The Wasting Away of the Roman
Church in America
By Robert J. Willis, Ph.D.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest during the 1940’s. In my child’s world I clung to two certainties: my country, brave defender of freedom and human rights; my church, unflinching bastion of God’s revelation. Our armies vindicated me as they delivered Europe from Hitler and released Asia from the grip of fanatics like General Tojo and Emperor Hirohito. My church demonstrated its universality, its God-given power, and its openness to the Holy Spirit when mitered bishops streamed into Rome, responding to Pope John XXIII’s challenge to open and adapt to our modern world.
Then the unspeakable occurred. Our courageous country, in the name of checkmating worldwide communism, systematically set about destroying a tiny agricultural land in Southeast Asia. In fighting a guerrilla war we torched rural hamlets, slaughtered civilians in remote villages like My Lai, tortured Viet Cong prisoners in the CIA’s Phoenix Program, deforested broad sections of countryside with a poisonous chemical, and even carpet-bombed a sleeping Hanoi on Christmas Eve. Despite our advanced weaponry and righteous rhetoric, we failed. Oh yes, we lost the war and I buried my illusions.
In this same era, Vatican II concluded. On the surface, it translated our liturgies into the vernacular and strove for a fuller participation of the Catholic community in the church’s life. Most significantly, it shifted emphasis from the hierarchical church structure to the People of God. In doing so, it dropped a centuries-old defensive posture against our non-Catholic but Christian brethren, both Orthodox and Protestant. Unquestioning obedience to authority retreated as community spread among us and as ecumenism reached in love and understanding toward others.
When Paul followed John, caution replaced hope. Humanae Vitae turned the church’s direction away from the People of God, back to the security of moral theology, canon law, and papal commands. Liberation Theology, a hope of oppressed peoples, came under Vatican fire for being an offshoot of class-dividing communism. Its theologians and others responding to Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” and “The Church in the Modern World” endured close scrutiny, summonses to secret Roman hearings, admonishment or forced silence. Priests and religious, the church’s professionals, having rejoiced in the Council’s courageous steps, watched in dismay as Paul VI and his successor, John Paul II, discarded its inspiration, hope, and initiatives. These pontiffs redefined Catholicism as Roman and hierarchical and authoritarian; they formed a righteous community of conservative Catholics standing for orthodoxy and against their more liberal Vatican II co-religionists; they espoused an ecumenism of conciliation, one that expected wayward Christians to return in gratitude to their only true home. In response, disillusioned priests left despite bureaucratic obstacles. Religious houses and convents, monasteries and rectories, schools and hospitals depopulated as dashed hopes ceded to new possibilities outside Catholic institutions.
Today we taste the bitter fruit grown by that generation of civil and ecclesiastical rulers. Once more we are mired in a guerrilla conflict, a civil and religious one at that. Communism vanquished, we now prosecute a “war on terror.” As in Vietnam, we are concentrating masses of men and materiel, the world’s premiere army and newest technology, against homegrown fighters who fade in and out of urban neighborhoods. We have as much chance of dislodging this indigenous force as we did of shooing the VC out of their network of underground tunnels. Once we suffered from punji sticks and grenades; now we search for concealed I.E.D.’s and beware of suicide bombers. Abu Ghraib, rendition, and Guantanamo resume where Phoenix left off. Although over 3,000 of our troops have died, although 20,000 and more have sustained life-changing injuries, “we are making progress,” “we must stay the course,” “we will prevail,” “we must defeat the forces of terror in Iraq or they will attack us at home.” A fighter plane lands on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln; a current president declares: “Mission Accomplished.” Helicopters loaded with civilians lift frantically from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. And a black wall etched with an army of names of the fallen slashes into the bowels of the Capitol Mall.
Crisis is strangling the American Catholic Church. Apologists on every side exhaust themselves blaming others for the troubles. Few attempt to describe the actual situation. Let us, therefore, consider the following: the current state of our Catholic community, the future it faces if strong medicine is refused, and possible positive interventions that may lead to a more hopeful communal existence.
