priest shortage

Thinking about married priests: Has this issue outgrown old 'left' vs. 'right' framework?

Thinking about married priests: Has this issue outgrown old 'left' vs. 'right' framework?

Long ago — in the mid-1980s — I covered an event in Denver that drew quite a few conservative Catholic leaders. There was lots of time to talk, in between sessions.

During one break, I asked a small circle of participants to tell me what they thought were the biggest challenges facing the Catholic church. This was about the time — more than 30 years ago — laypeople people began talking about the surge in reports about clergy sexual abuse of children and teens.

Someone said the biggest challenge — looking into the future with a long lens — was the declining number of men seeking the priesthood. At some point, he added, the church would need to start ordaining married men to the priesthood. Others murmured agreement.

I made a mental note. This was the first time I had ever heard Catholic conservatives — as opposed to spirit of Vatican II progressives or ex-priests — say that they thought the Church of Rome would need to return to the ancient pattern — with married priests as the norm, and bishops being drawn from among celibate monastics. Since then, I have heard similar remarks from some Catholics on the right.

That hot button term — “married priests” — is back in the news, with open talk in the Amazon region about the ordination older married men, drawn from their local communities, to the priesthood.

Could this happen? Let’s look at two think pieces by well-known Catholic priests, one on the left side of the church and one on the right. The conservative priest — a former Anglican pastor — is married, with a family.

First up is the omnipresent — in U.S. media circles — Jesuit journalist Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analysts at Religion News Service. He used to be the editor at America magazine. Here is a crucial chunk of a recent Reese commentary for RNS:

Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed. … Although Pope Francis places a very high value on celibacy, he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don’t have priests.

After all, which is more important, a celibate priesthood or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” not “have a celibate priesthood.”

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AP digs into 'gay priests' wars, starting with views of 'moderate' Father James Martin

AP digs into 'gay priests' wars, starting with views of 'moderate' Father James Martin

First things first: Let me point readers to a must-watch video feature that will be taking place in real time in an hour or so after this post.

At 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time, veteran Washington Post religion reporter will take part in a streaming video session focusing on the Pennsylvania grand jury report on Catholic Church sex abuse. Watch here: Watch here: https://www.twitch.tv/washingtonpost

Then, at 3:30 p.m. ET, Post editor Marty Baron will take part. The Post PR email said he will be talking about the "Boston Globe reporting and present day accountability in the Catholic Church." Baron was, of course, editor of the Globe during it's famous "Spotlight" project on clergy sexual abuse.

The Post media team said that video clips will be available -- hopefully on YouTube -- after the live stream.

Now, back to business. Needless to say, readers saw the Associated Press report that ran all over the place with headlines similar to this one, from Religion News Service: "Cardinal McCarrick scandal inflames debate over gay priests."

Yes, your GetReligionistas saw it, too. In fact, you would not believe the amount of email I am getting (lots of nasty "spiked" comments board stuff, as well) about how the mainstream editors and even GetReligion folks have downplayed the "gay priests are the problem" angle in this story.

It is certainly true that some elite newsrooms don't want to investigate the issue of sexually active gay priests -- period. However, as I stressed the other day, There are crucial voices on the Catholic left and right who agree that the "non-celibate gay priests" angle has to be seen in a larger, more complex context.

Please allow me to repeat my summary on that subject, included in a post the other day with this headline: "The must-cover 'Big Ideas' at heart of the complex Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis." I do this because I think that this is the clearest statement I have made, so far, on journalism about this hot-button topic:

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Pope worries about Europe 'hemorrhaging' priests, nuns: Spot big hole in short AP story? (updated)

Pope worries about Europe 'hemorrhaging' priests, nuns: Spot big hole in short AP story? (updated)

I apologize for going on and on about this subject, but when it comes to the religion beat this is only one of the most important Catholic news stories in the world.

Come to think of it, questions about changing birth rates and demographics are important when covering Judaism, Islam, Pentecostal Christianity, Mormons, liberal Protestantism and other major faith groups, as well.

So let's connect some dots here, starting with another one of those formal Pope Francis statements that receives little mainstream news coverage, as opposed to the off-the-cuff or maybe even misquoted Francis statements (click for the latest) that leap into the headlines.

So here is the top of a short Associated Press report that probably didn't appear in your local newspaper. Yes, this is a summary of some very familiar trends:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis voiced alarm Monday at the “hemorrhaging” of nuns and priests in Italy and Europe, saying God only knows how many seminaries, monasteries, convents and churches will close because fewer people are being called to lives of religious service.

Francis told Italy’s bishops he was concerned about the “crisis of vocations” in a region of the world that once was one of the biggest sources of Catholic missionaries. He said Italy and Europe were entering a period of “vocational sterility” to which he wasn’t sure a solution exists.

