Let's enlist short-term priests as a long-term solution

By Father Andrew Greeley| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Scripture and Theology Sex and Sexuality Vatican Young Adults
Celibacy isn't the problem, argues Father Andrew Greeley. It's the lifelong service to the priesthood that scares away young men.

I've been doing sociological research on the priesthood for more than 30 years. There are two findings from this research that are beyond question. The first is that priests on the average are the happiest men in the world, happier in their professional and personal lives even than married Protestant clergy. The second is that men are on the average inclined to leave the priesthood (ordinarily) under two conditions: They are unhappy in priestly work, and they want to marry. If they are happy in priestly work and want to marry, on the average they are much less likely to leave.

Note the words on the average in the previous paragraph. My assertions are about the average. There are priests who are miserably unhappy-and unfortunately they set the norm for priestly comments about how low morale is. There are also many priests who love their work but want to marry powerfully enough that they leave the priesthood.

The angry letters that these two paragraphs normally engender are from those who don't read the two paragraphs carefully before they head for the e-mail. Those who don't like these findings are free to do their own research.

I usually follow up these two conclusions with the recommendation that the church experiment with a limited term of service for priests, a kind of priest corps like the Peace Corps (or the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education).

Young men would be invited to active service in the priesthood for a period of time-let's say five years-then they would be given an opportunity to re-up, as they say in the military. But an ordained priest is a priest forever, bishops say trippingly on the tongue when they dismiss my suggestion as a stupid idea. Indeed yes, but his permanent identity as a priest does not demand that he serve actively in the priesthood all his life.

In fact, in recent years the church has permitted men to leave the active priesthood and return to the lay life in good standing. This often has been a humiliating experience. Rarely does anyone say to them, "God bless you and grant you a happy life. Thanks for the years of service." My suggestion makes a virtue out of necessity. It says to a man, "If after you have served a term in the priesthood, you have come to believe that God does not want you to serve in the active ministry any longer, go in peace."

Who are we, in other words, to question where the Spirit leads a person?

Neither the church nor its people nor the priesthood itself is well served by a miserably unhappy priest. What are some of the reasons a man might want to leave? His parishioners get on his nerves; he can't stand teens; his fellow priests make him chronically depressed; he wants to begin a family of his own; the work is oppressive; he's bored and he shudders at the thought that he will be doing the same things for the next half century; he has served under three bishops, all of whom have been fools, and he can't take the folly anymore; he's exhausted, worn out, bone tired. Permission to return to the lay life as one who has finished his commitment to active service enables both him and the church to cut their losses.

Granting, for the sake of argument, that the promise of lifelong celibacy is the obstacle to the pursuit of vocations by young men, this proposal would invite men to limited-term celibacy. The bet is that, while many of the young men might leave after a term or two, many others would discover that being a priest is exciting and rewarding work (which the data show most priests believe, even if they are embarrassed to admit it).

Other problems with becoming a priest-the sexual abuse crisis, embezzlement, poor leadership, the idiots who are priests in your parish, clerical envy, and poor professional standards-exist in all denominations, and the abolition of clerical celibacy will not solve them. In the present turbulent and traumatic times in the church, many young men would not want to bring a wife into the clergy.

"Forever" is longer now than it used to be. In past generations, the average age of a priest at his death was much lower than it is today. Now the majority of us live to our golden jubilee. The church has not adjusted to the demographic revolution and its impact on marriages and the priesthood. It's time that it did.

Vows need not be lifelong. The ordinary monks in St. Benedict's Rule did not take lifelong vows. The Daughters of Charity in principle have vows of only one year. There is no reason in the nature of the church or the priesthood that men should serve in the active ministry all their lives-and in fact, today they do not.

Those who bother to discuss my proposal tend to be bitterly against it. For many liberal Catholics (lay and clerical), it is a matter of absolute faith that celibacy is the critical weakness in the church. They think it is the cause, for example, of sexual abuse in the priesthood, though the problem is virtually the same among married Protestant clergy. Nonetheless, they say, celibacy has to go.

It is not clear that a married clergy has solved the problems of Protestantism. On the contrary, as the work of Jackson Carroll from Duke Divinity School shows, marriage and family are the most demoralizing problems among Protestant clergy. The lower levels of personal and professional satisfaction among them are in great part occasioned by the stress and strain of family life.

I am accused of advocating a "compromise"-keeping celibacy as a norm though establishing possible term limits. In fact, I think that celibacy is a positive good, and my research shows that it is. It does not interfere with happiness for most priests and may contribute to it.

On the other hand I am accused of putting the permanency of the "jewel" (a term used by Pope John Paul II) of clerical celibacy in jeopardy. Indeed the flight to high-sounding and ethereal spirituality is a form of obscurantism that refuses to consider three facts: permanent celibacy is a serious obstacle to priestly vocations; life expectancy is much longer than it used to be; and, in the absence of some modification, celibacy is doomed.

The final argument is that if the church is faithful to its commitment to permanent celibacy, God will provide priests for us. Thus we do not and even should not consider modifications. This is one of the favorite cop-outs of bishops and conservative laity: Blame God.

This article appeared the July 2007 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 72, No. 7, pages 18-22).