more than a generation now, we have seen a startling drop in the
number of seminarians preparing for the priesthood. In 1968, there
were almost 5,000 diocesan seminarians studying theology in our
graduate seminaries. In 2002, that number hovered around 2,800.
Catholics have always been encouraged by the Church to intensify
their lives of prayer and fasting during Lent, but with one out
of six U.S. parishes already lacking a resident priest, Catholics
increasingly find themselves having to fast from the Eucharist.
(One out of three parishes lacks a priest in many European countries;
one out of two, worldwide.)
What's more, almost a quarter of the diocesan seminarians studying
in the United States today are from other countries. Of this quarter,
83 percent intend to remain here after ordination. The implications
of this—of the challenges to the Catholic laity to adjust to priests
from different cultures, as well as of the challenges to priests
who minister in a culture not their own—are considerable. Even so,
if all of the seminarians now studying in the United States proceed
to ordination, they will replace fewer than 50 percent of the priests
leaving active ministry due to retirement, death, or resignation.
As of 2000, we have more priests over the age of 90 (433) than under
the age of 30 (298). Even seminarians are an aging group: The average
age of a postgraduate seminarian in this country is almost 35.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Catholic population continues to climb, with
current estimates as high as 67 million, compared with 28.6 million
in the 1950s. Yet weekly Mass attendance is at an all-time low—even
lower, for the first time, than Protestant attendance at Sunday
worship. What would the ministerial priesthood look like if, instead
of 28 percent of Catholics celebrating weekly Mass, as happens now,
70 percent were celebrating Mass every Sunday, as they did as recently
as 1970? How could we ever meet the demand for Eucharist? The institutional
Church seems relatively untroubled by such questions.
The common Christian responsibility for fostering vocations has
been taken seriously by some—the lay groups such as the Sarrans
and the Avilas come to mind—but not, overall, by most Catholics
lately. I know committed Catholic parents who would be very unwilling
to see a son consider the priesthood. It is reasonable to conclude,
I believe, that the very sacramental mission of the Church is at
Both Optatam Totius —the Decree on the Training of Priests
proclaimed toward the end of Vatican II in 1965—and today's bishops
tell us to pray for vocations and to engage in more active recruitment.
But I really don't think God is holding out on us. I would suggest
that part of the explanation for the sharp decline in the number
of seminarians is to be found in the documents of Vatican II.
The second Vatican Council reinforced the dignity and the sacramentality
of marriage. From that perspective, wrote Richard Schoenherr, the
sociologist whose study of American Catholics, Goodbye Father,
appeared in 2002, "The full erotic genital expression of sexuality
in sacramental marriage is just as spiritual as abstaining from
it in consecrated celibacy." That understanding, coupled with the
Council's emphasis on the universal call to holiness, has led Catholics
to imagine married love as profoundly holy, and to see mandated
celibacy for diocesan priests as unnecessary and even unjust.
The other day, I was speaking with a John Carroll University student
about the possibility of his studying for the priesthood. "I thought
about it," he said, "but I want to marry. In fact," he told me,
"I'm engaged." Time and time again over the last 38 years, I've
heard similar responses, from countless men who had given serious
thought to the priesthood. Yes, they said, I have felt a calling
to ordained ministry, but I also feel a calling to the sacrament
of marriage. To be honest, they didn't refer to marriage as a sacrament,
but they certainly understood it to be one.
These men can't see why marriage has to cancel out priesthood. And
it doesn't, as we know from the Eastern rite traditions in Europe.
In fact, Eastern rite seminarians in U.S. Catholic seminaries were
allowed to marry until 1929, when the Latin rite bishops in this
country, fearful that their priests would be envious of their brothers
who could marry, persuaded the Vatican to require celibacy of the
Eastern Churches in North America.
The 1971 Synod of Bishops held in Rome was, I think, the only institutional
occasion when a spirited, passionate discussion was allowed in the
Church on the issue of ordaining married men. It's been reported
that 87 of the bishops present voted in favor of the ordination
of married men, and that 108 voted against it. However, of the bishops
who were elected to attend the synod—in distinction from those bishops
who were appointed because of, say, a curial office—the majority
favored the possibility of ordaining married men. A subsequent synod
on the formation of priests, in 1990, proved uneventful—some bishops
have been quoted as saying it was a waste of time. Meanwhile, we've
lost some of the best and brightest. There are almost as many, if
not more, former Catholic priests in the United States as there
are active diocesan priests. I think our system and our structure
need to be reviewed.
When we priests were ordained, our names were called out by the
deacon of the ordination Mass, and each of us said, "I am present."
