Why Do Many No Longer Desire the Priesthood?
IN COUNTRY after country the story is much the same. Large numbers of Roman Catholic priests are abandoning their vocation, and seminary enrollments continue to decline. The last seven-year period has seen about 25,000 men leave the priestly ranks. No letup is in sight. Eugene C. Bianchi, president of the Society of Priests for a Free Ministry, observed: “Sociologists foresee no upswing in recruitment nor halt in leakage from clerical ranks.” But why has this situation developed?
Many are of the opinion that one factor is the hierarchy’s adamant adherence to compulsory celibacy for priests. A growing number of priests, especially younger ones, favor the abolition of compulsory celibacy. At a convention of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils in Baltimore, Maryland, from March 14 to 18, 1971, the delegates by a majority vote adopted the following declaration: “We ask that the choice between celibacy and marriage for priests now active in the ministry be allowed and that the change begin immediately.”
About 90 percent of the assembled priests thereby put themselves on record as favoring a position that runs counter to the encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (Priestly Celibacy) issued by Pope Paul VI back in 1967. In so doing, these priests likely ruined their opportunities for being granted higher offices in the Catholic Church. Their stand therefore reflects strong feeling and is a good index to the sentiments of a large percentage of priests. It is estimated that these priests, averaging thirty-nine years of age, represented more than 60 percent of the priests in the United States.
Though definitely a burning issue, the hierarchy’s position on priestly celibacy does not provide all the answers as to why priests are leaving their vocation and fewer men are becoming priests. Compulsory celibacy for priests has been in effect for many centuries. Yet never before have so many priests raised their voices against it. Even priests who just two years ago were opposed to the idea of optional celibacy have changed their minds.
It is noteworthy that these priests are not objecting to something that is commanded in the Bible. In fact, The Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. III, p. 481, edition of 1908) acknowledges:
“We do not find in the New Testament any indication of celibacy being made compulsory either upon the Apostles or those whom they ordained.”
“These passages seem fatal to any contention that celibacy was made obligatory upon the clergy from the beginning, but on the other hand, the Apostle’s desire that other men might be as himself (I Cor., vii, 7-8, . . .) precludes the inference that he wished all ministers of the Gospel to be married. The words beyond doubt mean that the fitting candidate was a man who, amongst other qualities which St. Paul enunciates as likely to make his authority respected, possessed also such stability of character as was shown, in those days of frequent divorce, by remaining faithful to one wife. . . .
“A strenuous attempt has indeed been made by some writers, of whom the late Professor Bickell was the most distinguished, to prove that even at this early date the Church exacted celibacy of all her ministers of the higher grades. But the contrary view, represented by such scholars as Funk and Kraus, seems much better founded and has won general acceptance of recent years.”
Dissatisfaction with a System
So the many priests who are expressing themselves against compulsory celibacy are really showing that they are not satisfied with the prevailing system that is based on tradition. And it would seem that those who either give no consideration to the priesthood as a possible vocation or forsake it are not convinced that the prevailing system is best for them. If they had a genuine desire to serve others and firmly believed that being a priest according to the present standards was by far the best way to fulfill that desire, doubtless they would become or remain priests. It is noteworthy that a recent study reveals that many of the problems of Catholic clergymen center around discontent with the present arrangement—differences with superiors, inadequate leadership, lack of support from fellow priests and disappointment with the stand taken by the Church on certain moral issues.
Faith and belief definitely enter the picture. This aspect was highlighted in the Catholic magazine Commonweal. In its issue of February 13, 1970, the following observations were made:
“The vocations question is actually just one manifestation of a larger crisis of faith and belief, of institutional credibility and the broadening conviction that the priesthood is no more supremely useful a career than many others. . . .
“A change in the celibacy laws would return to ‘orthodoxy’ many priests who have left to be married, but not all or even the major part of these men.
