Since the late 1960’s, the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood has received a lot of publicity. The Catholic press and the secular news media have frequently reported alarming statistics about the current vocations “crisis” and the severe shortage of priests that is to come as today’s clergy leave the active ministry through retirement, death, or defection. Indeed, from the point of view of the media, the priesthood as we know it today is a dying breed, an anachronistic carry-over from the pre-Vatican II Church which will soon be replaced by a non-clerical “ministry of all believers.”
Although the decline in vocations is a commonly accepted reality, there is no clear consensus in the Church concerning the causes of this decline. In fact there are two distinct views of the current lack of vocations. The first reflects the traditional view of the priestly vocation. The second view is more contemporary.
The traditional view of the decline in the number of priestly vocations can be summarized as follows: A vocation to the priesthood is a call from God to ministerial participation in the one priesthood of Christ. Vocations are nourished and strengthened by the faith of the Church as that is expressed in prayer and in fidelity to Christian teaching and practice. If there is a shortage of vocations, it is the responsibility of the Church to pray for vocations, to re-examine its fidelity to the Christian life, and to encourage qualified young men to consider seriously the possibility that God is calling them to serve as priests.
Pope Paul VI expressed this traditional view of vocations when, in his encyclical letter on priestly celibacy, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (June, 1967), he dismissed the notion that celibacy is the cause of the current decline in vocations. According to Paul VI:
It is simply not possible to believe that the abolition of ecclesiastical celibacy would considerably increase the number of priestly vocations….The cause of the decrease in vocations to the priesthood is to be found elsewhere, especially for example, in the fact that individuals and families have lost their sense of God and of all that is holy, their esteem for the Church as the institution of salvation through faith and the sacraments, the institution which must study the true roots of the problem [of the decrease in vocations].
According to the traditional view, God continues to call individuals to the priesthood, but this vocation must be received in a receptive ecclesial environment, one that is capable of encouraging the individual to hear and to accept God’s call.
The contemporary view takes a radically different position on the declining number of priests. It sees the style of present day priestly ministry as a stumbling block to the development of authentic ministerial roles within the Church. Celibacy, permanent commitment, the exclusion of women from full participation in the life of the Church, and a clericalism which inevitably separates the priest from the people he serves are seen as the primary reasons why there are fewer and fewer vocations. This contemporary view argues for the removal of all distinctions between the ordained ministry and the ministry of all believers.
The theological justification for this contemporary view of the shortage of priests is outlined by Edward Schillebeeckx in Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ. According to Schillebeeckx, Christians have an “apostolic right” to ministry which outweighs any values which can (but need not be) associated with criteria for admission to holy orders (e.g. celibacy). If a church order “which in other circumstances may have been useful and healthy” is now seen as an impediment to the authentic development of ministry in the Church, it must be changed. Schillebeeckx says:
The apostolic right of Christian communities may not be made null and void by the official Church; this is itself bound by this apostolic right. Therefore if in changed circumstances there is a threat that a community may be without a minister or ministers (without priests) and if this situation becomes increasingly widespread, then criteria for admission which are not intrinsically necessary to the nature of the ministry and are also in fact a cause of the shortage of priests, must give way to the original, New Testament right of the community to leaders.
Naturally, from the point of view of encouraging vocations, the key question here is whether, in fact, the current “criteria for admission” are truly causing the shortage of priests or whether, as Paul VI indicates, “the cause of the decrease in vocations is to be found elsewhere.”
In December, 1983, a distinguished group of people gathered at the Drake Hotel in Chicago to discuss the contemporary vocations crisis. This Conference on Church Vocations was sponsored by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, Inc. (FADICA) in association with the Bishops Committee on Vocations, Serra International, and Lilly Endowment, Inc. The purpose of the FADICA Conference was to analyze the contemporary shortage of vocations, to explore promising methods and models of action which address the problem, and to propose concrete, “do-able” strategies which could be underwritten by grantmakers who are interested in helping to solve the present crisis in vocations. Although the Conference reflected a mixture of the traditional and contemporary views, an analysis of the published proceedings of the conference shows that the speakers who attempted to analyze the causes of the current decline in vocations presumed the contemporary view outlined by Schillebeeckx. As a result, when it came time to propose strategies for action, there was little that could be proposed.
