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FutureChurch Optional Celibacy Survey (2010)
Active Parishioners Ready for Change

Even though the worldwide priest shortage is causing both Eucharistic famine in the developing world and wholesale parish closings in the developed world, Vatican leaders have refused to heed escalating calls to change celibacy rules. This despite the fact that mandatory celibacy is not a Church doctrine, and studies have shown the main reason young Catholic men will not consider being a priest is the obligation of lifetime celibacy.

Overview of All Respondents

Total Returns911
Active in Parish87.5%
Attend Mass Weekly or more88%
Member of Small Faith Community61%
"Serve the Church"60.2%
Belong to Church Reform group76%

The need to discover viable strategies for encouraging institutional leaders to open discussion of optional celibacy led FutureChurch to develop a special survey to learn what progressive Catholics believe about potentially viable strategies and next steps. From May 2008 through December 2008, FutureChurch collected data about strategies to encourage both a married and celibate priesthood in the Latin rite of the Roman Catholic Church. The 991 survey responses supplied helpful information for making decisions about programming. Space does not permit a complete description of all findings. The complete report is available on the FutureChurch website.

Highly Involved in Parish Life and in Church Reform

Progressive Catholics are often portrayed by their opponents as remote from Catholic experience, uncaring and in opposition to the Church. The opposite is true for our survey respondents. Over 87 percent are active in their parishes and attend Mass weekly or more often. A substantial 60 percent self identify as serving the church as a priest, parish life coordinator, pastoral minister, Eucharistic minister, religious sister, Catholic school teacher, Catholic chaplain or in many other ministerial roles. Another 61 percent were members of small faith communities and 76 percent belonged to at least one church reform group.

Diverse Strategies Supported

Survey respondents support or strongly support a wide array of educational, prayer, petition and organizing activities geared to advancing the discussion of optional celibacy. All seventeen concrete steps and strategies listed in question two of the survey attained a mean support above 3 (1= strongly support, 2= support 3= modest support)

The seven strategies attracting the strongest mean theoretical support* in Question 2 were the following

  1. Educating Catholics about the history of mandatory celibacy that married bishops, priests and deacons were permitted until the 13th century.
  2. Educating Catholics about the profound effects of the priest shortage on parish life and worship.
  3. (tied) Organizing a petition campaign (as was done by over 16,000 Australian priests and laity), calling on the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops to openly discuss mandatory celibacy and women's roles in the Church.
  4. (tied) Encouraging all priests, but especially those who are struggling to staff multiple parishes, to be public about the need to change the present discipline of mandatory celibacy.
  5. Asking (through petitions, letters, emails etc.) the National Federation of Priests' Councils in the U.S. to join the Austrian priest group, Priests Initiative and a group representing 18,000 Brazilian priests, in lobbying the Vatican for the ordination of married men and the return or priests who left the active ministry to marry.
  6. Organizing an international petition campaign asking the world's bishops to join Austrian Bishop Helmut Kratzl, Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, and the president of the German Bishops' conference Archbishop Robert Zollitch, in publicly calling for a
    change in the mandatory celibacy rule.
  7. Organizing a parish or diocesan educational program about the priest shortage, the history of celibacy in the Catholic church, and the centrality of Eucharist to Catholic life and worship.

* These responses were regarded as "theoretical" because the strategies listed in Question 2 did not require a commitment from respondents as do the strategies listed in Question 3.

"Activists" rank strategies differently

Interestingly, the five strategies attracting the strongest activist support differed from theoretical favorites. "Activist" support was so identified because those who checked on this list in Question 3 were "willing to contribute my time, talent and energy by organizing and/or working on" that strategy. Listed here are the top five "activist" strategies:

  1. Encouraging priests to be public about the need to change celibacy rules.
  2. Study and reflecting on the Dutch Dominican "The Church and the Ministry" statement (available at www.futurechurch.org) proposing that parishes choose Mass presiders from among their community and present selected candidates "women or men, married or single" to the bishop for ordination.
  3. A day of prayer in my diocese and/or parish calling on the Holy Spirit to inspire Church leaders to welcome married priestly vocations in the life of the church.
  4. A petition campaign asking my bishop to request the US bishops' conference to openly discuss mandatory celibacy.
  5. A prayer, reflection and action group on the need to change church discipline on mandatory celibacy.

It is notable that FutureChurch members, male priests, both celibate and married, and those who "serve the church" (other than male priests) also ranked these strategies as their top five, though sometimes in a slightly different order of preference. All groups agreed on the order of the top three strategies.

Distinguishing between what people support in theory and what they may actually be willing to do to catalyze renewal in the Church is important information. That the fairly controversial strategy of studying the Dutch Dominicans document attracted so much activist support is surprising and perhaps indicative of how ready some faithful Catholics are to consider other options for sacramental practice.

What Difference Does It Make?

Survey findings are a great help as we shape FutureChurch's optional celibacy programming. Our decision to create our international Optional Celibacy: So All Can Be at the Table electronic postcard and educational campaign is a direct result of survey findings.

Our thanks to all who participated in the survey.

Focus on FutureChurch

Spring 2010


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