Vocations: Crisis or Malaise?

For the past several years, the Catholic press and the secular news media have reported alarming statistics about the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. This decline is normally referred to as the vocations “crisis.”

The term “crisis” connotes a time for decision making. It suggests that we are faced with a situation that is fraught with danger and uncertainty, and it sounds a clarion call for action. In moments of crisis, people who have a strong religious faith fall to their knees and beg God’s assistance. They pray that their quick decisions will be guided by more than the conventional wisdom, and they earnestly hope that their immediate response to the present situation turns out to be successful in the long run.

In times of crisis, the surest sign of failure is the sound of an uncertain trumpet. This is no time for hesitation. Steps must be taken, and we dare not stop and think twice. Are we in a state of crisis?

In December, 1983, a distinguished group of people gathered at the Drake Hotel in Chicago to try to respond to this question. The purpose of the gathering was to provide Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA) with specific suggestions on how they can help encourage vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Two full days were devoted to the issue. An ambitious program which included bishops, theologians, researchers, social scientists, and vocations personnel, attempted to deal with every aspect of this critical problem in the Church today.

What was the result of this intensive, in-depth look at the problem of church vocations? The sound of an uncertain trumpet. In spite of all the discussion, the research, and the predictions of severe shortages to come, no one at the FADICA Conference acted as if we are in a crisis. There were no firm decisions, no immediate programmatic responses, and there was very little prayer for vocations.

The vocations crisis, it seems, equals the sum total of all the problems in the Church today. As a result, the speakers at the FADICA Conference seemed to suggest that nothing can be done about vocations until we solve all the other problems facing the Church today. Besides, they said, the Church is in a transition period, and it would be premature to place too much emphasis on vocations when we’re not sure what ministry and religious life will look like ten or twenty years from now.

This is no way to respond to a crisis. In fact, if we look closely at the way the Church in our country is responding to the decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, we must conclude that there is no crisis. There is, instead, a vocations “malaise” which is infecting the entire Church in America.

A malaise is not like a crisis. It does not precipitate quick thinking or a clear call to action. Instead, a malaise produces vague feelings of discomfort and uneasiness. A malaise is not even a malady. There is no diagnosis, treatment, or cure.

What is causing this strange vocations malaise? Why do we feel so helpless in the face of declining numbers? Isn’t there anything we can do?

Before we can answer these questions, we must honestly deal with the one question which underlies all others: Do we really need priests and religious today? In the final analysis, this is the only question that matters. If the answer is “no,” then perhaps we should allow these ancient forms of vocation and ministry to pass away quietly. If the answer is “yes,” then we’d better get busy. The harvest is rich, but the laborers are few.

I suspect that the vocations malaise is the result of a fundamental doubt about the validity of the priesthood and religious life. Since everyone participates in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and everyone is called to holiness, do we really need priests and religious? If everyone is equal and if no one should presume to set himself apart from the community of faith, then why do we perpetuate these old distinctions?

Whether they realize it or not, many of the experts who addressed the FADICA Conference last December were suggesting that we do away with the priesthood and the religious life. Of course, no one would say this directly. What they say, instead, is that the priesthood and religious life must be radically changed.

In the words of one speaker, all “ascriptive barriers” should be removed. Priests should be allowed to marry. Women should be ordained. And “commitments” to the priesthood and religious life should be more flexible, so that individuals can more easily enter and leave. In other words, priests and religious should be’ indistinguishable from dedicated Catholic lay people who, for at least a time in their lives, involve themselves in legitimate forms of ministry.

The National Catholic Reporter, which, of course, covered the FADICA Conference, confirmed the sense of impending doom. In addition to focusing on the negative statistics, NCR took characteristic delight in reporting that some participants at the conference were “shocked” at the prediction that eventually “all Christians will be permitted to answer a vocation to the priesthood, whether married or celibate, male or female.” Although I find it hard to believe that anyone could be shocked by such predictable predictions, I know that there were at least a few people at the FADICA Conference who were angry. You don’t have to be naive or reactionary to recognize that the “experts” have hidden agendas (or to be insulted by the out-of-hand way in which the NCR dismisses any point of view other than its own).

It is possible, after all, to take the position that the Church really needs good priests, sisters, and brothers — without pretending to know exactly what form the priesthood and religious life will take in the years to come. It is also possible to make a case for encouraging men and women today to seriously consider the possibility of a lifetime commitment to service in the priesthood or religious life while acknowledging that, in the near future at least, these vocations will continue to experience some ambiguity and change.

Pope John Paul II has said that an increase in vocations can only come from the prayer of the entire Christian community. He presumes, of course, that the people of God want vocations to the priesthood and religious life badly enough to pray for them. I believe that Pope John Paul II is a better spokesman for the needs and the desires of the Christian community than the “experts” are. But he and the American bishops have their work cut out for them. The vocations malaise will not go away. It must be faced with courage, leadership, and, above all, a sense of pride and confidence in the priesthood and religious life.

We need priests and religious today who can function as symbols and who are “set apart” from us. What is the point of symbols if they do not point beyond the here and now? There is much to be done and more than enough room for everyone to participate in the ministry of the Church in appropriate ways. What’s needed is good leadership from women and men whose whole lives radically symbolize the universal call to holiness and the priesthood of Jesus which all of us share.

When we encourage vocations today, we are asking people to freely and fully give themselves to styles of life and ministry that are at odds with our culture. We are also asking them to commit themselves to forms of vocation and ministry that are currently under attack from both liberal and conservative factions in the contemporary Church. The least they should be able to expect from us is a sense of confidence and hope that the priesthood and religious life are valuable and that they have a future in our Church.

Do we really need priests and religious today? I can only speak for myself and for my family, but for us the answer is clearly and unquestionably, “yes.”


  • J. L. Callaghan

    J. L. Callaghan is the pseudonym of a layman active in Catholic affairs.

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