The American Church Today
Since the late Council, the Catholic congregation of the United States has grown in proportion to the overall American population. The hierarchy also has increased:
Cardinals 5 11
Archbishops 32 57
Bishops 229 396
Abbots 50 111
Clearly, our church does not lack prelates. More will not save us. Indeed, the pedophilia scandal that shocked us in the spring of 2002 and still roils points to quality, not quantity, as the problem. As the hierarchy appears criminal at the worst, incompetent at the best, or complicit at the least, we witness leaders void of moral stature. They safeguarded their clerical fraternity and ecclesiastical authority before standing for moral integrity and the preservation of youthful innocence. For the health of the community and its right to reliable Christian leadership, this hierarchy must transform from clerical to Catholic.
Thirty-five years ago, 22,352 parishes and missions housed our Catholic congregations. As an average, 1,918 believers worshipped in their home churches. By way of contrast, today an average of 3,160 people belong to 471 fewer parishes and missions. One easily concludes either that congregations are receiving diminished service in densely overcrowded parishes or large numbers of communicants exist only on parish rosters or as baptismal statistics and, therefore, do not require additional space or service. Reports of regular Sunday mass attendance of 31%, and an ongoing process of merging parishes, especially among poor and urban populations, makes declining parish participation the likely cause.
From 1967 to 2006 our American church membership grew by 15%. Even so, over the same time frame local churches note disproportionately decreased reception of the sacraments. Those traditionally celebrated as family occasions have fallen off significantly: infant baptisms (-8%), first communions (+2%), matrimony (-30%), ordinations (-16%), and burials (-2%). As a recent cover article of the National Catholic Reporter declared, Confession has become “the Disappearing Sacrament” (2/9/07). One may surmise that reception of the eucharist necessarily decreases as 69% of our people do not regularly attend weekly mass, with a conjectured 60% absent on any given Sunday. Fewer sacraments received, fewer masses attended help to explain fewer parishes and missions.
I studied in Catholic schools from the moment I entered the first grade at the Dominican Sisters’s St. Pauls Grade School till I graduated from the Jesuits’s Gonzaga University. Throughout those years I was surrounded by sisters, scholastics, and priests. In class, in school activities, in personal relationships, they constantly reminded me of my faith and daily summoned me to participate in my church’s liturgical life.
That opportunity fades away from today’s Catholic youth. The reason appears obvious:
1967 2006 % of change
Teaching priests 12,108 1,494 -88%
Teaching sisters 103,382 6,414 -94%
Teaching brothers 5,962 1,149 -81%
Teaching scholastics 1,197 56 -95%
Teaching laity 82,838 163,672 +98%
Priests and religious have all but disappeared from Catholic schools. We have given over the task of Catholic education to the laity.
In 1967 every one or two church congregations had a Catholic elementary school available for their children (1:1.7). Today, that ratio has shrunk to a school for every three parishes. Indeed, at every level of education where one might expect a significant Catholic presence, institutions have disappeared:
1967 2006 % of change
Elementary schools 10,728 6,511 -39%
High schools 2.341 1,354 -42%
Colleges/universities 305 231 -24%
Seminaries 575 204 -65%
As a result, compared to 1967, we currently have 40% fewer Catholic grade school students, 38% fewer Catholic high school students, and 85% fewer seminarians. CCD classes have not taken up the slack, as 5% fewer elementary age students and 41% fewer of those of high school age attend than they did thirty-eight years ago.
On the whole, since the close of Vatican II, the American church has suffered a dramatic loss of a once vital cadre of dedicated professionals. These figures paint a stark picture:
1967 2006 % of change
Diocesan priests 36,871 28,538 -23%
Religious priests 23,021 13,640 -69%
Religious sisters 176,671 67,773 -62%
Religious brothers 12,539 5,252 -58%
In 1967 on the average a priest served 780 Catholics; today that ratio has ballooned to 1:1,607. Moreover, as CARA reports, in 1999 the median age of diocesan priests was fifty-seven, of religious men sixty-three, and of religious women in active orders sixty-nine. This means that should we meet a priest or sister or brother, we have at least a fifty-fifty chance that he or she is sixty years old or older.
