Goodbye Father: The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church

Goodbye Father: The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church


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In the last half-century, the number of Catholic priests has plummeted by 40% while the number of Catholics has skyrocketed, up 65%. The specter of a faith defined by full pews and empty altars hangs heavy over the church.
The root cause of this priest shortage is the church's insistence on mandatory celibacy. Given the potential recruitment advantages of abandoning the celibacy requirement, why, Richard A. Schoenherr asks, is the conservative Catholic coalition—headed by the pope—so adamantly opposed to a married clergy? The answer, he argues, is that accepting married priests would be but the first step toward ordaining women and thus forever altering the demographics of a resolutely male religious order.
Yet Schoenherr believes that such change is not only necessary but unavoidable if the church is to thrive. The church's current stop-gap approach of enlisting laypeople to perform all but the central element of the mass only further serves to undermine the power of the celibate priesthood. Perhaps most importantly, doctrinal changes, a growing pluralism in the church, and the feminist movement among nuns and laywomen are exerting a growing influence on Catholicism.
Concluding that the collapse of celibate exclusivity is all but inevitable, Goodbye Father presents an urgent and compelling portrait of the future of organized Catholicism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195175752
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 09/02/2004
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 5.60(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

The late Richard A. Schoenherr was a member of the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. David Yamane is Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

Read an Excerpt

Goodbye Father

The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church
By Richard A. Schoenherr

Oxford University Press

Copyright ©2004 Richard A. Schoenherr
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0195175751

Chapter One


Many insist that mandatory celibacy for priests is not the issue behind the malaise plaguing Roman Catholicism. They say that the problem goes far deeper and to suggest that allowing priests to marry will solve the Church's ills smacks of naivete at best. I agree that celibacy is not the issue. I maintain, however, that celibate exclusivity is. This distinction is crucial. Understanding the ramifications of compulsory celibacy is the key that unlocks one of the most complex enigmas facing the Catholic Church. Moreover, the law of priestly celibacy has hidden implications for modern society as a whole.

Not everyone recognizes celibate exclusivity of the priesthood as the root problem. For example, the malaise in Catholicism is also blamed on clericalism, especially in the form of limited lay participation in ministry. A recent report on French Canada paints a rosy picture of Catholic congregationalism in Quebec-with decidedly feminine tones. Canadian Catholics report approvingly that "in Montreal, women publicly baptize on Sundays. In St. Jean Longueuil, women preach during Mass regularly. In Valleyfield and LabradorCity-Schefferville, women are diocesan chancellors." Montreal Archbishop Jean-Claude Turcotte strongly prefers the new lay-animated church. He affirms, "We have discovered the role of all the baptized people ... [who] are responsible for the evangelization of the world." The archbishop insists: "To recover a Church of priests could be a facile thing.... We would remove celibacy, for example, as a legislation, then we'll find all these wonderful married men, and that would solve our problem, get the Church again in the hands of the clergy. That would be a frightening thing to me in the light of Vatican II."

In a similar vein, Monsignor William Shannon, a priest in Rochester, New York, calls for lay participation as the solution to the priest shortage. He writes: "Were this done, it would obviate the necessity of priests becoming 'circuit-riders,' going from one place to another to say words that only they can say." Circuit-rider is "a lonely, depressing position for the priest and a trying situation for the parish communities." The monsignor agrees with one of his friends who said he "would rather pump gas than become a 'circuit-rider priest.'" So Shannon concludes: "How much more sense it would make, in the absence of a resident pastor, to have someone who is known as the leader in that parish community preside at the community's liturgy." Admittedly, congregationalism is one possible solution to the priest shortage. The essential trait of congregationalism is to eradicate the theological distinction between clergy and laity by permitting laypeople to officiate at liturgical services. As a permanent answer, however, it undermines the essential nature of Roman Catholicism.

From another viewpoint, the Catholic emphasis on sacraments may seem to be the issue at stake. For example, in a recent study of reasons why Catholics leave the Church, the sociologist Father Andrew Greeley cites the shoddy celebration of sacraments as the major cause. Greeley writes that "those who were thinking of leaving were troubled not so much by the 'mass-media' issues of birth control, abortion, divorce, the ordination of women, and celibacy, but by the absence of spiritual and religious leadership in the Church." His data show that the sacraments "are the strongest predictor of propensity to stay in the Church" and that they "exercise a notable impact in diminishing the effect of those dissatisfactions with the institution (such as lack of respect for women), which incline people to leave the Church."

