NOW THAT former priest Paul Shanley has been convicted and the pope is out of the hospital, Catholics can face other troubling realities. But time is running out. The church is in deep trouble, and we're not even talking about the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Over the last 25 years it has seen a steady erosion of the priest population. The latest figures are hard to think about. But Lent is a time to deal with reality.
For the first time in recent years, statistical reports have shown that the Roman Catholic Church has a shortage of about 160,000 priests worldwide, if we use staffing standards of 1978 when John Paul II became pope. US churches need about 10,000 priests. The number of priests has remained relatively stagnant during this pontiff's rule, but church membership has grown by 250 million. In the United States, for every one priest who is ordained, three are dying, retiring, or leaving for various reasons.
To reverse this trend, bishops must bring the church out of its tailspin. The focal point is figuring out how to recruit and train new priests -- and quickly. Otherwise, more churches will have to close.What can be done?
First, everyone knows that ordaining women is a papal no-no and will not be acted upon in the near future.
Second, calling back the 20,000 US priests who have left to marry in the last 30 years is not going to fly. The reason is that the church forgives, but it does not forget. The bishops do not want a new crop of priests to marry because the bishops have taken a vow of celibacy and it would look like backsliding. The thought of priests searching for soulmates on eHarmony.com is shocking to most bishops. Plan B to the rescue.
The church has about 14,000 deacons in the United States who are serving the church in a variety of capacities, including baptisms. They are one step away from the priesthood, but between them and the priesthood is a huge chasm. About 90 percent of these men are married. Thus, they don't qualify unless the church decides to ordain married men who are already members of the clergy class.
With one stroke of a pen, US bishops could demand that the Vatican acquiesce and allow them to begin training and ordaining married deacons. A few more years of study by these men could yield as many as 5,000 new priests for US dioceses alone. Other countries could follow suit.
The ordination of married deacons would forever change the US church and Roman Catholicism. First, it would provide full-time leaders that bishops are now unable to recruit because the priesthood is tied to celibacy. By ordaining married deacons, fewer churches in Boston and elsewhere in the United States would have to close and local parishes would be invigorated with new leaders who could better understand the needs of the church and its families.
Second, over the years these men could help formulate church policy in terms of family values and fiscal responsibility; they are experienced because they pay bills every month and raise children.
Third, the vast majority of Catholics would be delighted to see that the bishops can do something right. Catholics could be proud of the institution once again.
Such a change could be the first step toward parish renewal. Finally, we would have a success story. More envelopes would be dropped in collection baskets -- no small matter considering the financial problems the church is facing. Ordaining married deacons would be a way for the church to solve one of its biggest problems and to move on.