Bishops are employing diverse strategies to handle this loss. They have turned the day-to-day teaching of religion over to the laity, in school and parish. They have ordained 14,995 permanent deacons to assist overburdened priests with liturgical and parochial duties. They have consolidated small, poor, rural and urban parishes in order to reduce duplication of positions and efforts. They have even appointed an available sister or brother, deacon or layperson as parish administrators. Still, in 2006 3,405 (18%) parishes had no resident pastor.
To date, however, bishops have not faced the most crucial issue: only ordained priests may celebrate mass and the eucharist; indeed, the whole hierarchical structure depends on ordained priests; but the American priesthood is aging, with sizeable numbers of priests dying or retiring each year, without their ranks being replenished.
Replacement comes in two ways: through new ordinations, or through attracting missionary priests from other countries. The latter, of course, depends on the persuasiveness of individual bishops; the former relies on homegrown vocations and the facilities to train them.
The potential for new ordinations appears meager relative to the need. In 1967 we had 123 diocesan and 452 religious seminaries; today we have 73 diocesan (-41%) and 131 religious (-71%) training institutions for priests. 39,925 students then has plummeted to 5,682 now, an astounding loss of 85%.
Over the past ten years our bishops have ordained between 438 (2006) and 544 (2004) new priests, averaging 488 ordinations per year. In that same decade the pool of priests eroded from 50,106 in 1997 to 42,271 in 2006, a decrease of 7,835 overall and an average of –784 annually. We do not have statistics of missionary priests coming to assist the church here during these years. Presuming, therefore, no contributions from abroad, we see that at the minimum an annual average of 1,272 priests either left the priesthood or died. Ordinations clearly did not keep pace with these losses, only making up for 38% each year. In this scenario our supply of priests would be stabilized only when ordinations equaled losses: 1,272 ordinations must make up for the same number of losses.
From 1997-2006 the population of priests shrank by 16%. If losses, ordinations, and the addition of missionary replacements stay at the current levels, by 2117 we may expect no more than 35,507 priests in the United States. Should the Catholic population in that decade grow by 15%, as it did in the one just concluded, the ratio of priest to laypersons would increase from 1:1,607 to an unthinkable 1:2,239. In order to halt the drastic erosion of clerical presence in the American church, the hierarchy must each year at least come up with an additional 784 priests through ordinations and assistance from abroad. We are left with the obvious, if uncomfortable, question: How may this happen?
The Future for the American Church
In 1995 the Catholic community gained 1,178,700 new members, 149,000 of them as adult converts to the faith. This past year records a decreased new enrollment of 73,872 (-6%), explained primarily by an 8% falling off of infant baptisms. Our current church crisis appears more to affect its members negatively than to turn away potential converts. Should this trend hold true, church enrollment will maintain a steady 15% growth over the next decade, and Catholics will stay about 22% of the United States’ population.
This anticipated increase will likely stimulate the formation of new dioceses with the consequent addition of hierarchical administrators. Our crisis does not diminish the enthusiasm of aspiring candidates for ecclesiastical honors and influential positions. It adversely impacts, however, their quality: the smaller the candidate pool, the less competition based on excellence. We should expect the appointment of new bishops and archbishops to oversee this diocesan expansion. More abbots would depend upon episcopal requests for new monastic foundations in their dioceses.
During the postwar years the church enjoyed a wave of priestly and religious vocations. Vatican II did not initially affect this, as vocations increased from before the Council in 1962 till 1967, three years after its conclusion. Although many factors contributed to the wholesale departure of church professionals, the publishing of Humanae Vitae in July 1968 provided a clear catalyst. With that decision Paul VI signaled that ecclesial windows were closing.
Seminarians and scholastics, young priests and religious men and women departed first. In their twenties and thirties, they had not yet established themselves in positions of authority or renown. Moreover, they could still begin new, successful lives outside of ecclesiastical surroundings. Their elders hesitated. Some recognized the hindrances of upper-middle and old age; others enjoyed offices of honor and authority; still others were recognized among the influential in their academic disciplines. Those in their forties and early fifties teetered on the threshold of leadership; having weathered years of obedience they soon would be in charge.
Most religious who stayed on in spite of the exodus between 1968 and the beginning of John Paul II’s pontificate ten years later have died or retired. The latter accounts for the advanced median age of religious women and men. No religious from 1968 could be less than fifty-six today. The pre-Vatican II generation has died; that of the Council has either died or retired or left; that of John Paul II’s reign remains as the working force and hope of a continuing presence of religious life in the American church.
