Future of Priestly Ministry
Optional Celibacy
Frequently asked questions about Optional Celibacy and the Priest Shortage

Frequently asked questions about Optional Celibacy and the Priest Shortage

Question: Hasn’t the Church always valued a celibate priesthood? How can this change?

Reply: Mandatory priestly celibacy is not a doctrine of the Church but a rule or discipline. As such, it can change at any time. Since celibacy is a gift from the Holy Spirit, it will not disappear. It will always have an honored place in Catholicism. It is a distortion of the charism of celibacy to demand it of priests who are not called to it.

The charism of celibacy has been linked with priestly ministry from our earliest history when Paul recommended it as a special witness to the reign of God. However, St. Peter was married, and it is likely that most of the other apostles were as well. Prisca and Aquila, a prominent missionary couple, were highly praised by Paul for their work founding house churches in Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Both married and celibate priests were common until the 12th century when celibacy became mandatory.

The eastern rites of Catholicism presently permit priests to marry. In the U.S. there are over 200 married Roman Catholic priests who converted from the Lutheran and Episcopal denominations.

Both the celibate priesthood and the married priesthood are gifts to the Church.

Question: Doesn’t the Protestant Church have a shortage of clergy too? How will allowing priests to marry resolve the priest shortage in the Catholic Church?

Reply: Purdue’s Professor James D. Davidson compared numbers of Protestant and Catholic clergy and found a decline of clergy occurred in only one group, the Catholic Church. While the number of Catholic priests declined, the number of Protestant clergy increased from 3-35%.

The following paragraphs from Davidson’s work are worth quoting in full:

In the Catholic Church, the total number of priests has declined from 58,534 in 1981 to 52,227 in 1991 and 45,713 in 2001 (a 22 percent loss between 1981 and 2001).

In every other group, including denominations in which membership has declined (e.g., the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches), the total number of clergy has increased.

In the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) the increases have been rather modest (3 percent to 5 percent). In the Evangelical Lutheran, Lutheran-Missouri Synod and United Methodist churches, they have been larger (11, 15 and 21 percent, respectively). In four groups, the increases have been larger yet. These denominations include the Church of the Nazarene (25 percent), American Baptist churches (27 percent), the Episcopal Church (29 percent) and the Assemblies of God (35 percent).

Given the claims of a very recent clergy shortage in some Protestant churches, I also checked the data for each year between 1995 and 2001. They show steady increases in total clergy in five denominations (the Assemblies of God, Nazarenes, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians and United Methodists), year-to-year ups and downs with overall increases in four groups (American Baptists, Missouri-Synod Lutherans, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ), annual fluctuations with a slight overall decline in one group (Disciples of Christ) and a steady decline in only one group: the Catholic Church.

On this dimension at least, I found no evidence that Protestant churches face a clergy shortage that at all resembles the steadily declining number of Catholic priests.

(Excerpted from the article Fewer and Fewer published by America Magazine in December 1, 2003)

It may also be worthwhile to recall that Protestants do not have a huge pool of prepared lay ministers and married priests waiting in the wings. In the U.S. Catholic Church we have an estimated 18-20,000 priests who left the active ministry to marry. There are also over 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers, nearly 16,000 permanent deacons and 18,000 people enrolled in educational programs to become lay ministers. A substantial majority are married. Many are qualified to serve as priests if celibacy is made optional.

Question: Isn’t it true that dioceses which foster a more traditional Catholicism have more vocations to the priesthood?

Reply: The desire to serve the Church as a priest is an admirable one and should be celebrated regardless of whether one is “traditional” or “progressive.” Usually the dioceses quoted as having a more traditional Catholicism are Arlington, VA , Denver, CO and Lincoln, NE.

A 2007 document published by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) compared numbers of Catholics per ordinand (newly ordained priest) by diocese from 2003-2007. The documented also listed the top 20 dioceses by total ordinations over the same time period. More “traditional” dioceses had no apparent increase in the number of newly ordained priest compared to those not described in this way.

Here is a link to a pdf of the CARA study

According to a study done by Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge, for every 100 priests who resign, retire or die, there are only 30 to 40 available to replace them. If we are to maintain our Catholic sacramental identity, we must open our hearts (and our seminaries) to the diversity of priestly vocations, celibate and married, that God gives us.


Calls from Bishops Worldwide for Optional Celibacy