[I put this piece on the blog last January, but then moved it to my website. In view of the fact that the website gets far fewer visitors than the blog, I decided to move it back, slightly revised, to the blog.]
The biggest problem facing Roman Catholicism today is the failure of its leadership to replace itself. The average age of female religious, male religious and priests keeps going up. Even if you grant that the Church in the United States was “overstocked” with priests and sisters in the 1950s, the numbers of young men and women entering religious life and priesthood today are nowhere near enough to continue parish life and the ministry of religious at a level that most of us would think desirable. The Church needs clergy and both Church and world need religious. Now is not the time in history for the Church to go AWOL in the face of the world’s challenges.
Conservative elements in the Church, under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, seem to be trying out the hypothesis that the root of the shortage problem is that priests and sisters since Vatican II have gotten away from an observably “spiritual” way of living. Presumably they have therefore also gotten away from the essence of a spiritually vital life. The answer is to return to pre-Vatican II styles of dress and liturgy.
As a sociologist I think the “spiritual-abandonment” hypothesis obscures another motive, a motive probably unconscious among many. I speak from my own experience. The motive is social prestige. For most of my younger life I would have vehemently denied that a desire for social prestige had anything to do with my decision to become a priest and religious, but now I have to admit that such a motive probably lurked beneath my conscious thinking.
If this motive is operating, the theory becomes that priests and religious no longer get the social prestige that can motivate new recruits, and that the way to get that prestige is to increase the social distance between them and the laity. Thus, for example, priests should not attend Mass like lay persons. If a priest does not concelebrate, he should attend Mass from a kneeler in the sanctuary. Religious and priests should return to wearing distinctive garb. Cassocks and birettas are coming back into style, and women’s groups are encouraged to return to old-style religious garb.
We Friars Minor here at Quincy University are wearing our “habits” more than we used to. I do not see our motivation as a seeking after prestige, but as an attempt to dramatize the importance of certain values in an academic environment. The problem is that wearing a certain garb does not get at the core of the problem. If we were bold enough, we could issue religious garb to the entire faculty and require them to wear it on campus. The core of the problem is that the entire Church, and indeed the entire world, has to come to terms with modern culture.
Church authorities point out that the Church in the “less developed” world is drawing priesthood candidates. Seminaries, they say, are full. However, those regions are starting from a much smaller base, and have a much greater need. For example, we consider ourselves in North America as severely under-staffed with priests, with one priest for every 1,536 Catholics. In Asia the ratio is one for every 2,310 Catholics, in Africa it is one for every 4,729, and in South America it is one for every 7,155 Catholics (Statistical Yearbook of the Church, as cited in “The CARA Report,” Summer, 2008). But large segments of society in Asia, Africa, and South America are hell bent on replicating the cultural patterns of western Europe and the U.S. As they succeed in doing this, will they run up against the same problems we are having? I think they will.
If secularism is the lion, and the U.S. is the den of secularism, we have to “beard the lion in its den.” We have to deal with it where it is strongest, not where it is weakest.
The wearing of distinctive women’s garb (the head-scarf, hijab, in more secular Muslim societies, or the burqah or chador in more religious ones) is a matter of controversy in many places. Iran is the most dramatic example. Under the Shah, women in Iran were encouraged to become educated and to abandon such garb. After the Khomeini revolution, the chador, the head-to-toe covering of women, was re-instated and enforced by law. These regulations, which the novelist Azar Nafisi portrays in Reading Lolita in Tehran, are oppressive, but seem mild in comparison to the practices of the Taliban, who burn girls’ schools.
The Catholic Church hierarchy’s attempts to restrict discussion of priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, and inclusive language in the liturgy are the Catholic version of the same struggle, a struggle over the role of women. The hierarchy seems to believe that essential Church beliefs are under attack by modern gender norms, and that the Church must take a stand against those norms.
The real issue is one that sociologists of religion have been discussing for the last forty years: can religion survive the secularizing influences of what we call “modernity”? We Catholics in the U.S. answer with a resounding “yes,” and even Benedict seems to recognize that we are doing something right here. But when it comes to patterns of gender behavior, the United States suddenly becomes the opposition. The Church here seems to be maintaining a remarkably high level of church involvement by its laity, far higher than that maintained in Italy, but we are accused of selling out to a secular culture. It would be tragic if the developments of the last forty years in liturgy and parish life here in the U.S. were to be replaced by a 1950s Catholic culture.