Will religious life disappear? It may, but the future stays veiled. We do, however, know, barring a massive surge of vocations, that Catholic education belongs to the laity, that vital parish life depends upon lay management and involvement, and that Catholic presence in civil society rests upon lay shoulders. Whatever positions religious may fill, they will, at the best, serve as catalysts for a church of the laity.
The same holds true for the priesthood. Except for the eucharistic celebration, liturgical life in the parish is passing to permanent deacons aided by lay liturgists and religion education directors. Although aging pastors still administer most parishes, they do so increasingly with the assistance of parish councils. As clerical replacements fail to materialize, lay administrators fill the void. We may anticipate the day when a clerical hierarchy mans the church’s bureaucracy, priests have become traveling providers of reserved sacraments, while the laypeople direct parish life. Eventually this will bring to a head an unresolved direction of Vatican II: is our church identified by its hierarchical and clerical structure or by the community of the People of God?
The Creation of An Alternate Future
Why have vocations fallen so precipitously over the past forty years? Certainly bishops and religious superiors have utilized every strategy to attract suitable candidates. They select energetic vocation directors and form vocation teams. Priests preach sermons about sheep without shepherds; religious representatives present workshops extolling the spirituality of religious communities; group picnics and retreats and open houses entice young people to check out seminaries and novitiates and houses of study. Celebrants offer masses for vocations; sisters pray devoutly for an increase of aspirants for their congregation. Nothing, however, seems to work; nothing appears to reverse the current downward spiral into hollow, echoing houses.
As priests and religious become rare in Catholic schools, our youth no longer know them, observe them interacting with others, recognize their delight in dedicated life and work. Nor do young people enjoy the opportunities to speak about their own lives, hopes, and tentative directions in a locker room after practice, on a trip home from a debate competition, while making scenery for a school play. Admiration for a beloved teaching brother or sister seldom now draws a young person to imitate them by joining their journey.
Young Catholics may encounter, on occasion, an old priest, a kindly pastor the age of their grandfather, but someone consumed with the distractions of running a parish by himself. They may admire him, even like him, but differences in age and experience and interests diminish identification and block attraction. Should the pastor be a
foreigner, a missionary from South America, the Pacific Rim, or Africa, cultural lack of understanding makes even a personal relationship chancy, let alone compelling. Likewise for a sister principal, the lone representative of her order; so too for the college professor caught up in teaching and publishing, correcting papers and giving tests: duties come first and time for relationships seldom if ever presents itself.
Without such personally important relationships with priests and religious, potential candidates must rely only on general impressions. They read about a priest enjoying a lavish existence by illegally siphoning off parish funds; they hear about another sentenced to prison for the sexual compromising of children and about his being subsequently murdered by an enraged fellow inmate; they listen to TV reports of dioceses filing for bankruptcy to stem an avalanche of legal claims against abusive priests; they see articles about bishops summoned before legal authorities to explain their dereliction as managers and pastors; they know that thousands of young men and women, and even older ones, have judged the priesthood and religious life wanting, as unsuitable, and have separated themselves from professional church service to pursue more satisfactory lives. Why, indeed, would they reasonably desire to cast their lot with a failing organization unable to earn and keep the allegiance of its well-trained and talented people?
As young people grow and mature, they may be able to see past the foibles of the notorious to the vocations themselves. Now, however, they encounter more serious questions. Do they choose to live a celibate life, one without marriage and family, one without sustaining emotional relationships? Do they feel comfortable representing a church that condemns committed homosexual love, that prohibits spouses from choosing birth control methods suitable to their relationship and family, one that prohibits divorced parishioners from remarrying and at last enjoying a healthy, loving marriage? Can they accept being caught up in a hierarchical system so contrary to American democracy, an outdated remnant of monarchial systems that controlled medieval Europe? Do they have it in their hearts to contribute to the ongoing subjugation and demeaning of women by furthering a biased, patriarchal religious culture? Could they stand being involved in the politics of orthodoxy that pits Catholic against Catholic, conservative against liberal, righteous against independent, a situation that makes a mockery of the unique identifying sign of early Christianity: see how they love one another?
