By Roger Chesley
November 3, 2007
God bless our overworked Roman Catholic priests. Their ranks keep thinning, the pews keep filling and dioceses across the nation are scrambling to meet the needs of the faithful.
Whether it's having one priest serve several "clustered" parishes, recruiting more permanent deacons, or increasing the roles of the laity, the Catholic Church hierarchy is struggling to find the right combination to minister to an ever-growing number of parishioners. Especially in this country, single Catholic men aren't seeking the often-austere, task-laden lives of the priesthood.
An article this week by The Pilot's Steven Vegh discussed the push by the Catholic Diocese of Richmond to boost the ranks of deacons, the ordained male clergy who can administer some sacraments but cannot do all the functions handled by priests. Deacons can be married.
A suggestion, one I've mentioned before: Allow married priests. (Though I'm a married Catholic, it's not something I'd seek personally.) A majority of U.S. Catholics favors the change, according to surveys.
I know, I know, the church is not a democracy. And the priest shortage in the United States is not as acute as in other countries, such as Mexico and in parts of Asia and Africa.
Nor am I referring to the handful of priests who were married when they converted from other faiths - mainly Episcopal or Lutheran - to Catholicism. They number only about 100, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But it's clear the Catholic Church needs additional help on the altar. In 1975, there were 58,900 diocesan and religious priests in the United States, according to the nonprofit Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Today, there are 41,449. Meanwhile, the number of Catholics has exploded, from 48.7 million in 1975 to 64.4 million today.
Priests who have left the active ministry to marry, or those married Catholics who want the option of becoming priests, could do a great service for the faith. They would gain spiritually, and they could ease the workload of current priests.
At least the possibility of married priests was discussed two years ago, shortly after Pope Benedict XVI's tenure began, during the Synod of Bishops. The advisory body grappled with the worldwide priest shortage and whether celibacy was necessary.
In the end, church policy was not altered, but "the fact that [open discussion] even happened is significant," said James D. Davidson, sociology professor at Purdue University and one of four authors of the recently released book, "American Catholics Today."
"The idea to expand the pool of people eligible for the priesthood" has gained in intensity in recent decades, he told me by phone Thursday. "Catholics put a value on the sacrament. They see the decline of priests as a potential threat to their ability to get communion or last rites," also called anointing of the sick. Priests, not deacons, must administer the anointing and consecrate bread and wine for Holy Communion.
I might not see the change in my lifetime - the Catholic Church moves glacially. But married Catholic men should have the option of becoming priests.
Roger Chesley is associate editor of The Pilot's editorial page. Reach him at (757) 446-2329 or firstname.lastname@example.org.