The number of Catholic priests worldwide declined by 136 to 415,656 in 2015, the last year for which data is available. But according to Vatican statistics, the decrease was greatest in Europe, where there were 2,502 fewer priests compared to 2014. The number was offset by increases in priestly vocations in Africa and Asia, where the church as a whole is growing.

Let's pause for a moment and ask: Why are the statistics for vocations so much higher among Catholics in Africa and Asia? Might this have something to do with that familiar duo of doctrine and demographics?

So what did Pope Francis have to say, this time around, in terms of the cause of the current crisis in Europe?

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Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

This week was an important one for me, since it marked the 30th anniversary of the start of my weekly national "On Religion" column. That very first column on April 11, 1988, focused on Pat Robertson -- but the real topic was American evangelicals trying to figure out White House Politics (imagine that).

Now, if you do some #DUH math, that would mean that 20 years ago I wrote a 10th anniversary column. In that column I focused on what I thought was the "Big Idea," the central theme, I had spotted in American religion-beat news over that time.

I described a scene that I kept seeing in my work as a journalist, one most easily seen at rallies linked to "culture wars" topics in American public life. Thus, I wrote this in 1998:

A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a "moderate" Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today's social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about "strange bedfellows," it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

That led me back to the work of the scholar whose work had influenced me the most in that era. You see, all kinds of people use the term "culture wars" these days, but it's important to remember how that term was defined by the man who wrote the book.

Yes, this is precisely where "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I started this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, back to the 1998 column. This is long, but essential:

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Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

This week's Crossroads podcast is all about connecting the dots.

Warning: This is a rather confusing podcast (click here to tune that in). Host Todd Wilken and I wander all over the map, touching on topics ranging from shuttered Episcopal cathedrals to declining (and growing) Southern Baptist statistics, from Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod arguments about worship to declining numbers of students in Catholic seminaries, as well as in some (repeat some) urban Catholic parish pews.

Along the way, there's lots and lots of talk about religious real estate (as in my recent post, "There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America"). Lots of this once-sacred real estate is for sale in prime urban locations, from sea to shining sea.

Do you see any connections yet? Basically, we are talking about some of the biggest stories in American religion. The thread that connects them is demographics and the tricky subject of why some religious congregations (and denominations) die while others grow.

Ah, you say, that's all about where these institutions are located! How did The New York Times team -- not the religion desk, by the way -- put it the other day, in the latest of many Times stories about religious sanctuaries sporting "for sale" signs? That headline proclaimed: "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship." The key paragraph looked like this:

This situation is playing out again and again across New York City. Upward mobility, suburban growth and the dissolution of traditional ethnic enclaves have all contributed to empty pews, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Twenty-seven percent of New Yorkers identified as religiously unaffiliated in 2014, compared with 17 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

Now, in my post I noted that the final sentence there points off the secular real estate map, with a reference to the "Nones" trend that has been one of America's biggest religion-beat themes in recent years.

But, you see, even in New York City there are booming religious movements and congregations, as well as those that are fading. Did you know that?

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More married priests? This was the rare papal sound bite that received some calm, informed coverage

More married priests? This was the rare papal sound bite that received some calm, informed coverage

Of all the Catholic debates I have watched through the decades, I think stories about the ordination of married men have been the hardest for mainstream journalists to fit into the old left vs. right format.

Yes, it's easy to find priests and scholars on the left for whom changes of any kind are good. Thus, they say hurrah for married priests. Many of the priests who hit church exit doors to get married soon after Vatican II fit this model. Shake up the church is their mantra.

Obviously, you can always find conservative Catholics who will oppose just about any change in church life, just by reflex. Their dogma is to leave everything the way it is.

However, you will also find plenty of Catholic experts -- left and right -- who know that this issue is a matter of church order and tradition, not carved-in-stone doctrine. They know that married men now serve as priests, under certain circumstances, and they know that the celibate priesthood evolved over the centuries. I have interviewed many Catholics -- especially Latinos -- who for a variety of reasons believe the church needs married priests. I have long argued that Rome will ordained more men when conservatives seek the change.

In other words, this isn't really a Sexual Revolution issue. Thus, if you have been seeing generic left vs. right press coverage of the latest Pope Francis statement on this issue, then move on. Find a better story.

In this case, you can start with The New York Times, with the calm headline stating: "Pope Francis Signals Openness to Ordaining Married Men in Some Cases." This story sounds all the crucial notes right up top, in the overture or soon thereafter:

Pope Francis this week signaled receptiveness to appeals from bishops in the remote and overwhelmed corners of the Roman Catholic Church to combat a deepening shortage of priests by ordaining married men who are already committed to the church.