If the decline in vocations is caused by the Church’s failure to reshape its understanding of priestly ministry along contemporary lines, then the solution to the vocations crisis is to reform our current practice and, as Schillebeeckx suggests, to abolish all criteria for admission to holy orders that are not “intrinsically necessary.” Unless the style of priestly ministry is radically changed, there are no significant programmatic responses which can be underwritten by grant-makers. Thus, theologians like Richard McBrien, who support the contemporary view, reject most modern vocations programs as “superficial responses awash in simplistic diagnoses and remedies.”
According to the contemporary view, the Church’s attempt to maintain a clerical elite (exclusively male and celibate) in the post-Vatican II Church is what makes the priesthood seem anachronistic. Dolores Curran, a popular writer and columnist who spoke at the FADICA Conference, argues that contemporary Catholic families will not encourage their children to consider a lifelong commitment to a way of life “that is fraught with tension, unhappiness, and constant soul-searching.” The solution, therefore, is to modernize our concept of ministry so that the priesthood and religious life are more “fulfilling” and so that it is easier to “change careers” if the ministry begins to lose its luster.
Although the argument that the present style of priestly ministry is itself responsible for the current decline in vocations strongly influenced ‘the FADICA Conference, not everyone shared this view. The Conference’s speakers included Bishop Thomas J. Murphy (Chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Formation), Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (Archbishop of Chicago), and Archbishop Pio Laghi (Apostolic Delegate to the United States). Their remarks on the current decline in vocations reflected more traditional thinking about priestly ministry. How does the traditional view of the causes of the current decline in vocations differ from more contemporary thinking?
Pope Paul VI’s observation that “individuals and families have lost their sense of God and of all that is holy [and) their esteem for the Church as the institution of salvation through faith and the sacraments” suggests that secularism is the primary cause of the current decline in vocations. Indeed, the traditional view would argue that if the priesthood has come to be regarded as an anachronism, it is because the sacramental life of the Church (and the “sacramental character” of priestly ministry) has suffered from the increasing secularization of modern society. The fact that individuals and families have “lost their sense of God and of all that is holy” results in widespread confusion about the meaning and value of the sacred ministry to which priests are called. As members of a thoroughly secular culture, we are uncomfortable with the cultic role of the priest as this has traditionally been defined.
As a result, the modern tendency is to reinterpret the meaning of priestly ministry in ways that are more familiar to us. Toward this end, we no longer stress the sacral power (potestas ordinis) of the priest. Nor do we focus on the ways in which the ministry of the priest differs from the ministry of all baptized Christians. This tendency to “downgrade” priestly ministry has a powerful negative effect on vocations because it reduces the ministerial priesthood to community service or political action. Thus, the solution to the vocation crisis is to revivify the sacramental life of the Church and to rehabilitate the image of the priest as one who exercises a unique sacramental ministry in the Church.
The traditional view sees the current shortage of priests as the result of historical and cultural forces external to (but powerfully affecting) the life of the Church. The contemporary view, on the other hand, accuses clericalist Church structures and outmoded theologies of ministry in the Church of causing the shortage of priests. Traditionalists regard the contemporary challenge to ecclesiastical celibacy and the permanence of priestly commitment as just one more example of the influence of secular humanism. Contemporary thinkers, on the other hand, see all recent efforts to encourage vocations as “superficial” and “simplistic” attempts to bury our heads in the dessicated sands of sexism, elitism, and an ahistorical “other-worldliness.”
It is not possible to examine both of these conflicting views in detail. The traditional view of the present shortage of priests, because it is traditional, recommends itself to those who are slow to abandon what has been inherited from the past. But this view needs to be articulated much more fully before it can serve as a useful framework for practical decisions about encouraging vocations. The contemporary view, because it challenges values like celibacy and permanent commitment, deserves more careful analysis. What follows, then, is a critical examination of the contemporary view of the decline in priestly vocations as this view was expressed during the FADICA Conference on Church vocations.