What, then, is the issue? Are the quandaries over mandatory celibacy and the ordination of women only problems trumped up by the media? According to Greeley, "The issue ought to be, rather, how to make the experience of sacrament so appealing, so seductive that those who have drifted to the fringes of the Church will be lured back toward the center." Indisputably, Roman Catholicism is a sacramental church, and as such, Catholic spiritual leadership is inextricably tied to priesthood. The current form of priesthood, however, is locked into male celibate exclusivity. According to extensive research, mandatory celibacy is the most frequently cited cause of poor recruitment and retention of priests. The priest shortage creates understaffed parishes and overworked pastors, a situation that in turn creates the conditions for shoddy sacraments.

If sacraments are what it means to be Catholic-as acknowledged by pope, bishop, theologian, sociologist, and Catholic survey respondent alike-then church leaders face some practical questions. Is the boundary around the pool of talents that are needed to make sacramental encounters appealing, even seductive, drawn too narrowly? How much longer can the ecological niche of Catholic dioceses yield enough celibate men to meet the sacramental demands of a growing and increasingly educated laity? Welcomed advances in education, theology, and liturgy have deepened the appreciation of the Catholic laity for well-celebrated sacraments. With greater demand and deeper appreciation, why should sacraments continue to rely exclusively on the availability of male celibate ministers? If all the traditional elements of Catholic ministry cannot be maintained, which ones are expendable-sacrament and priesthood or celibacy and male exclusivity? And if male celibate exclusivity is abandoned in Roman Catholicism, what effect will that have on patriarchy in the wider society? For committed and aware Catholics, these are no longer rhetorical questions. The current generation of Catholics faces an either-or decision. The Church will either have to guarantee this generation its baptismal right of access to the sacraments or continue to insist on a male celibate priesthood. The choices are mutually exclusive.

Celibate Exclusivity Is the Issue

Although celibate exclusivity is the issue and decline in the priesthood population is its symptom, the priest shortage is not a story of the faults and failings of latter-day male Catholics too spiritually weak to espouse the celibate state. There is simply no evidence that young priests and candidates for the priesthood are less spiritual nowadays than those of prior generations. Thus, celibacy by itself is not the issue. Furthermore, ascribing the degeneration of an organizational form like the priesthood to the spiritual behavior of individuals is a "grievous misunderstanding" of social reality. The purposive choices of seminarians and priests who decide to enter and remain active in the Catholic priesthood are deeply embedded in social relations that are complex, constantly changing, and riddled with conflict.

The world around the Catholic priesthood has changed dramatically. A matrix of social forces has transformed and continues to alter the core structures of the Catholic Church. The priesthood is at the very center of that structural core. According to my demographic data, the current sociological form of priesthood is in a state of degeneration. Thus, as Catholicism enters its third millennium it faces an imposing dilemma: whether to reinforce male celibate exclusivity in ministry, and thus reproduce the structures of patriarchy, or to reinforce the primordial tradition of eucharistic sacrifice and, hierarchy of control that, compose the essence of Catholicism.

I contend that the priest shortage brings, the issue of celibate exclusivity to center stage. But male exclusivity, which is sorely challenged by feminism, is standing in the wings. Despite the brilliant tactics of the current papacy, Rome cannot withstand the relentless forces of structural conflict generated by demographic and other social changes. Arguably, the right mix of forces precipitating radical change is now reaching a critical threshold. In the near future, a big step toward deconstructing patriarchy in the Roman Catholic Church and, therefore, in the wider society will be taken with the ordination of married men. Optional celibacy for priests will be legitimated amid conflict but will spread and be routinized in the next two or three generations. Once women and children are allowed in the sacred minister's inner chambers, the ordination of women will follow, though with even greater conflict. Nevertheless, gender equality in ministry will spread and also be routinized, but much more slowly than the inclusion of married men in the priesthood. In the end, the world's largest religious organization will allow women to control access to the means of salvation along with men. As the process unfolds, father-rule in Western society will be dealt a severe blow.

Social Change in the Catholic Church

These conclusions follow from a careful consideration of social conditions that are changing the face of Roman Catholicism. I present a sociological argument, based on theories and methods used in classic sociological literature but also drawn from recent developments in organization science, sociology of religion, and social demography. The main thrust of the argument is grounded in empirical evidence. For a full understanding, however, the explanation must go beyond the evidence into theoretical speculation. The speculations are convincing to the extent that the theory and any inferential evidence are compelling.

The diagram in figure 1 provides a map of how the argument unfolds. It incorporates four levels of analysis. The first examines long-term historical, institutional, and ecological trends (segments 1 and 2). The second investigates the sequence of attitudes and behaviors that explain motivation and choice at the social psychological level (segment 3). The third highlights organizational change; this is the major focus of the model (segments 4-6). The last shows the effects of these antecedent changes on structural change in society (segment 7).