“And it is extremely doubtful that it would noticeably influence the generation now making its decision about life. The priesthood could offer them the privileges of Brigham Young [polygamy], and there’d still be the matter of faith and belief.
“This is what must complicate Rome’s position. It could alter the celibacy laws tomorrow and the basic difficulties would still be there, still unresolved. There’s just no panacea, no remedy for the church’s general malaise.
“In a way, it makes it easier to see why Rome should hold fast to old traditions. The celibacy laws cry for change, but what’s to be gained by change at the moment, except maybe the cynical judgment that Rome is reacting to pressure out of institutional self-interest?”
But why is it that after centuries of existence the Roman Catholic Church is now unable to instill the faith and belief needed for becoming or remaining a priest? Could it be that the Catholic Church has herself undermined the very foundation for faith and belief? Might this be one reason for disappointment on the part of many priests with the position taken by her on certain moral issues?
Bible Teachings Not Followed
The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired of God and is useful for teaching—for reproof, correction, and training in holiness so that the man of God may be fully competent and equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17, The New American Bible) Do these words of the apostle Paul not suggest that the Holy Bible should be the standard for right teaching and action? Accordingly, would not a person’s faith be considerably shaken if he found that the teachings of his religion did not agree with the Bible? This gives rise to yet another question, Has the Catholic Church taught the truth as set forth in the Bible and has she upheld the inspiration of the Bible?
For centuries Catholics and members of other religious organizations have been taught that the soul is the immortal, spiritual part of man which survives the death of the body. But is this what the Bible teaches? The New American Bible (bearing the imprimatur of Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, D.D., Catholic Archbishop of Washington), in its “Glossary of Biblical Theology Terms,” says under the word “Soul”:
“In the New Testament, to ‘save one’s soul’ (Mk 8:35) does not mean to save some ‘spiritual’ part of man, as opposed to his ‘body’ (in the Platonic sense) but the whole person with emphasis on the fact that the person is living, desiring, loving and willing, etc., in addition to being concrete and physical (cf. BODY). There is no opposition or difference between soul and body; they are merely different ways of describing the one, concrete reality.”
And under the heading “Body” we read:
“In the Bible, not the opposite of soul, but the whole, concrete fullness of the human person, man as a whole. The distinction between soul and body in the Greek sense is alien to the Bible.”
Does it not appear strange that the Catholic Church has for centuries taught that the soul and body are not the same and yet says that this is not a teaching of the Bible? Might not the inconsistency between what has been taught and what is actually contained in God’s Word have contributed toward undermining the faith of many? If you have always believed that man has an immortal soul, how does it make you feel when you read an official Catholic publication admitting that this is not a Bible teaching? Does it cause you to wonder as to whether you have been taught many other things that are out of harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
It should be noted that, not only have doctrines admittedly contrary to the Bible been taught, but even the inspiration of the Bible has been called into question. In discussing points made by theologian Hans Küng, Gregory Baum, O.S.A., wrote recently:
“In the past we looked upon the scripture as inerrant. Because it was Word of God, the church was not ready to admit any errors in its pages. A more critical, historical approach has taught us, however, that there are many mistakes in the Bible. How did theologians deal with this problem? They did not distinguish in scripture the parts that are inspired by God and hence inerrant, and the parts that are not inspired and hence possibly erroneous. They rather proposed that the entire scripture is inspired, the entire Bible communicates God’s Word to men, despite the mistakes we find in it and the misconceptions future generations may still discover in it. This viewpoint at first caused consternation and anger among Catholics and even provoked negative reactions from the hierarchy, but it was eventually acknowledged by the church and became its official position.”
In view of what the Catholic Church has done in teaching things that are openly acknowledged by her as unbiblical and now even accepting the idea that the Bible is filled with errors, should it be surprising that the Catholic Church is experiencing a crisis? Might it not be otherwise if she had followed the Bible’s teaching and consistently adhered to its standards in everything? If she had, compulsory celibacy for priests would not even be an issue, for the Bible does not support the idea.