Edward Schillebeeckx’s reflections on ministry and leadership in the Church provides the theoretic framework for many of the views expressed during the FADICA Conference. As a theologian, Schillebeeckx takes his responsibilities quite seriously, and yet, there is something not quite right about his clear assumption that the “official Church” is denying Christians their “right” to ministry. Ministry, in spite of its scholarly value, has an axe to grind. Nowhere does Schillebeeckx clearly show that the traditional criteria for admission to holy orders, which “must give way to the original New Testament right of the community to leaders,” are, in fact, a cause of the shortage of priests. Indeed, there is an implicit anti-clericalism in Schillebeeckx’s writing on ministry that becomes obvious only when his theology of ministry begins to be applied to practical questions about leadership and service in the Church.
Schillebeeckx’s view of ministry is purely functional. To be a priest requires only the gift (charism) of leadership as this is recognized and accepted by the community. Such a gift need not be ratified sacramentally. (Ordination is merely a liturgical expression of the community’s awareness that its leaders have already been gifted by the Holy Spirit.) Nor does it need to be authenticated by historical continuity with the first witnesses to Jesus (apostolic succession). Thus, in extreme cases (like the current shortage of priests), a local church would be well within its rights to appoint its own Eucharistic president.
Schillebeeckx rejects the notion that there is any essential difference between lay persons and ordained ministers. In fact, he claims that the traditional teaching of the Church on the sacramental character of ordination and the ontological quality of ordained ministry is dogmatically non-binding. Since the ministry of the priest is not significantly different from any other ministry in the Church, priests need not meet any criteria beyond those that are normative for all Christians who seek to serve the Church according to their individual talents and gifts. Masculine gender, celibacy, permanent commitment, and a distinctive lifestyle (including obedience to the bishop and, thus, to the universal Church) are, at best, only contingently related to priestly ministry. In times of crisis, any or all of these “criteria of admission” can, and should, be eliminated.
This view of ministry is implicitly anti-clerical. It “cuts the priesthood down to size,” not by denying the importance of Christian leadership, but by reducing priestly ministry to a merely functional role within the local community. As a result, the priest is in no way set apart from the community. On the contrary, priestly ministry derives from the local community’s right to leadership and, thus, to Eucharistic presidency. This purely functional understanding of the role of the priest leads inevitably to a view of the Church which is somewhat less than “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic.” Indeed, the priest is no longer seen as a representative of Christ (the head of the universal Church) whose presence among us unites us with all Christians living and dead. The priest is now seen as our representative; the leader whom we have chosen on the basis of criteria which is acceptable to us, not on the basis of criteria imposed on us from “the official Church.”
Many speakers at the FADICA Conference on Church Vocations reflected this same implicit anti-clerical bias in their analysis of the current statistical data on Church vocations. For example, Richard Schoenherr, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, announced that “the twentieth century Roman Catholic model of Christian ministry has come to an end” and that the vocations crisis is a “sacred rite of passage” between the old hierarchical model of Church organization and a newer “ministry of all believers.” According to Schoenherr, “the old traditional definition of ‘ministry restricted to a clerical elite’ is unacceptable to growing numbers of committed Catholics.” The new definition of ministry, which Schoenherr claims is supported by his research, “includes all who are called, whether ordained or non-ordained, married or celibate, male or female.”
As a matter of fact, however, Schoenherr’s data suggests that from a purely sociological point of view, “the old traditional definition of ministry” worked very well. As Schoenherr himself reports:
Recruitment for the [old hierarchical) model of ministry as well as the requirements and qualifications for getting into the ministry were straightforward. Training included theology and philosophy in a quasi-monastic seminary setting. Ordination was restricted to male celibates. The motivation to participate in the ministry was twofold: an attraction to the awesome sacredness and power of priestly ministry; an attraction to the ascetic principles that consecrated celibacy constituted the highest way of Christian perfection. Recruitment rates were high during the period between 1940-1960 under these requirements. Retention…worked very well through a complex incentive system….According to data published by Fichter in 1968, between the period of 1940-1965, the annual retention rate for priests in the United States was 99.9%. Virtually all priests stayed in the ministry until retirement or death.
If motivation, recruitment, training, and retention worked so well under the old system, what happened? Why is the Church now faced with “a probable 55-60% decline in the number of priests…by the year 2000”?
