Goodbye, Father –
The Celibate Male Priesthood
and the Future of the Catholic Church
Richard Schoenherr: Oxford Press, 2002
Reviewed by Fr. Lou Trivison
Richard Schoenherr completed this book as a companion volume to Full Pews and Empty Alters (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993). He died suddenly before the book could be published. David Yamane edited the manuscript and it was published in 2002.
It should be noted that Schoenherr had agreed to speak at a FutureChurch program before his untimely death. The book answers the big questions: Why is there a shortage of priests? What will it lead to? What else is happening in the Catholic Church and how is it related to the scarcity of priests? What can be done?
In the foreword, Dean Hoge of Catholic University wrote that keeping the Eucharist and the priesthood strong is Schoenherr’s main commitment and from it flows everything else.
For Schoenherr the priest shortage is the engine driving the change in the Church, but the engineers determine the direction of change. These engineers are the priestly (conservative) and prophetic (progressive) coalitions in the Church.
The book revolves around several main arguments. First, it predicts that the Catholic Church will lift its ban on ordination of married men in the next few decades. Second, it shows that this radical breakthrough to a married priesthood results from irreversible historical trends. Third, it argues that the transformation of the priesthood will strengthen authentic religion within Catholicism. Fourth, it maintains that a married priesthood will dismantle one of the strongest supports for patriarchy in human society. And fifth, this book asserts that married priests will pave the way for female priests and therefore greater gender equality in the Church and society.
The conservative coalition is so adamantly opposed to a married clergy because clerical celibacy provides sacralized support for patriarchy. The Vatican seems to know intuitively that to say goodbye to celibate exclusivity means eventually saying goodbye to male exclusivity. A married clergy is anathema to most of the hierarchy because it is the camel’s nose under their patriarchal tent. A married clergy will be the gateway to further equality for women, who eventually will be admitted to ordination. Schoenherr maintains that married men will be admitted to the priesthood during the lifetime of the present generation of churchgoers. He believes the ordination of women is several generations away although many would disagree, if only because so many Catholics, especially women, will not wait that long.
The author states that because celibate patriarchy in the priesthood is a structural and symbolic mechanism of support for patriarchal dominance and gender inequality in the Catholic Church, its days are numbered.
Schoenherr’s studies show that even under optimistic assumptions, the number of active priests in 2005 will be over 34 percent lower that the number recorded in 1966. Along with the decline in numbers he average age of priests in the United States is rising rapidly. In the Cleveland diocese the median age is 59, while only 6% of the priests, 28 specifically, are under the age of 40 at this time.
He quotes a study of young men ages 14 to 29 who were asked their reasons for showing no interest in a vocation to the priesthood. The main problem was that “they were not allowed to marry.” The second most important problem was “my faith in the Church’s teachings is not deep enough.” And the third was “lifelong commitment.” In addition, surveys world-wide confirm that the desire to marry is the main reason for resignations from the priesthood.
He considers Rembert Weakland, Raymond Hunthausen, Raymond Lucker, Thomas Gumbleton, Kenneth Untener and Francis Murphy as the leading progressive bishops in this country. Murphy and Lucker have since died, Weakland and Hunthausen have retired, and Untener and Gumbleten are sometimes dismissed as too radical because they support a married clergy and equal rights for women in the Church.
There are chapters in the book on how power is centered in the hierarchical priesthood and how changes have developed in the Catholic church thanks to the efforts of theologians who risk being silenced, and thanks to the efforts of the liturgical movement, the feminist movement and the lay movement.
He claims that celibacy as such has been and will continue to be a viable, respectful path to personal holiness “for those who are called,” but concludes that a call to the priesthood no longer can be equated with a call to celibacy. Conservative coalitions oppose papal permission to ordain married men even in extreme circumstances since they foresee
it leading to the ordination of women. But the problem is too widespread to be addressed with centuries-old solutions (e.g. “pray for vocations”) that have failed to stem the loss of priests throughout the world.
Writing about the famous synod of Asian bishops in 1998, Thomas Fox in his book “Pentecost in Asia” (Orbis, 2002) details the pleas of Asian bishops to Pope John Paul II that they are losing people to Protestant sects because there are no priests. As a result they provide the equivalent of Protestant services for their people, nothing but the Liturgy of the Word and no Eucharist. He quotes an Asian bishop who asked the Pope at the end of the Synod if they could hope for changes in the law of celibacy to permit married priests, and the Pope’s reply was simply, “No.”
Schoenherr quotes the late Bishop Francis Murphy in his comments on the proposed pastoral letter on women prepared by U.S. bishops. Murphy summarizes the situation of male dominance by writing, “Dominance pervades our Church, a dominance that excludes the presence, insights, and experiences of women from the “table” where the formulation of the Church doctrine takes place and the exercise of it’s owner is discerned. It likewise excludes women from presiding at the “table” where the community is fed. This patriarchy continues to permeate the Church and supports a climate that not only robs women of their full personhood, but also encourages men to be domineering, aggressive, and selfish.
Richard Schoenherr’s book shows convincingly that the days of such domination are numbered. In death, his book will be a lasting testimony to his love of the Eucharist, the priesthood and the Church. It will become a standard work for anyone concerned about the shortage of priests and the role of women in the Church. Anyone interested in Church reform should read it because it lays out the transformation of the Catholic priesthood that is sure to come, sooner rather than later.