A church vocation today opens one to turmoil, contentiousness, and division. Some, indeed, realize in this state of life peace, enjoyment, and personal satisfaction. They must be people who love God, live holy lives, and refuse to be drawn into the pettiness of hierarchical and authoritarian politics. We can only be thankful to God for their presence among us. Many instead suffer through ongoing waves of anger and depression, disillusionment and despair. Their experience in the life of our church attracts few followers. We cannot reasonably expect an upsurge of vocations, one that may revitalize our priesthood and religious life, unless we are willing to change their negative public image and too-often real life destructiveness.
In the Early Church the evolving requirements of the community gave rise to various manifestations of leadership (1 Cor. 12:4-14). Imitating the example of Christ who “came to serve and not to be served,” these leaders had only one purpose: to recognize, call attention to, support, celebrate, and proclaim the presence of the risen Christ in and among his own. They used their positions unlike “the rulers of the Gentiles” who “lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them” (Mt. 20:25-29). They led by nurturing the faith life of Christ’s followers.
During Vatican II the assembled prelates declared that they “exercise their own authority for the good of their own faithful,” and “automatically enjoy in the diocese entrusted to them all the ordinary, proper, and immediate authority required for the exercise of their pastoral office.” In their dioceses they act as vicars and ambassadors of Christ. “Nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiff, for they exercise an authority which is proper to them and are quite correctly called ‘prelates,’ heads of the people whom they govern.”
Subsequently, Paul VI and especially John Paul II appointed bishops who met the criterion of loyalty to the Holy See. They would be papal delegates charged with carrying out Vatican directives. They would act similarly to minor lords in a faded Roman empire; they would ensure that the commands of the Pontifex Maximus are obeyed by them, by their priests, and by their people. Obedience to Rome became the touchstone of orthodoxy and the measure of episcopal leadership.
Exceptions gratefully noted, the American church has no leaders, no prelates, no real bishops. We have no shepherds caring for the faith of the people. Instead we have Vatican watchdogs, middle managers disseminating missives from above and enforcing compliance. The Catholic people need leaders; they have a right to their service; the hierarchy instead attends the pope and his Vatican curia. And so the People of God in the United States watch their communities fracture, diminish, lose hope, and wither away toward death.
Should the church here stay in its present troubled condition, should its state worsen as religious orders and congregations shrink into retirement homes, should parishes continue to close through disuse and merge through an absence of priests, should laypeople increasingly abandon community life and forsake the sacraments, the awful responsibility rests firmly and primarily on the shoulders of bishops who refused to shepherd their flocks. Devoted to hierarchical orthodoxy, they sap the life from the People of God. Neither God nor their people will let them hide behind subservience to Rome as an excuse for their misplaced and even cowardly dereliction. “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat . . . . They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men’” (Mt. 23:1-8).
A church council met in Rome in 1074 A.D., early in the pontificate of Gregory VII. It declared: “Nor shall clergymen who are married say mass or serve the altar in any way.” Innocent II called together the 2nd Lateran Council in 1139 A.D. It echoed the earlier declaration: “ Canon 6: We also declare that those in the subdiaconate and higher orders who have contracted marriage or have concubines, be deprived of their office and ecclesiastical benefice. For since they should be and be called the temple of God, the vessel of the Lord, the abode of the Holy Spirit, it is unbecoming that they indulge in marriage and its impurities.” Thus did mandatory celibacy become a condition for ordination.
The council fathers were acting to stamp out clerical immorality. They linked together marriage and concubinage; they further implied that married Christians are not “the temple of God . . . the abode of the Holy Spirit.” Moreover, one who marries indulges in impurities associated with sexual behavior. One wonders how matrimony could possibly be denominated a sacrament.
Recent popes steadfastly maintain this regulation. Now, however, they justify it as being a valuable witness to Catholics and non-Catholics alike to belief in Christ’s enduring presence to humankind. By implication married priests in the Eastern Uniate churches and married Episcopal priests who convert to Catholicism and who subsequently function as Catholic priests do not grace us with this evangelical witness. Nor, of course, do married ministers of various Protestant denominations. Other than the stain of sex, a heretical belief left over from Manichaeanism, one can only speculate why married sexuality does not and cannot witness to Christ’s presence. Even St. Paul equated Christian marriage with Christ’s faithfulness to his church (Eph. 5:32-33).
