In the past 10 to 20 years, there has been talk of reform; in 2003 more than 150 priests signed a letter to the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, calling for optional celibacy in "an ever-growing appreciation of marriage and its many blessings." But with steady opposition from the Vatican and domestic dissent, none of the proposals has been adopted, and in the vacuum some dioceses have become creative, assigning, for instance, church officials to focus solely on recruitment of new priests. Some parishes now share priests with each other, hire traveling priests, or allow lay people to conduct traditional duties.
One potential source of alleviation, however small, may come from foreign immigrants, who are replenishing the ranks of American Catholics in large numbers. As recently as the late 1990s, nearly 20 percent of priests in the United States were foreign born, and for them the cultural barriers to entering the priesthood might arguably be lower than for Americans. (Worldwide, the total number of priests has grown slightly in recent decades, from about 403,000 in 1990 to about 406,000 in 2005, even as specific regions, such as western Europe, are experiencing crunches like the one in the United States.)
Conservative Catholics have argued that the vocation, if it is to continue to attract qualified candidates, must remain privileged, special, and distinct—in the same way that the selective Marine Corps ("the few, the proud") pitches itself to secular America. The pope, for his part, seems to view the priest issue as a conceptual matter rather than as something requiring practical remedies. As he said in 1997: "The first question...is: Are there true believers? And only then comes the second question: Are priests coming from them?"