What are we to do about the shortage of priests?
Catholic laity are remarkably patient. In earlier days they endured "irremovable" pastors who were cranky, ineffective, and sometimes downright nasty. When they did not have a priest, they pestered the hierarchy until they got one.
Catholic laity today are also patient, although some of them are choosing to exercise their patience away from the Catholic community. The reason they have to be patient is because their priests, who are getting older and older, are sometimes cranky, ineffective, and downright nasty. Not enough men are coming forward to be ordained to replace the ones that die, and the ones who do come seem to be "yes men" rather than men who can be involved with their people in vulnerable ways.
Why aren't more men coming forward to be ordained? The two more obvious reasons are: 1) life-long commitment, and 2) celibacy. The life-long obligation may be a more important difficulty for them than the celibacy. Young people today expect to make career changes. The argument that marriage involves a life-long commitment overstates the parallels between priesthood and marriage.
Garry Wills offers another explanation. Priests are required to defend in public things that they do not really believe. For example, no priest dares to say publicly that contraception is not sinful, even though surveys indicate that 80% or 90% of priests think that. This is uncomfortable for older priests like myself, who have been caught in the situation after we have already committed ourselves to priesthood. But I have to admit that if I were 20 years old and looking forward to taking up a role where I would have to defend things I did not believe, I would think twice and probably decline the entry.
Sometimes I ask myself, should I publicly challenge Church teachings I disagree with? My answer: I don't have that kind of courage. Church leaders prefer to use power rather than dialog.
I do not accuse the men who choose to be ordained of lack of integrity. I suspect that they are like I was at their age, totally committed to the Church and to its leaders, and assuming that anything the leaders say has to be true. While I would not accuse them of lack of integrity, I would judge them captives of youthful naivete. I certainly was naive in my early years.
I also do not say that contraception is okay. Perhaps it is sinful, though the widespread use of contraceptives by otherwise pious Catholics suggests that the sensus fidelium does not see contraception as sinful. But if I were to believe that it is not sinful, I would want to be able to discuss the issue. That is precisely what Church authorities refuse to do. Who would choose to live muzzled?
What will happen?
Eventually I suspect that we will have a lay-led Church. So many priests will have died off that the laity will take over. We are already on the way, when there are more lay paid employees in the U.S. Church than there are clergy. Many of these laity are at least as well educated in theology as most of us priests were fifty years ago. At some point the Church will either decide to do without Eucharist or to start allowing new categories of people to lead the Eucharist. I put my money on the latter outcome.
Probably the people who will become bishops are the men who are now entering as priests. Some of them, like myself, will change their thinking and become "liberal." Most will not. But it won't make any difference. Control will have passed to laity.
The other factor that is likely to affect the situation is the rest of the world. Already there are more Catholics in the southern hemisphere than in the north. Some of those churches suffer from clergy shortages far worse than ours. Many of their people are every bit as "conservative" as our young clergy. But laity in their churches will be using contraception too.
We probably won't have a Vatican III, but we don't need one. We just have to move ahead in the directions Vatican II gave us. I think the Church will do that.