Whatever the questionable theological justification, one may ask: Does clerical celibacy today in the United States witness, in truth, to Christ’s presence, and, if so, to whom?
In general non-Catholics have long doubted the truth of celibacy. They suspect it to be simply a cover for sexual encounters between priests and sisters, between priests and unmarried women. To them, clerical celibacy witnesses, not to Christ, but to the manipulation of authority to obtain non-responsible sexual favors.
Since Paul VI’s ill-fated encyclical, Humanae Vitae, educated American Catholics seriously question the validity of hierarchical pronunciations about sexuality, about sexual morality, about married life, about emotionally close and expressive personal relationships. What in a celibate’s world approaches experience in these areas and bestows any particular wisdom concerning them? His being raised in a Catholic home, being taught by celibate priests and unmarried religious, and enduring the adrenalin-charged turmoil of adolescence, do not equal any understanding of adult sexual relationships.
When priests and religious dwelt in a mysterious medieval world, Catholics knew little about their personal lives. Since the decrees of Vatican II brought them into vital contact with our modern world, the medieval and the mysterious have disappeared. Ordinary Catholics now recognize that priests and religious have personal needs and desires like the rest of us. Some drink too much and become alcoholics; some serve themselves at the expense of the community; some have shadowy affairs with men or women, married or not, heterosexual or homosexual; some use their position, illegally and immorally, to sexually abuse children. For many, indeed, mandatory celibacy has become the cloak over, and justification for, immorality.
Fair people, Catholic and non-Catholic, realize that celibacy could assist a priest to lead a holy, apostolic life. Most, however, doubt the wisdom of the mandate. To compel this state of deprivation for a healthy male readily leads to resentment, self-pity, and the substituting of various addictions to fill up the emotional void. This may, moreover, become the breeding ground for the very sexual immorality the council fathers in 1074 A.D. sought to remove through mandatory celibacy.
A celibate priest in our country today may reveal Christ to us. But the witness comes from the priest, not the celibacy.
Obviously, vocations to the priesthood would substantially increase in the advent of an option to marry and be a priest. If our bishops insisted that Rome change this failed link between ordination and celibacy, a pope would at least be forced to reconsider. The fate of our church in the United States may well rest upon such episcopal courage and a dawning papal prudence.
In the forty plus years since Vatican II, many American Catholic women have studied theology in preparation for ordination. Some waiting doggedly for permission work as religious educators or as parish administrators or on diocesan commissions; some despairing of the hierarchy’s eventual acceptance of women priests have obtained ordination in various Protestant denominations, especially in the United Church of Christ; recently some have sought out defiant bishops to ordain them without papal approval. Obviously, a ready solution to our current shortage would be the ordination of capable, trained, and willing Catholic women.
Rome stands adamantly opposed to such a departure from tradition. John Paul II even banned any and all official discussion of the question. He based his position on three arguments: 1) Christ chose only men as his apostles; 2) the Church has never had women priests; and 3) Christ, a man, could not be represented and revealed to the world by a woman. Let us briefly consider each allegation
No one disputes that Christ chose twelve men to be his apostles. Given the patriarchal nature of the Hebrew world of the time and the subordinate position allotted women in that theocratic society, he could hardly have done otherwise without social and cultural opposition. That being said, we have no evidence of an ordained priesthood in the New Testament. John Paul II might reasonably have argued that women could not be apostles; he has no basis in the New Testament to assert anything about the requirements for Christian priesthood other than leadership in the community
In the Early Church Christians met on Sunday in house churches. They came together to celebrate their belief in Christ’s enduring presence among them. They first shared an agape meal provided by the host family. At its conclusion the host or hostess, the leader of the particular gathering, distributed bread and wine in remembrance of Christ and as a participation in his one and eternal sacrifice. Here community leadership and eucharistic leadership united. Although the office of the priesthood did not yet exist, this man or woman performed the liturgy eventually reserved to the ordained priesthood. We have no evidence that gender had any impact on New Testament worship or liturgical leadership. Historians may argue whether, after the institution of an ordained priesthood, women ever served as priests. Regardless, women certainly on occasion led the early community of believers in an eucharistic assembly. Gender politics denies them that position today.
