BC Seal Boston College Magazine Winter 2003
current issue
Linden Lane
Q and A
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
The priesthood to come
photo of chairs
You can't shape the future if you don't face the present

For 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 risk.

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 room.

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 for hundreds.

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 priesthood itself.

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.

Fr. Donald Cozzens

Fr. Donald 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

Top of page


. . .
. » Beautiful mind
  »  Road boy
  »  Daydream believer
  »  Mute witness

Special Section:
The Church in the 21st Century

. .
The priesthood to come
. .
Survey says
. .
. .
  » The priest shortage
  » U.S. Bishops' Study of the Impact of Fewer Priests on the Pastoral Ministry
  » Optatum Totius
  » View Fr. Donald Cozzens's March 12, 2003 talk at BC
Alumni Home
BC Home

© Copyright 2003 The Trustees of Boston College