Priests — Who Needs Them? Hard Truths about the Vocations Crisis

It is often said that there is a vocations crisis, but this is a terribly vague expression that fails to indicate the problem, and so fails to suggest a solution. The term vocation means calling, so a “vocations crisis” is literally a “calling crisis”—which makes no sense at all. Suppose a man who was charged $25 for missing his dental appointment tried to excuse himself by saying that he had a “calling crisis.” The dentist’s receptionist would doubtless seek clarification. Did he mean that his phone wasn’t working? Was the dentist’s phone always busy? Did he forget to call? Or was there some other problem? Similarly, with the vocations crisis, one needs to know the exact nature of the problem. Is it that God isn’t calling, or that we’re not listening, or perhaps listening but not responding?

The image that is meant to be conjured up by the phrase “vocations crisis” is one of supply and demand— numberless Catholics waiting to be served, but being met by only a trickle of a freshly ordained priests. It is akin to the image called up by the term “overpopulation”: teeming millions of children with swollen bellies, clamoring for food. When either image is deployed, there is often discontent with God, and much insincere expression of regret that, unfortunately, stern remedies will be necessary.

The solution to overpopulation urged by those who use the supply-and-demand imagery is, of course, to diminish the demand by diminishing the demanders. I have not seen any explicit calls for solving the vocations crisis by diminishing the ranks of Catholics. I suppose that this result has already been achieved, partly through the efforts of misguided theologians in the U.S. and Europe— though when the churches were emptied, priests in no way become more plentiful.

No, what is suggested, rather, is that the Church compensate for the shortage of priests by ordaining married men. This is a purely pragmatic response, which fits the supply-and-demand model but takes no account of supernatural realities, such as the intention of God or the spiritual value of celibacy. Still, before we can make any progress in thinking about vocations, we must carefully consider this proposed solution.

Beyond Debate?

It is not well known that Church teaching has firmly and repeatedly ruled out the ordination of married men to the priesthood—so much so that it is surely irresponsible to discuss this question today as though the Church’s position were ambiguous and still open to debate.

The Second Vatican Council, which we must regard as guided by the Holy Spirit to reform the Church for our time, considered the possibility of ordaining married men and rejected it for fundamental reasons. The entire document Presbyterorum ordinis ought to be consulted, but the following passage is noteworthy:

For these reasons, based on the mystery of Christ and His mission, celibacy, which at first was recommended to priests, was afterwards in the Latin Church imposed by law on all who were to be promoted to holy Orders. This sacred Council approves and confirms this legislation so far as it concerns those destined for the priesthood, and feels confident in the Spirit that the gift of celibacy, so appropriate to the priesthood of the New Testament, is liberally granted by the Father, provided those who share Christ’s priesthood through the sacrament of Order, and indeed the whole Church, ask for that gift humbly and earnestly.

Ecumenical councils of the Church do not occur all that frequently. If a council considers a matter carefully and decides upon it, that would seem to settle it. What else is a council for?

In 1967 Paul VI wrote an encyclical confirming priestly celibacy, entitled Sacerdotalis caelibatus. He carefully answers various objections raised against celibacy— one sees nothing new today. He quotes his predecessor, John XXIII, who said, “It deeply hurts us that . . . anyone can dream that the Church will deliberately or even suitably renounce what from time immemorial has been, and still remains, one of the purest and noblest glories of her priesthood.” And Pope Paul judges that “the present law of celibacy should today continue to be firmly linked to the ecclesiastical ministry.”

Commenting on the discipline of ordaining married men to the diaconate, which was envisioned by the Council, Paul VI writes that “this, however, does not signify a relaxation of the existing law, and must not be interpreted as a prelude to its abolition.” “There are better things to do,” he says, “beside promoting this hypothesis, which tears down that vigor and love in which celibacy finds security and happiness. . . . It would be much better to promote serious studies in defense of the spiritual meaning and moral value of virginity and celibacy.” American theologians might take note.

There are more reinforcements yet to come: this time the synod of bishops which met in 1967 to discuss the priesthood. After a lengthy discussion of the nature of the priesthood and reasons for celibacy, one finds a section entitled, “Celibacy to be kept in the Latin Church,” in which the synod states: “Because of the intimate and multiple coherence between the pastoral function and a celibate life, the existing law is upheld.” The synod also voted upon and adopted the following formula: “The priestly ordination of married men is not permitted, even in particular cases.”

To think that a council, an encyclical, and a synod do not together settle a matter is to deny that there is any authority at all in the Church. And it would seem the very height of vanity for an individual Catholic to think that he has more insight into what is good for the Church than do these authorities, who, as successors of the apostles, possess a special charism of leadership. It does not matter that priestly celibacy is a discipline and not a doctrine: the Church is not fickle; she does not confirm and then later alter her disciplines on a whim. Besides, nothing novel has been added to the debate in the last 25 years to require a reconsideration. The phenomenon of decreasing vocations was not unknown then, nor has it ever been unknown in the history of the Church. It was explicitly taken into account by Paul VI, whose remarks would seem very sensible.