William McCready, Program Director for the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), blames the vocations crisis on the Church’s perpetuation of a “clerical mode of ministry” which is particularly unacceptable to modern women. McCready believes that the Church’s clericalist structures have resulted in a general loss of confidence in Church leadership and in anger and disappointment on the part of Catholic mothers who have traditionally been strong supporters of celibate, male vocations. Like many of his colleagues at the FADICA Conference, McCready sees this phenomenon as “a blessing, giving us the opportunity to restructure our faith communities in a way that is less dependent on the clergy.”
This preoccupation with “models of ministry” that are not dominated by the clergy constitutes what might be called contemporary Catholic anti-clericalism. This new form of anti-clericalism is different from the anti-clericalism of 19th century France. Essentially, 19th century anti-clericalism involved opposition to the Church (and hence to the clergy) on the part of secular thinkers outside the Church who resented the Church’s influence and prestige. “Anti-clericalism,” as a phenomenon of 19th century European politics and culture (the words “clericalisme” and “anticlericalisme” first appeared in the 19th century) was not the first instance of resentment, against the clergy, but it did represent the first time that an anti-clerical feeling was coupled with a secularist ideology.
Contemporary thinkers do not consider their views to be anti-clerical. Instead, they claim to be reacting against “clericalism.” So, for example, in April, 1983, a task force appointed by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (male religious orders) proposed what it called “a useful working definition of clericalism.” According to this task force (which was comprised of an “inclusive” group of women, men, lay people, religious, and clerics), clericalism can be defined as “the conscious or unconscious concern to promote the particular interests of the clergy and to protect the privileges and power that have traditionally been conceded to those in the clerical state.” In addition to this working definition, the task force listed what it considers to be the chief manifestations of clericalism: “an authoritarian style of ministerial leadership, a rigidly hierarchical worldview, and a virtual identification of the holiness and grace of the Church with the clerical state and, thereby, with the cleric himself.” The task force also noted that although clericalism is “particularly evident” in the clergy, “lay people, religious men and women are all liable to the pitfalls of clericalism in certain situations.”
It is not possible to engage in a detailed analysis of this “working definition” of clericalism. For our purposes here it is sufficient to say that such attitudes as are described here are clearly inconsistent with the exercise of priestly ministry in this, or any, age. To the extent that such attitudes truly manifest themselves in the clergy, they are to be vigorously opposed. One wonders, however, how prevalent this kind of clericalism really is, especially today when priests (and bishops) are so conscious of their need to identify with the people they serve.
From the point of view of the ecclesiology of Vatican II, “clericalism” means a vision of the Church which would restrict the life of the. Church to the activity of the hierarchy. This view, which was reflected in the first draft schema of the Constitution on the Church, was rejected by the Council Fathers at Vatican II, who sought to avoid any view of the Church in which the clergy play all the active roles and the laity are just passive recipients. Indeed, the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) which finally emerged from the deliberations of the Council Fathers clearly affirms the right and duty of every baptized Christian to participate in the ministry of the Church according to his or her gifts. If contemporary Catholic anti-clericalism were simply a reaction against distortions of Lumen Gentium’s vision of the Church, it would be an appropriate reaction against an ecclesiological reductionism which is incompatible with Vatican ll’s teaching on the priesthood of all Christians.
But contemporary Catholic anti-clericalism is not simply a reaction against clericalism. It is also a function of a contemporary secular ideology which refuses to recognize the hierarchical nature of the Church and which denies the essential difference between the ordained ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of all the baptized. Vatican II did not deny, but reaffirmed, the uniqueness of the ordained ministry. This important teaching on the essential difference between priests and lay people is not some relic of the Church’s medieval past. It is a necessary and inevitable result of the apostolic mission to teach, sanctify, and lead the People of God. As Schillebeeckx has pointed out, Christians have an apostolic right to ministry. This does not mean, however, that a local community has the right to determine the institutionalization and form of this ministry. Christians have an apostolic right to pastoral leadership, sacramental ministry, and authoritative teaching only as these charisms have been institutionalized in the threefold hierarchy (bishop-priest-deacon) which is historically linked to the authentic and authoritative witness of the apostles.
