I am sure this topic has been discussed many times on these forums, but (in light of today’s first reading) I just wanted to offer my two cents…
First of all, every honest person must acknowledge that we have a shortage of priests in the United States that is only likely to get worse as aging priests retire. This places an increasing burden on the shoulders of those who do answer the call to the celibate priesthood, and who must do more and more work to minister to all the faithful, covering entire parishes (or sometimes more than one) by themselves, etc.
Secondly, I think any honest person must also admit that we could eliminate this priest shortage with one change to church discipline that would in no way contradict the doctrines of the Church: make celibacy optional for priests.
I have heard many arguments against this:
Priests are “married to the Church”, so they can’t also be married to a woman, etc.
— This is a pious expression that has no basis in Church teaching. Many priests have been and currently are married while fulfilling their priestly duties.
Many Protestant churches allow married ministers. They still have declining numbers of men pursuing that calling.
— This is to me a specious argument, comparing apples to oranges. Is the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church on the same footing as mainline liberal Protestant denominations that have all but abandoned orthodox Christianity? If I were a member of one of those churches, not only would I not want to be a minister, I would also not want to be a part of the congregation of an institution that had so clearly forfeited its commitment to orthodoxy. Surely the calling to be a Catholic priest, who confects the Eucharist and forgives sins, is stronger than the call to minister in a denomination that allows for contraception, female ordination, ordination of practicing homosexuals, etc.
The priest shortage is only a problem in the Western world. In the developing world there are plenty of priests being ordained.
— Yes, and in those countries, there is also widespread and rampant violation of priestly celibacy, such as would be a great scandal if it were to occur in the United States. Which is worse, a priest fathering children out of wedlock, or a priest satisfying his natural urge to sexual intimacy within the confines of marriage, a holy institution ordained by God?
But celibacy is preferable to marriage because a priest can wholly devote himself to his flock and to the things of God.
— Surely this is true for many men. Celibacy is a good and holy ideal, and for those who can accept it, a great blessing. However, one must acknowledge that for many priests it is a burden that causes great psychological distress and prevents them from carrying out their ministry to the best of their abilities. An unhappy and bitter priest is not a good priest. Look at the number of priests who drop out of active ministry each year, and one cannot deny that this is a problem. And those are only the most visible cases. How many more priests labor on heroically, burdened by not being able to share their lives and their most intimate selves with a wife and family?
Parish priests are so busy that there is no way they could make time for a family and also their priestly ministry.
— There are many professions that are equally demanding of time and effort as the priesthood. Surgeons who must take call regularly at the hospital, for instance. Or men that must work two or more jobs to support their families. Many lawyers. Jobs that require extensive travel, etc.
Furthermore, if celibacy were made optional, there would be more priests to share the workload in our parishes, and their wives could help as well, making things easier for everyone. This leads to the next objection:
How could a parish support a priest AND his family, let alone more than one family? The rectory wouldn’t be big enough, there wouldn’t be enough money, etc.
— The easiest objection to this is that this same situation is already dealt with in countless Eastern rite churches, Protestant congregations, synagogues, etc. Would it require the congregation paying more money to support the priest and his family, or even more than one family? Yes! Is it worth paying more money for happier, healthier priests, and in order to solve our priest shortage? I say, “Yes!” Can Catholics afford this? Yes!
In conclusion, at least in my experience, nearly every Catholic young man I have spoken with regarding whether or not he might be called to the priesthood is impeded by one thing: celibacy. There is all manner of self-deception that goes on here. To ease their consciences, guys will come up with a million other reasons why they shouldn’t be priests. I would ask them this, though: What if celibacy were made optional for the priesthood tomorrow-- would you still consider yourself not called to be a priest? In my experience, there are many, many young men who could not honestly answer “Yes” to that question.
I have heard people blame our “sex-obsessed” culture for the decline in men pursuing a calling to the priesthood. There may be truth to that, but this probably isn’t going away any time soon. Also, if it is such a big “problem” that more young men want to share their lives with a loving wife and family, I would say that is a pretty good problem to have-- marriage is a blessing from God.
I have known many, many strong, holy, intelligent, heterosexual Catholic men who would make EXCELLENT priests, but who are clearly dissuaded from going down that road because of the requirement for celibacy. In my opinion, this is a shame, and we should take a good, long look in the mirror and ask ourselves if it really makes sense to keep this discipline intact, both for the good of the faithful and for the good of our priests. Optional celibacy seems like the way to go.