It is simply not possible to believe that the abolition of ecclesiastical celibacy would considerably increase the number of priestly vocations: the contemporary experience of those Churches and ecclesial communities which allow their ministers to marry seems to prove the contrary. 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.

In any case, John Paul II has confirmed the judgment of his predecessors and has even developed the reasons for priestly celibacy in his profound catechetical talks on the “theology of the body.”

I do not know which is more deplorable: that those who urge the ordination of married men never make reference to these definitive statements, or that the reasons for, priestly celibacy, so carefully set out by popes and bishops, today remain unknown and largely unappreciated by Catholics. It does of course help, in one’s effort to abolish celibacy, to keep people ignorant of its history, nature, and value.

It is sometimes objected that “celibacy can’t be that important, if it wasn’t required until the eleventh century.” But as the historical record demonstrates, celibacy was held up as the ideal for priests from the earliest days, an ideal which the Church struggled over centuries to put into practice, finally attaining it. The objection is like saying, “Your life savings can’t be that important to you— after all, you didn’t have them for most of your life.” Obviously, we ought to esteem the celibate priesthood as a hard-won gift, not to be tossed away for the first bowl of pottage which a sociologist might place before us. It is precisely our eagerness to dispense with celibacy which shows our unworthiness of being given an abundance of celibate priests.

Harvest Time

The reasons for the vocations crisis, which are not at all mysterious, become evident through reflection on what a priestly vocation is.

I take the nature of priestly vocation to be revealed by the following saying of Christ: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Beseech, therefore, the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” It is implied by this passage that it is the normal condition of the Church to have too few priests. Jesus’ remark is general in character—as though to express a constant condition of the Church. In fact, as Paul VI comments on this passage, “Priests have never been as numerous as human standards would have judged sufficient.” It would appear, then, that God wills that there be a shortage of priests, so that we recognize our dependence upon Him for priests and then seek priests in the right way.

Priests are then given in answer to our request, in the context of our relationship to God. Thus the “vocations crisis” must be understood personalistically rather than pragmatically: we beseech God; He calls men to be His workers or priests; and men freely respond to His call. There would thus seem to be three possible reasons why there are too few vocations: first, we are not beseeching God sufficiently for priests; second, men are not hearing God’s call; third, men who hear God’s call are not responding to it. Note that all three of these reasons may be operating together; they are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, God’s generosity and justice can be assumed: the crisis doesn’t originate with Him.

Concerning the first reason: Are we really beseeching God for priests? It will be said that Catholics are saying lots of prayers for vocations. In my view, such prayers are neither very widespread, nor constant, nor particularly fervent among Catholics. But even granting that they are, it is necessary that we examine our actions as well as our prayers, since we beseech by how we live as much as by what we pray. And it is clear, to me at least, that we do not live like those who are very concerned about having priests.

In order truly to beseech God for something, it is necessary to have a need for that thing and also to recognize that it is God who is able to give it. We neither have the right sort of need for priests, nor do we properly acknowledge that priests come from God.

We do not have the right sort of need for priests because we do not have the right sort of need for the sacraments. Of course, it is almost unavoidable to need the sacraments in some way. To be sure, priests are very much in demand today for baptisms, funerals, weddings, and saying Mass on Sunday. But one can’t do much to avoid being born into the Church or dying. And many Catholics get married because it’s customary, or because someone else wants them to, and they go to Church on Sundays because that’s required. I wonder how we could need priests any less. We regard them as functionaries who inhabit the boundaries of our lives. We seek their services only when we have to, not because we’d love to. A shortage of them causes inconvenience, not longing.

But how should we need priests? Every Catholic is supposed to be seeking holiness above everything else, as Vatican II said. A layperson does this in the midst of the world—in the activities of his family, work, and friendships. Now seeking holiness in the world is impossible without a good deal of grace. If we try to do it on our own, we quickly go astray. We become compromised, either through growing lukewarm or by becoming an activist, and we fail to persevere. Hence, it is necessary that we turn frequently to those sacraments which can be regularly received, such as the Eucharist and confession. As Vatican II said, the Eucharist must become the “center and root” of the life of a Catholic today, and one should go to confession frequently to grow in the interior life. Thus, we do not need priests as we should: we have not put ourselves into the appropriate condition of need, because we do not desire holiness and so do not need the sacraments in our day-to-day lives.

Furthermore, we do not acknowledge that priests come from God. To acknowledge this is to recognize that the ministerial priesthood differs in kind from that of all believers—that the priest, because he has received a special mark or “character” on his soul, is “another Christ.” Now there are two signs that we do not acknowledge this. The first is our low regard for the Mass. We do not recognize that each Mass is a representation of Calvary; that to be present at a Mass is to be present at the Last Supper. We do not see that the priest, who says the words of consecration, serves as a mediator—an irreplaceable link between his flock and God. If we saw these things, we would in fact long to go to Mass, to be present for these awesome mysteries. We would, for example, try diligently to attend daily Mass, insofar as we were able.

