Pope John Paul on Friday called for a national day of prayer to boost priestly vocations in the United States, where sexual abuse scandals have hit already shrinking numbers of priesthood volunteers.
“No one can deny that the decline in priestly vocations represents a stark challenge for the Church in the United States, and one that cannot be ignored or put off,” the pope said in a speech to American bishops visiting the Vatican.
“I would propose for your consideration that the Catholic community in your country annually set aside a national day of prayer for priestly vocations,” the 84-year-old pontiff urged.
Umm, a challenge for the United States Catholic Community? I don’t think so. What it represents is a challenge to the so-called leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. It will take a lot more than prayer to put more priests in American churches.
How bad is it for today’s American Catholics? Between 1965 and 2002 the number of seminarian students dropped 90%. 15% of parishes in the United States today have no priest. There are 350% fewer ordinations of Catholic priests in 2002 compared to 1965. There are 45,000 priests in the United States today, but it is projected there will only be 31,000 in 2020, despite a projected increase in the Catholic population during that period. As for Catholic religious orders they will soon be virtually nonexistent in the United States.
As bad as the problem is it could feel a lot worse than it is. Why? Because American Catholics increasingly can’t be bothered to go to Mass on Sundays. In 1958 74% of American Catholics attended Mass regularly. In 2000 the number went to 25%. You can bet if they can’t get their hineys out of bed to listen to yet another droning Mass with the same catatonic words and same boring songs they likely aren’t going to confession regularly either. (Not that Father John likely has the time to hear everyone’s confession anyhow.) Most likely their association with the Catholic Church is attending Easter and Christmas services, if that. The Catholic Church will be lucky if these American Catholics in name only decide to even marry in the church. One reason: the wholly insane policy that to marry a non-Catholic in the Catholic Church the non-Catholic spouse must promise to raise all children to be Catholics.
In short the Catholic Church in America is becoming increasingly irrelevant to American Catholics. There are likely lots of reasons why this is so. But with American priests in such short supply the laity is likely feeling more and more detached from their parish priest. If a parish is lucky enough to have a priest at all, the poor priest is likely wrung ragged. He’s probably delegating right and left. It helps to have sisters and brothers to assist but these orders are having recruitment problems also. From the 180,000 sisters in the United States in 1965 there were only 75,000 in 2002. Brothers went from 12,000 to 5700 during that same period.
It’s likely that Father John is not doing much in the way of pastoral counseling. If he is fortunate he will have deacons and perhaps some lay ministers to help out. Those who remember when the church was more flush with priests are likely to feel very short changed.
And the Holy Father’s brilliant solution to the problem? Have a yearly day of prayer. That will do the trick!
Unless the Holy Father wants an American Catholic community in name only it might be time for him to wake up and smell the coffee. It might begin with some old-fashioned market research. The number one way to solve the priest problem would be to allow women to become priests. But no Catholic who understands their church truly believes that this will happen in their lifetime. In fact Catholics will be lucky if it comes to pass in 500 years. But just why is it that fewer men want to join the priesthood? My guess it’s probably not because they object to wearing dark robes or even their miserly pay. It’s probably because they realize the celibacy tradition in the Roman Catholic Church is stupid and unworkable.
It wasn’t always this way in the Catholic Church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church most priests have always been free to get married. In fact most are married. Until the Middle Ages most Roman Catholic priests were married too. Then slowly things changed. Even today there is no direct requirement from the Pope or in Vatican law that I can find that requires priests take a vow of celibacy upon ordination. Rather it is a tradition. Before ordination bishops will require priests to step forward and solemnly warn them that if they do so:
You ought anxiously to consider again and again what sort of a burden this is which you are taking upon you of your own accord. Up to this you are free. You may still, if you choose, turn to the aims and desires of the world. But if you receive this order (of the subdiaconate) it will no longer be lawful to turn back from your purpose. You will be required to continue in the service of God, and with His assistance to observe chastity and to be bound forever in the ministrations of the Altar, to serve who is to reign.
Every year hundreds of priests come to the inescapable conclusion that celibacy is unworkable for them. The honest ones resign the priesthood and maybe earn a few wetbacks selling their services at Rent-a-Priest. (It’s got a shopping cart! I swear I am not making this up.) The dishonest heterosexual ones (and there are plenty of them) get their relief on the side, in secrecy and likely in shameful circumstances.
I feel sorry for today’s American Catholic priest, caught between the stark reality of the way the world actually is and their so-called leadership. The Vatican seems to have no inclination to bend even the tiniest degree toward policies that would clearly help the institution survive in the future. It’s pretty clear that apostle Peter, the first “Pope” was a married man as were many of the Popes through the Middle Ages. Even today it is possible for a married Catholic priests to get ordained. They just have to start out married in a different denomination. There aren’t many of these examples but it shows just how silly and hollow this tradition is.
In reality the Pope is destroying the Catholic Church in America slowly and methodically. And he will have no one to blame but himself for such pointless and obstinate behavior.