Bishop Thomas Murphy, in his keynote address at the FADICA Conference made a direct reference to the confusion which exists in the United States over the essential difference between “the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful.” According to Bishop Murphy, “an egalitarian approach to ministry” has “led some to minimize the unique responsibility of the priest” and to ignore the teaching of Vatican II on this important issue.
In his keynote address, Bishop Murphy said:
I fully appreciate and encourage the Christian service and ministry shared by lay women and lay men in the Church today. But that appreciation and encouragement, if lay ministry is to have validity, must recognize and acknowledge the distinct roles and responsibilities of the ordained and non-ordained in the ecclesial community….I believe this confusion of roles and responsibilities has created a detrimental environment for a young person to consider a vocation to the religious life and priesthood.
Thus, according to Bishop Murphy, the egalitarianism of the contemporary view of ministry is not a solution to the decline in vocations. It is, in fact, “detrimental” to the work of encouraging vocations.
Like the Council Fathers at Vatican II, Bishop Murphy sought to encourage the active participation of lay people in the ministry of the Church. At the same time, his own ministry as a Bishop compelled him to reaffirm the traditional teaching of the Church and (in a very gentle way) to warn against “solutions” to the vocations crisis that confuse the essential difference between the vocation of all Christians and the vocation of those who are ordained. Unfortunately, not everyone at the FADICA Conference shared Bishop Murphy’s concern about the danger of confusing ordained ministry and lay ministry. Many speakers at the FADICA Conference were saying, in effect, that lay ministry must be given equal status with ordained ministry, and that we should abolish the notion of a “clerical elite” and adopt a much more egalitarian approach to the plurality of ministries within the Church. Richard Schoenherr, for example, expressed this egalitarianism in a quite explicit way. He said:
A Catholic ministry, in which the primacy is still the priesthood, is only possible if it is complemented by full participation of religious and lay ministers; not as perpetual subalterns or as second class citizens, but as equals sharing in the one ministry of Christ….For a ministry of all believers to happen, all ascriptive barriers will be removed at all levels of the ministry. Thus all Christians will be permitted to answer a vocation to the priesthood whether they are married or celibate, male or female. Only after these restrictions are gone will all Christians be free to accept a vocation to lay ministry with equal dignity as those who are ordained. The best part of this scenario is that vocations, at all levels, will flourish; retention rates will be strong.
Thus, Schoenherr presents the rather strange argument that the primacy of the priesthood is only possible if all other forms of ministry are seen as equally important!
In the Roman Catholic tradition, the ministerial priesthood is an elite: It is not open to everyone but only to those who have been called by God and who have received the Sacrament of Orders. But the priesthood is not meant to be elitest precisely because those who are ordained are called to serve the People of God. Indeed, this is precisely the ontological meaning of the sacramental character of holy orders: that the whole person of the priest is existentially given over to the exercise of a ministerial priesthood which becomes part of his very nature.
No one has the right to be ordained. The Sacrament of Orders is not conferred on the basis of merit, inherited position, wealth or prestige, or even technical competence. Certainly there are criteria for admission, but these criteria reflect the nature of the ministry to which priests are called.
As a result, candidates for Orders should be capable of exercising a ministry that involves pastoral leadership, sanctification, and teaching. They should be virtuous (in order to lead by example), prayerful (in order to celebrate the liturgy and the sacraments), and well educated (so that they can understand and communicate the Word of God). They should also be capable of leading a distinctive life style (which in the Roman Church includes the discipline of celibacy) in order to underscore the primacy of their unique ministry.
Priests are called to exercise a special ministry in the Church. Their office requires them to be cultic figures (as ministers of the sacraments), prophetic figures (who are called to preach the Gospel on behalf of the whole Church) and authority figures (who lead, as Jesus did, through service). The fact that we are uncomfortable with the essential role of the priest in the ministry of the Church is especially unfortunate today because we need this ministry of leadership, teaching, and sanctification more than ever in our increasingly secular society.