John Paul II asserted that the priest, an alter Christus, assumed an iconic status, a representation of Christ only a male could exercise. Since the 2nd Council of Nicea’s condemnation of iconoclasm, “iconic” cannot mean sacrament (a symbol that both reveals and creates presence) but only sacramental (a sign pointing outside itself to a presence). A priest is not Christ but only someone pointing to Christ.
In Mysticii Corporis Pius XII spoke of Catholics as members of Christ. At Vatican II the assembled fathers preached an identity between the Church and the People of God. Theologians following Edward Schillebeeckx speak of the Church as the sacrament of Christ in this world. In this regard, I wrote in another place:
I know of no theologian, no pope, who would dare to suggest that a woman by her nature could not be, or is not, included in the People of God, the Mystical Body, the Catholic Church as sacrament. Therefore, a Catholic woman participates by her baptism in the presence of Christ in this world. She is not simply “iconic” or pointing to Christ; she rather partakes in being the sacrament of his presence. In this order of things, she far surpasses being only a priest, an icon, a sign drawing attention to Christ. To be a priest would be an honor, would allow her to serve the community in ways she cannot now, but it would nowhere approach the worth and dignity she already has as the sacrament of Christ.
To claim that a woman, the sacrament of Christ, could not represent Christ seems at the very least unreasonable, at the very worst a glaring example of male chauvinism.
The advantages of ordaining women seem evident. A pool of trained candidates could help solve the current shortage of ordained priests. Removed from our church would be the perceived blight of gender bias. Capable women would no longer leave our church to serve in other denominations. Mothers sensitive to male insensitivity and systemic bias against women would be more inclined to direct their children, both young men and women, toward the priesthood. More certainly we would be living closer to Paul’s vision of the Christian community where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
To create an alternate future of our church, we must have increased vocations to the priesthood. That will happen only if our bishops insist that Rome allow married and female priests. Should that not occur, we have one other possibility open to us to solve the current crisis: the separation of eucharistic leadership from the ordained priesthood. After the Resurrection, the followers of Christ gathered weekly to celebrate their shared faith. At first, no ordained priest existed among them to offer the bread and wine in Christ’s name to his Father or to distribute them to the assembly. As would be true throughout the church’s first millennium, leaders came forth in response to the perceived needs and desires of the community.
We have scant evidence that a clerical priesthood formed in the community till late in the 2nd Century. Tertullian of Carthage between 202-208 A.D. distinguished between ordained priests and laypeople. Recalling Jesus’ promise that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20), he gave this instruction. When left without an ordained priest, the laity should on their own baptize and offer the eucharist. He justified this by saying “where three of the faithful are gathered, though they be laity, there the church is.”
As our priesthood developed, bishops ordained priests to serve as leaders in local churches. Because of this leadership role, they naturally presided over the eucharistic repast. They took this liturgical position, not because of some power or faculty bestowed on them through ordination, but only as flowing from their community leadership. Indeed, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. explicitly decreed that no one “is to be ordained without title,” without position in a faith community, and that “the ordination of those ordained without title is null, and that they can’t operate anywhere, because of the presumption of the one who ordained them” (Canon 6).
After the reforms in the priesthood instigated by Gregory VII and furthered by the 2nd Lateran Council, the priestly vocation became sacralized. For the first time theologians speculated about a special character bestowed on the soul with ordination. Schillebbeeckx spells out the change this way:
The consequence of all this is that the old relationship between ministerium and ecclesia, between ministry and church, now shifts to a relationship between potestas and eucharistia, the power of consecration and the eucharist. Moreover, this change is brought about in what is in no means a fortuitous semantic shift, i.e. the medieval semantic shift between corpus verum Christi and corpus mysticum Christi. In the ancient church the theological and liturgical documents had constantly said that it is necessary to hold an ecclesial office to preside in the church, i.e. in the corpus verum Christi: leadership of the community. . . . In the ancient church, corpus mysticum Christi did not mean the ecclesia, but the eucharistic body of Christ. In the Middle Ages, however, things were different. Polemics altered the significance of the words. Thus, where formerly it had been said that a minister needed to be ordained to preside over the church community (=corpus verum), the terminology now became that of presiding over the corpus mysticum, i.e. of celebrating the eucharist. The medieval sacra postestas which had grown up in the meantime began to influence the situation: ordination thus became the bestowal of special power to be able to perform the consecration of the eucharist.