Organizational Change

The changing structural form of the priesthood is the starting point of the theoretical argument (segment 6). The defining characteristic of the Catholic priesthood is its fourfold monopoly of ministerial expertise and control. As it is currently structured, the priesthood exercises sacramental, sacerdotal, male, and celibate monopoly over access to the means of salvation for all believers, notions I develop in part II.

I demonstrate that male and celibate exclusivity are the attributes most vulnerable to change. Indeed, during the transformation of the structural form of priesthood that is looming on the horizon, these will be dropped as ideal-typical characteristics. Sacramental and hierarchic hegemony, however, are permanent traits because they compose the deep structure of priesthood. Note, however: The translation of these permanent elements at the level of surface structure is constantly subject to change.

The priest shortage (segment 4) is the driving force that triggers conflict between conservative and progressive coalitions in the Church (segment 5). Sustained loss of critical priestly resources produces an organizational crisis that allows a progressive coalition to succeed in eliminating, first, celibate, exclusivity and, eventually, male exclusivity as part of the structural form of priesthood.

Sacramental and hierarchic hegemony constitute the essence of priesthood. So these attributes will not be lost during the organizational transformation of Catholicism, but they will be modified. Social trends have reduced the over-emphasis on sacramentalism in Catholic piety and introduced a new respect for the Bible, thus weakening but not eliminating the sacramental monopoly of control over the means of salvation. With less emphasis on the Sacrament and greater stress on the Word of God, the clerical or hierarchic hegemony of Catholic ministry stemming from priestly ordination is likewise mitigated. As laypeople preside at Bible-based worship services, the priesthood loses part, but by no means all; of its hierarchic monopoly of control.

Social Psychological Change

Widespread rejection of mandatory celibacy has been identified by researchers as the primary cause of poor recruitment and retention in the Catholic priesthood (segment 3). Strong social psychological evidence supporting this statement is presented in chapter 2. This becomes the crux of the analysis: Why are so few young priests and seminary candidates willing to practice lifelong celibacy? Moreover, why has this become a contentious issue at the end of the twentieth century, when mandatory celibacy for priests has been a universal Roman Catholic institution since the twelfth century?

The argument diagrammed in figure I stands or falls on whether the disaffection with mandatory celibacy is a temporary or long-range trend. If temporary, adequate recruitment and retention of male celibate priests would be restored once the disaffection passes. The priest shortage would soon subside and along with it the impetus to transform the structural form of the priesthood. If permanent, the shortage will worsen and the pressure for a radical solution to the crisis will mount, as the model predicts.

Historical, Institutional, and Ecological Change

Along with compulsory celibacy, a second major impact on the priest shortage comes from ecological trends in the United States (segment 2). As the priest supply wanes in this country, the lay membership of the Catholic Church continues to grow. Obviously, it takes a dwindling supply and a constant or growing demand to create a shortage. A relatively young age structure along with high fertility and immigration rates are causing steady growth in the U.S. Catholic population. Moreover, moderately high church attendance helps maintain demand for priestly resources. An alternative answer to the priest shortage could come from decline in membership or attendance. This would reduce demand and obviate the need for a large priest supply. But few church leaders would welcome that solution, nor is it likely, given ecological trends.

The impact of ecological change in the United States on the priest shortage is reinforced by a matrix of historical and institutional trends that affect the worldwide Catholic Church (segment 1). These include (1) a shift from dogmatism to pluralism in worldviews, (2) change from a transcendentalist to a personalist construction of human sexuality, (3) decline of a Eurocentric Church and rise in a worldwide inculturation of Catholicism, (4) decline in male superiority and rise in female equality embodied in the feminist movement, (5) decline in clerical control and rise in lay participation embodied in the Roman Catholic lay movement, and (6) decline in sacramentalism and rise in Bible-based worship embodied in the Roman Catholic liturgical movement.


Excerpted from Goodbye Father by Richard A. Schoenherr Copyright ©2004 by Richard A. Schoenherr. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Part I Celibacy, Patriarchy, and the Priest Shortage
1 Celibate Exclusivity Is the Issue
2 Compulsory Celibacy and the Priest Shortage
Part II Social Change in Organized Religion
3 Toward a Theory of Social Change in Organized Religion
4 The Transpersonal Paradigm
5 The Special Character of Organized Religion
6 Forces for Change in Catholic Ministry
Part III Conflict and Paradox
7 Unity and Diversity
8 Immanence and Transcendence
9 Hierarchy and Hierophany
Part IV Coalitions in the Catholic Church
10 Bureaucratic Counterinsurgency in Catholic History
11 Priestly Coalition
12 Prophetic Coalition
Part V Continuity and Change
13 The Collapse of Celibate Exclusivity
14 Goodbye Father

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