Today, we need leaders who have been sent to us (apostles) not leaders whom we have chosen on the basis of our own criteria. To preserve the apostolic character of our faith and to guard against the technocratic tendencies of our age, we need leaders whose authority derives solely from the charismatic gift of a vocation from God. Indeed, we need priests who are willing to be sacramentally set apart from the community of faith in order to serve humbly that community. And we need authoritative teachers and pastors who are able to accept the unique responsibility which is theirs: to exercise a sacred ministry in the midst of a secular society.
Our cultural milieu is different from that of the early Church. The early Christians were surrounded by cultic figures (both the Jewish Levitical priesthood and priests of the various pagan cults of the Greco-Roman world). The early church did not describe its leadership in cultic terms because it wanted to emphasize the difference between Christian leaders and the other religious leaders of their day. In our culture, to describe Christian leadership in non-cultic terms has the opposite effect.
We are surrounded by secular models of leadership and authority. A leader today is required to be either a technically competent “manager” or a media personality who is capable of popular election. Thus, our modern tendency to de-emphasize the cultic role of the priest is not really a return to our New Testament origins (given the radically different historical and cultural situations). It is, in fact, a secularization of the sacred ministry to which Christian leaders are called.
The contemporary view of the decline in vocations to the priesthood leads, ultimately, to a dead end. It reduces the priesthood to just one ministry among many ministries; and it denies the essential difference between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood which all Christians share. This inevitably leads to a concept of the priesthood that is stripped of all symbolic value. As Michael Novak says, in Confession of a Catholic,
And why shouldn’t vocations dry up? A priest is among all men most in turmoil in the new church. A diminishment in his role has occurred in our lifetime. Once his life was centered upon mystery, and his celibacy was the narrow gate leading up and calling attention thereto. Now he is a community leader, doing what a thousand other counselors are doing. His life, all except his celibacy, has been secularized, and fragments of holy mysteries in which, perforce, he is still engaged have been reinterpreted by theologians to exclude much mystery….Secularized, celibacy loses point. Secularized, so does the Eucharist and so does the Creed.
According to Novak, this diminishment of the role of the priest naturally leads to a view in which only political activism can give meaning or value to the ministry of the priest.
Secularization of priestly ministry is no solution to the shortage of priests. The decline in the number of vocations is not a result of “clericalist structures” or outdated theologies of ministry. It is intimately connected with the current crisis in our Church over how the teaching of Vatican II is to be’ implemented in a secular society. It is also the inevitable result of our contemporary preoccupation with egalitarian forms of leadership.
It is absurd to think that by “downgrading” priestly ministry (abolishing celibacy, permanent commitment, and the distinctive lifestyle of the priest) “vocations at all levels , will flourish.” Vocations cannot flourish in a society which diminishes the importance of the sacred. In our society especially, vocations must be nurtured and cultivated in an environment that clearly reinforces the significance of the sacred ministry to which priests are called.
It is also absurd to think that a “ministry of all believers” necessitates an anti-clerical reaction against the ordained ministry. In fact, the opposite is true. To come to its fullest expression, lay ministry needs to be challenged and inspired by pastoral leadership, effective preaching, and the sacraments. Indeed, serious, active priests wholeheartedly welcome and encourage lay participation in the ministry of the Church. It is quite possible, therefore, that an increase in the number of priests would also mean an increase in the number of lay people actively engaged in ministry.
As Bishop Murphy said in his keynote address at the FADICA Conference, we cannot expect an increase in vocations to the priesthood as long as our theology of ministry remains confused. We cannot ask young men to make a permanent commitment to a way of life whose meaning is unclear—especially when this way of life requires the priest to adopt a distinctive, celibate style of life. Until we can find a way to speak about the priesthood in much more compelling and convincing terms, we cannot expect young men to flock to the seminary. Indeed, until we stop apologizing for priestly ministry and begin to stress the all-important contribution that priests make to the life of the Church, our recruitment efforts are bound to fail.
Prayer and personal encouragement are essential, but they are not enough. We must also work to create an ecclesial environment which encourages young men—in our families, our Catholic schools, and our parishes—to truly value the sacred ministry of the priest. Only then will men who are at decisive moments in their lives consider seriously the rewards, as well as the sacrifices, of a lifelong commitment to the ministerial priesthood.