Officially, celibacy has nothing to do with norms about women’s behavior. Celibacy is intended to allow the priest, in St. Paul’s words, to be “concerned about the things of God.” If he were married, he would have to be concerned about pleasing his wife. But in actuality celibacy requires that women be kept at a distance. Priests are not to socialize too much with women. Dropping norms of separation from women will result in the “loss of vocation,” and certainly history has borne this out. Sexual attraction is one of the strongest of human tendencies, one that certainly deserves to be labeled as “natural law.” The price of celibacy is separation from women, and, just as in racial matters, separate is inherently unequal.
The real battle is over the issue of sexuality, and of how to manage it so that its power can build up society rather than destroy its fabric. The mullahs believe that women must be covered because otherwise men will be unable to restrain themselves. Men certainly have problems restraining themselves, but veiling the women will not solve the problem.
The fact that we are not able to motivate young people in our country to accept Church norms about celibacy and the ordination of women says that the Church cannot avoid the issue. We are not persuading young men and women to live apart in the ways that celibacy requires. We are no more successful in persuading young women to dress in traditional religious habits than the authorities in Iran are in persuading young women there to wear the chador. A few will do it. The rest, unless forced by law, will choose otherwise.
The solution is that the Church must reconfigure its leadership to allow for the development of healthy male-female relationships. This does not mean accepting promiscuity, it means accepting fidelity. It is a scandal that canon law expels members of religious orders the moment the person “attempts marriage,” but defends the man or woman against expulsion when the behavior involves simple fornication. This norm contradicts the Church’s claim that it stands in favor of committed marriage relationships over temporary sexual liaisons.
One obstacle, probably the biggest one, standing in the way of allowing priests to marry is the issue of property. It costs a lot less to support a celibate man than to support a man with wife and children. That argument made sense when Church finances centered on the day-to-day operation of parishes and seminaries. But suddenly the Church in this country has had to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to pay lawsuits involving sexual misconduct of priests. If we in the Church can find huge sums of money to settle lawsuits, we should be able to pay a living wage to priests who have families.
The experience of men and women in Catholic Worker houses is a good model. Many young people have been drawn to the Catholic Worker because of its style of living in poor neighborhoods and inviting needy men and women to share their home. The idealism that draws these Workers is the same as the idealism that drew so many of us as young men and women to priesthood and religious life. But often, as the days of struggling with human realities pass by, Workers find themselves drawn to each other and end up deciding to commit themselves to marriage. A few, like Dorothy Day herself, continue to live in the Worker communities and raise children there. Others leave but keep contact with the Workers and develop ministries that serve the Church and society in the places where they decide to live. There is no pressure to marry, and there is no pressure to avoid marriage. As God calls, the men and women involved are free to respond without censure by the group. In fact, their commitment to each other is seen as an enrichment of the group.
Celibacy has locked the Church into a system where young men and women cannot commit themselves to the Church during the years when they have the most idealism and energy. Instead, they must spend those years in some other work. If their desire to serve the Church survives these years, they can then enter the seminary or religious life. They are now able to make a “mature vocational decision.” Meanwhile they have moved further and further away from the direct contact with younger people that could inspire those younger people to follow a Gospel calling. I decided in the sixth grade that I wanted to be a priest. Our parish had a kindly pastor in his late 60s. I admired him, but the man who had the most influence on my desire to serve the Church was his younger assistant, just ordained, who taught catechism in our school and brought his dog “Smoky” to the classes.
Of course, as Rome knows, if men are allowed to marry and still be priests, women will not be far behind in seeking ordination. That is the dynamic of life in our cultures. The question the Church has to ask is, can we win this battle?
Years ago I heard a Methodist minister predict that the Catholic Church will go the way of the Anglican Church. As the number of Anglican ministers declined, a lay movement sprang up and replaced Anglicanism with a new form of Christianity, Methodism. What was lost was Eucharist, the thing that Catholicism has always seen as central to a Christian life.
No one has counted the number of young Catholic women who have left the Church to seek ordination in a Protestant community. No one has counted the number of young Catholic men who have reluctantly decided to choose another life course than priesthood because they were not sure they could commit themselves to lifelong celibacy. All we see are aging priests, sisters, and brothers. Meanwhile Church authorities keep hoping for a turnaround, light at the end of the tunnel.
I don’t think it will work. The only solution is to back up out of the tunnel and make use of the light that is already out there.