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Will Catholicism admit women deacons or deaconesses to ranks of ordained clergy?

Will Catholicism admit women deacons or deaconesses to ranks of ordained clergy?

THE QUESTION:

What are the reasons the Catholic Church might, or might not, ordain women in the clerical rank of deacon? (Almost all Q and A topics are posted by our online audience, but The Guy decided to pose this timely question himself.)

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Catholicism’s long-simmering discussion about whether to ordain women into the clerical ranks as “permanent deacons” took a dramatic turn May 12 when Pope Francis said he’ll form a commission to study the issue. His promise came during seemingly off-the-cuff answers to questions during a Rome session with the International Union of Superiors General, whose members lead nearly 500,000 nuns and sisters in religious orders.

Without doubt, female deacons would be a major change. Liberals hope — and conservatives fear — that permitting women to be deacons would be a step toward allowing female priests. However, that’s a distant prospect if not an impossibility considering Pope John Paul II’s absolute prohibition in his 1994 apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.”

To explain that term “permanent diaconate”: The order of deacons in the early church gradually dwindled over centuries so that eventually ordination as a “deacon” became a mere stepping-stone for men on the path to priesthood. (That usage occurs in Anglican and Episcopal churches. Lutheran deacons, male and female, fill a permanent office, not a temporary one. Baptists use the deacon title for lay members who govern congregations with the pastor.)

Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65) restored the “permanent diaconate” as a third, separate and ongoing ministerial order in its own right that is subordinate to priests and bishops. Particularly in North America, which has half the world total, such deacons help ameliorate the shortage of priests.

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Doctrinal questions? Chicago Catholics have fewer marriages, babies and, well, priests

Doctrinal questions? Chicago Catholics have fewer marriages, babies and, well, priests

The big Catholic news out of the Archdiocese of Chicago -- the nation's third-largest diocese -- has become shockingly normal, perhaps so normal that journalists aren't even asking basic questions about this trend anymore.

The Chicago Tribune put one of the big numbers right up top in its latest report, noting that the Chicago archbishop -- a man closely identified with the tone of the Pope Francis era -- is now facing a crisis that will literally cost him altars. How many churches will he need to shutter? The current estimate is 100.

It's hard to keep Catholic church doors open without priests:

A radical overhaul in the nation's third-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese could shutter many of the Chicago church's houses of worship by 2030 as it reckons with decaying buildings and an expected shortage of priests, the church's chief operating officer confirmed Friday.
Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich told priests and advisers in meetings in recent weeks that the shortage -- an estimated 240 priests available in 2030 for the archdiocese's 351 parishes -- could necessitate closings and consolidations. The archdiocese governs parishes in Cook and Lake counties.

So what are the basic questions here? Yes, obviously, there is the question Catholic leaders have been asking for several decades: Where have all the seminarians gone? Why is a larger church producing fewer priests?

Looking at the hard-news coverage of the Chicago crisis, other questions leap to mind (or to my mind, at least). People keep saying that the "demographics" of the church have changed. This is true, but that only raises more questions that link demographics and doctrine. Hold that thought.

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Yo, New York Times: Does everyone agree as to why all those Catholic parishes are closing?

Yo, New York Times: Does everyone agree as to why all those Catholic parishes are closing?

Faithful GetReligion readers know that, in the past, we have praised the New York Times Metro desk team for its coverage of the painful wave of Catholic church closings and parish mergers that has hit the Archdiocese of New York.

However, there has been a rather ironic subplot running through some of the coverage.

You know how your GetReligionistas are always complaining that mainstream reporters always find a way to find each and every possible political thread in religion-news stories, even if there are doctrinal themes that are much more central to the event? Think coverage of papal tours, for examples.

Now, the irony is that the Times team -- when covering these parish mergers and closings -- seems almost completely tone-deaf to some pretty obvious elements of Catholic politics (and real-estate business) linked to this story, elements that are pretty easy to tune in online.

I know that the Times folks know these elements are there, because they have seen them in the past and I praised them for it:

So implied issues of ethnicity, history, economic justice, liturgical style and theology. I've heard of churches exploding in fits of bitterness over the changing of hymnals and stained-glass windows. Imagine closing 50 churches in a city as complex as New York -- with all of the economic questions raised by locations of these facilities.
Air rights? How about prime land in a city with a real-estate and building boom that is almost out of control. For Cardinal Timothy Dolan, there are no easy financial and spiritual decisions here.

But the latest story is totally centered on people and emotions -- which are crucial elements of the story, of course. But there are other layers worth pursuing, especially linked to liturgy and tensions in the church. Oh yes, and demographics loom in the background, once again. 

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