The 3rd Lateran Council in 1179 A.D. did not link priesthood with community leadership. Instead, it prohibited ordination if the candidate could not be assured of making a proper living. Its successor, the 4th Lateran Council, in 1215 A.D. explicitly joined priesthood to the eucharistic sacrifice: only a regularly ordained priest has the power of consecrating the sacrament. Responding to the challenges of the Protestant Reformation, the fathers at the Council of Trent (1545-1563 A.D.) finally separated priesthood from a necessary relationship to a believing community of Christians. The ordained are, indeed, “signed with a special character,” are ordained to celebrate the eucharist, and “if anyone says that masses in which a priest alone communicates sacramentally are illicit, let him be anathema” (Canon 8, September 1562).
Even a brief consideration makes obvious that the priesthood has changed and developed over the life of the church. As circumstances required adaptation, the church responded. Confronted with a serious and worsening shortage of priests, our church needs today again to adapt. Catholic communities have a right to local leadership (Jn. 21:15) and to receive the eucharist (Jn. 6:53). During its first millennium the church emphasized leadership in the community as the basis for celebrating the eucharist. It could, if it had the will, return to that previous state. Unless the church dares to declare its life previous to the Gregorian reforms to be heretical, its cannot maintain that Christ revealed that clerical ordination and the eucharist are and must be inexorably joined.
Will the hierarchy restore the power of consecrating Christ’s body and blood to the community and its de facto leaders? One suspects not, for the hierarchical superstructure rests on the alleged special character of the ordained. Instead, it will continue to deny the crisis, pleading for an upsurge of priestly vocations, and shoring up its ordained privileges with lay assistance.
If the hierarchy refuses to ordain married men and qualified women, if it steadfastly maintains the unique priestly power to consecrate the eucharist, what will happen? When the early Greek philosopher Zeno attempted to prove logically that change is impossible, that a person must always go halfway across a room to the extent that he could never begin, Aristotle simply replied, ‘it is solved by walking.” Reality finally trumps the idealistic.
Today, the hierarchy declares that the church need not change or cannot do so. But change is occurring. In 1985 Schillebeeckx wrote:
In itself, the fact that a particular moment a wave of alternative practices is sweeping over the church throughout the world indicates that the existing church order has lost a structure of credibility and at some points is in urgent need of being revised. For many believers it no longer carries any conviction so that spontaneously, and on all sides, we find a the social and psychological mechanism of the non acceptatio legis. This is what we now in fact see happening on a large scale. If despite this the church wants to maintain its existing church order, then from this point it can do so only in an authoritarian fashion (because it carries no conviction with a great many “subjects”). This course simply makes the situation more precarious, because in turn the authoritarian way of exercising authority conflicts with the basic themes of the way in which life is experienced today, and is also experienced by Christians.
In the last analysis, the Catholic people know that for the life of their community they, finally, will solve the current crisis just by walking.
 Unless otherwise indicated, statistics are based on figures found in The Official Catholic Directory, Anno Domini 1967 or 2006. New York, New York: P. J. Kenedy and Sons.
 “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” The Documents of Vatican II. Walter M. Abbott (ed). The America Press: New York, 1966. P.44.
 “Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church,” The Documents of Vatican II. Walter M. Abbott (ed). The America Press: New York, 1966. P. 401.
 “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” p.52.
 Cf. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: a Letter of Pope John Paul II to the Bishops of the Catholic Church.
 Willis, Robert J. The Democracy of God. Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, 2006, p. 64.
 Tertullian, “De exhortatione castitatis, 7.”
 Schillebeeckx, Edward. The Church with a Human Face. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1985, p. 193.
 The Church with a Human Face, p. 257.