toward the horizon.

This story appears in the Synod on Synodality feature series. View the full series.


Attack on pope puts old whine into old whineskins, By Michael Sean Winters, NCRonline, March 8, 2024, Share on FacebookShare on TwitterEmail to a friendPrint

What are we to make of “The Vatican Tomorrow” or “Demos II” as it is being called, the anonymous musings about the current pontificate and what issues should determine the selection of the next pope? It claims to draw inspiration from the anonymous letter entitled “The Vatican Today” published in March 2022 and subsequently (and posthumously) attributed to the pen of the late Cardinal George Pell. This text, too, claims to be the work of a cardinal

The complaints are familiar. After acknowledging Pope Francis’ strengths, it lists the “shortcomings” of the current pontificate: “an autocratic, at times seemingly vindictive, style of governance; a carelessness in matters of law; an intolerance for even respectful disagreement; and — most seriously — a pattern of ambiguity in matters of faith and morals causing confusion among the faithful.” The text continues: “Confusion breeds division and conflict. It undermines confidence in the Word of God. It weakens evangelical witness. And the result today is a Church more fractured than at any time in her recent history.”

“Confusion.” Way back in 2014, Archbishop Charles Chaput complained about the synod on the family at an event sponsored by First Things. He said, “I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.” Now, we know that Chaput did not author the current treatise because it claims to have been written by a cardinal, and Chaput is the first archbishop of Philadelphia in a century who was never made a cardinal. 

It should surprise no one that Chaput’s longtime amanuensis, Francis Maier, has a fawning article about “The Vatican Tomorrow” at First Things. George Weigel joined Maier for a discussion of Maier’s new book, True Confessionsat the Ethics and Public Policy Center. That conversation was, ahem, interesting. 

The “Vatican Tomorrow” text goes on to explain that the next pope needs to return to basics, such as: “no one is saved except through, and only through, Jesus Christ, as he himself made clear;” and “man is God’s creature, not a self-invention, a creature not merely of emotion and appetites but also of intellect, free will, and an eternal destiny,” and “God’s Word, recorded in Scripture, is reliable and has permanent force.” Is there any doubt that Pope Francis holds all these truths of our faith? It is how one holds them that is the issue and the raison d’etre for theology. 

A doctrinal claim such as “no one is saved except through, and only through, Jesus Christ, as he himself made clear” is not self-explanatory. In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, 1:16, we read, “For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.” How does this text bear on the doctrinal claim? What of the people “created in him” who have never explicitly heard his name? Are they damned forever? That is not what the church teaches. 

The supposed cardinal goes on to list “practical observations [that] flow from the task and list above.” Top of the practical observations is this: “Real authority is damaged by authoritarian means in its exercise. The Pope is a Successor of Peter and the guarantor of Church unity. But he is not an autocrat. He cannot change Church doctrine, and he must not invent or alter the Church’s discipline arbitrarily” (emphasis in original). Where is there evidence of this autocratic behavior? Where has Francis attempted to change church doctrine? 

The complaint continues: “A new Pope must restore the hermeneutic of continuity in Catholic life and reassert Vatican II’s understanding of the papacy’s proper role.” How does one “restore” what was never there? How many times must it be pointed out that Pope Benedict XVI, in his famous 2005 address to the curia, did not, repeat did not, call for a “hermeneutic of continuity.” Yes, he specifically spoke against a “hermeneutic of discontinuity” but Benedict proposed, instead, a hermeneutic of reform, saying: “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.”

Demos II continues the assault on Francis:

Third: Ambiguity is neither evangelical nor welcoming. Rather, it breeds doubt and feeds schismatic impulses. The Church is a community not just of Word and sacrament, but also of creed. What we believe helps to define and sustain us. Thus, doctrinal issues are not burdens imposed by unfeeling “doctors of the law.” Nor are they cerebral sideshows to the Christian life. On the contrary, they’re vital to living a Christian life authentically, because they deal with applications of the truth, and the truth demands clarity, not ambivalent nuance.

Has the author ever spoken to a young person today? Ambiguity is a reality of life in modern, pluralistic societies. In fact, it was probably more of a reality in previous times and less pluralistic cultures too, it was just hidden from view or has been lost to history. Complaining about ambiguity, and proposing that the church essentially ignore it, is like complaining about the wind. The complaint doesn’t make the wind die down. 

Related: Anonymous Catholic cardinal argues for a next pope very unlike Francis

My favorite “practical observation” is item 5:

Fifth: The Church, as John XXIII so beautifully described her, is mater et magistra, the “mother and teacher” of humanity, not its dutiful follower; the defender of man as the subject of history, not its object. She is the bride of Christ; her nature is personal, supernatural, and intimate, not merely institutional. She can never be reduced to a system of flexible ethics or sociological analysis and remodeling to fit the instincts and appetites (and sexual confusions) of an age.

Ah, yes, Mater et magistra, Pope John XXIII’s compelling social encyclical that also produced the first time a prominent American layman publicly dissented from papal teaching! William Buckley famously responded with a vigorous defense of American capitalism entitled, “Mater — Si!; Magistra — No!” It is always good to note the existence of cafeteria Catholicism on the right has a pedigree too.

Setting aside that happily coincidental historical footnote, when does Francis say he wishes to “reduce” the Catholic Church to “a system of flexible ethics?” When does he deploy “sociological analysis” in place of the Gospel? Where has the pope indicated he wants the church’s teaching “to fit the instincts and appetites (and sexual confusions) of an age?”

What the pope did say, and say powerfully, in the text that is the bugbear of the culture warrior Catholics, Amoris Laetitia, is this: “At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.” 

Let this anonymous author, whether he be a cardinal or not, respond to that very clear statement of the Holy Father’s. Does he really not see how Francis is very clear and spot-on in that observation?

The text concludes with a shameful admission: “Readers will quite reasonably ask why this text is anonymous. The answer should be evident from the tenor of today’s Roman environment: Candor is not welcome, and its consequences can be unpleasant.” Unpleasant? Does he mean his brother cardinals might hold him accountable for his insinuations? Cardinals wear red as a sign of their willingness to shed their own blood for the faith, but this man is unwilling to risk a little unpleasantness? For such great matters as the integrity of the faith? 

We may never know who penned this attack on Francis. But we know one thing assuredly: The author is a coward, one who confuses easily.

Attack on pope puts old whine into old whineskins

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