"Ad sum," we said in days when Latin was used. Ad sum,
I am present. I think we priests today need to announce a second
ad sum: We are present, and we pledge our loyalty to the Gospel,
to our conscience, and to the Church. The Ad sum that we
stated at the time of our ordination, I believe, has contributed
to a feudal structure that has tended to keep priests emotionally
immature. There are remarkably mature priests, I know. And there
are stunningly immature married people. But I think the day has
come for each of the baptized to state their own Ad sum,
recognizing their baptismal dignity and the universal priesthood.
We need to stand as adults before the institutional Church and simply
say, I've come of age, and I expect to be treated as an adult.
We're always going to have celibacy—religious order priests freely
choose celibacy. And celibacy, paradoxically, might be my
truth. Celibacy freely embraced is a great gift. But I'm surprised
at the inconsistency that we find in the institutional Church, which
argues that celibacy is both a discipline and a charism, a divine
grace. I'm not sure it can be both. We need to state that it's either
a charism or a discipline. And I think we're afraid to say it's
a charism, because then we'll have people saying, I feel a call
to the priesthood, but also I feel a call to marriage.
For the immediate future, there is considerable discussion, if not
debate, in seminary circles about the distinction between freestanding
seminaries—devoted solely to the education of seminarians—and seminaries
that also educate and train laypeople for careers in ministry. The
freestanding seminary is clearly the model proposed by the Decree
on the Training of Priests. But proponents of the seminary/graduate
school model point to the positive outcomes that occur when seminarians
study and interact with laypeople: a respect for and understanding
of lay ecclesial ministers; collaborative skills developed more
or less spontaneously in the classroom, the library, and the dining
Arguments can be made for both types of seminaries, but the real
issue is the declining number of seminarians within these seminaries.
If enrollments continue to drop, we will lose the critical mass
necessary for healthy learning and formation; this stage has already
been reached in some seminaries. American seminaries, many of which
were built in response to the post-World War II boom in vocations,
will be little more than huge fortresses protecting from the elements
rather small numbers of students, who quite understandably will
feel somewhat lost in the cavernous halls of institutions built
A few bishops have addressed the training of future priests creatively.
They send their seminarians to live with effective and mature pastors
in rectories fairly close to theological institutes such as the
Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., or the Catholic
Theological Union in Chicago, or the Graduate Theological Union
in Berkeley. The seminarian's formation takes place in the rectory,
in the parish, under the direction of the pastor. And the seminarian's
academic education is supervised by the theological institute. While
there are limitations to this approach in light of the Decree on
the Training of Priests—notably, in the sacrifice of community life
that seminarians share—it holds, in my opinion, real promise.
When I consider the impact of the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandals
on seminary enrollment, my concern for the sacramental mission of
the Church deepens. What is most disturbing to me—after the sad,
even scandalous treatment of the victims in many dioceses—is the
unwillingness on the part of Church leaders to pursue the possibility
that structural forces are at play. We hear again and again that
the sexual abuse of minors and children can be traced to the tragic
behavior of a relatively small number of priests and bishops—that
these individuals are, in other words, a few bad apples in an otherwise
healthy barrel. I'm not so sure.
We have yet to probe the impact of clericalism on the sexual abuse
crisis. And we have yet to examine our seminary structures and systems
in light of the scandals. We have not taken seriously the important
work commissioned by the U.S. bishops on the psychological and sociological
profiles of American priests, published in the early 1970s. Some
observers hold that the bishops shelved these important studies
because the information they contained would have led inexorably
to a review of the structures and systems of seminaries and of the
Perhaps that is why we remain in the dark still about the full scope
of clergy sexual abuse. We do not know yet how many credible allegations
have been brought against our priests and bishops. And until we
have that kind of information, we will not be able to compare incidence
rates with other denominations of clergy, with married clergy, and
with other professions that work with the young.
Ongoing civil suits, especially yet-to-be-filed civil suits, will
keep the crisis in the media and on the minds of Americans for years,
perhaps decades, to come. There will likely be new criminal charges,
as well. The ultimate negative impact of these developments on our
seminaries and on vocations to the priesthood can only be imagined.
The Latin title for the decree on priestly formation, Optatam
Totius, refers to the desired renewal of the whole Church, which
depends in great part on a priestly ministry animated by the spirit
of Christ. It is clear that Catholics desire priests who know how
to act justly, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with their God.
They are right to settle for nothing less.
Cozzens teaches in the Religious Studies Department at John Carroll
University in Ohio. He is the author of The Changing Face of
the Priesthood (2000) and Sacred Silence: Denial and the
Crisis in the Church (2002). His essay is drawn from a talk
delivered at Boston College on March 12, 2003.
Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert