During a 1997 interview, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, now Pope Benedict XVI, was asked about the declining ranks of the Catholic priesthood. "Mustn't celibacy be dropped," the questioner asked, "for the simple reason that otherwise the church won't get any more priests?" Ratzinger demurred. "I don't think that the argument is really sound," he said, noting that the trend had less to do with strict rules and more to do with family size and priorities. "If today the average number of children is 1.5," he reasoned, "the question of possible priests takes on a very different role from what it was in ages when families were considerably larger." The main obstacle, he argued, was parents "who have very different expectations for their children."
A decade later, the challenge of attracting priests continues to bedevil the Roman Catholic Church. The pope's visit this week is clearly meant as a stimulus to his American flock, and, apart from the tarnish of the sex abuse scandal, there is perhaps no more immediate concern among Catholic leaders than that of adequate church leadership. Congregations often abandon traditions and lose direction without guidance from priests; parishes, in some cases, have folded.
According to statistics, the number of U.S. priests began falling in the 1970s, and the decline has since accelerated. In 1975, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reports, there were 36,005 diocesan priests in the United States. By 1995, the total had fallen to 32,300; in 2005, the count stood at 28,700. The most recent count, from 2007, puts the number at 27,971. The decline appears to be even more precipitous when one includes "religious" priests, members of religious orders who tend to live within the priestly community. In total, the number of Catholic priests in the United States dropped from nearly 59,000 in 1975 to about 41,500 last year.
The causes of the decline are many. As the pope has said, changing family structures and social values are one problem; fewer children mean fewer potential priests, and parents are less likely to encourage the vocation. At the same time, more young Catholics—and more young people in general—are attending college or immediately entering the work force, thereby bypassing priestly considerations. Behind these trends is a strong cultural pull: American society prizes not only wealth and choice but also, to an increasing degree, mobility (the average American, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, will switch jobs 10 times between the ages of 18 and 38)—a privilege not in keeping with the lifetime commitment required of priests.
And, of course, there is the celibacy problem. In post-sexual revolution America, where, as novelist Tom Wolfe wrote in his 2000 book Hooking Up, "sexual stimuli bombarded the young so incessantly and intensely they were inflamed with a randy itch long before reaching puberty," the practice of celibacy is all but discouraged, if not viewed with suspicion. The sexual abuse scandal that rocked the church in the early part of this decade further sullied the American attitude toward celibacy.
But what to do? Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, opposes liberalizing the current rules that forbid marriage and female priests. His followers are split. A 2001 survey by the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops found that 56 percent of priests thought celibacy should be a "matter of personal choice." A Gallup Poll conducted in 2005 shortly after the death of John Paul II found that 63 percent of American Catholics support allowing priests to be married; 55 percent said women should be allowed to become priests.
Interestingly, those numbers fall among the more devout: Among weekly Catholic churchgoers, only 48 percent said that priests should be allowed to marry, and only 44 percent want women to become priests. "The church has always taught that priests are men," said Monica Kolf, 24, who attended the mass at Nationals Park on Thursday. "That's how Christ instituted it at the Last Supper. Women have important roles to play in the church as well, and of course they are not in any less of a position or have any less dignity in the church in that sense. Of course, Mary, the mother of God, was a woman. There's no higher human being besides that."
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?"