The second sign is our use of “eucharistic ministers,” which displays a disregard for the priestly office. The Council in fact allowed only “extraordinary ministers,” whose purpose was not to let laypersons take over activities of the priest, but rather to enable the laity to receive communion more easily. To have a layperson distribute communion when there is not an extraordinary need is to say, in effect, that the priest is replaceable. Yet, it is not uncommon to see priests stand idly by, while laypersons give out communion.

Is Anyone Listening?

In order to hear something, it is necessary that a person pay attention and have a good sense of hearing; it is necessary, furthermore, that the sound be clear. Since all three of these things are absent today, young men cannot hear God’s call.

First, young men are not paying attention. We pray for vocations and talk about the vocations crisis, not appreciating that all Catholics have a vocation, and that the only question is what particular form one’s vocation will take. Obviously, if a young man does not understand that, whatever he does, his life should be lived in response to God’s call, he is unlikely even to consider whether his calling is to be a priest. And needless to say, if he sees that all vocations require self-giving and sacrifice, he will not look upon the path to the priesthood as unusual or especially difficult.

Moreover, we do not direct young men’s attention in the right direction. Until rather recently, we didn’t encourage boys to think of the priesthood. Suffering from a distorted pietism, we left vocations wholly up to God, not allowing God to work through human means. Even today, if a boy is intelligent or a superb athlete, we steer him without hesitation to a prestigious university, as though God would not be pleased with the sacrifice of Abel even from us. And once he is at university, his studies are pre-professional and utilitarian in character, rather than contemplative and liberal, since Christian philosophy and serious theology have been all but eliminated from the curricula of Catholic universities. So his mind is not likely to turn to metaphysical truths and supernatural mysteries.

Nor do young men have a very good sense of hearing for God’s call. They tend to lack the basic virtues required for this: purity and simplicity of life. The most prominent vices of our society, its materialism and sensuality, are precisely those that most hinder a man’s ability to hear the voice of God.

Finally, the “sound” to be heard is not clear. We do not make the priesthood attractive to young men, but do the very opposite. Young men are attracted to professions that involve special knowledge and expertise. Yet priests today display little expertise in doctrine, church history, or canon law. Many of the older ones have dismissed what they were taught, whereas many of the younger ones have had a poor training. Their improvisations at liturgy and doctrine give the impression that anyone with a bit of imagination could be a priest with a few hours’ study. And the dismissive attitude which many priests display towards the magisterium is unsettling. What would you think of physicians who felt no obligation to consult the textbooks written by the most authoritative medical experts?

Then, of course, few priests wear clerical garb in public, as though they were ashamed of it. Yet how many boys would wish to be a fireman or policeman, if those professions did not exhibit distinctive modes of dress? And we make girls into altar boys, which obscures the masculine character of the priesthood—besides attacking the prestige of the priesthood through its disobedience— when we ought to be making it clear that the priesthood is essentially virile.

Spiritual Paralysis

The response required of a man, when he hears God’s call, is that he give himself to God. In order to do so, he needs generosity; he needs to trust the recipient; and he needs a way to give his gift.

But young men are lacking today in generosity because of the example of their parents. The principal way in which a young man learns the sort of self-giving needed in a priest is from his parents’ love for each other. Clearly, if his parents become divorced or separated, or if they do not generously accept children, he will not learn generosity from them. It would be interesting to know what proportion of the vocations we do have comes from that tiny minority of families who live the Church’s teaching on contraception.

Again, young men do not trust that their gift will be well received, and understandably so. They have been led to think that the Church will soon alter its discipline, or even alter its doctrine, thus destroying the rationale for their gift. They want to give their lives to God by giving it to the Church. Yet, Catholic theologians promote false opinions which, if true, would imply that the Church is a misguided venture, rather than the continuation of the Incarnation on earth. An example of this is the very dispute over celibacy: How could the Catholic Church be under God’s providence if it hopefully confirmed the celibate priesthood in one decade, and then nervously retracted it in the next?

Finally, the means for young men to give themselves fully to the Church are lacking. Religious orders are in general disarray, having abandoned the spirit of their founders. Some of them even seem to strain out precisely those young men whose views most closely match those of their founder. Moreover, few seminaries seem to provide good formation. It is not surprising that some seminarians, when they find out what some of their teachers think of the Church, decide it would be better to become businessmen or lawyers.

The solution to the vocations crisis is simple. We must, first of all, firmly put aside any suggestion of altering the priesthood. Those who urge this are not, I think, sincere when they bemoan the lack of priests; what they intend, rather, is to generate sentiment for changing the Church to conform to modern culture. And then we must do the very opposite of what the supply-and-demand mentality would dictate: to increase the supply of priests we should increase our demand for them, by seeking holiness and thus putting ourselves in need of the sacraments.


Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...