This is a good question, and the answer may be a bit surprising. At the beginning of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate in 1978, there were 63,882 seminarians. However, by 2006 this number had grown to 114,139. That’s an increase of nearly 80 percent! During his papacy the number of seminarians in Africa and Asia surged by 304 percent and 153 percent. In fact, vocations have increased on every continent around the globe. In the United States the number of seminarians decreased for some time but is again on the rise, especially in dioceses where Catholic teaching is presented in its fullness. However, since the number of Catholics has grown to over one billion, the surge in seminarians has not filled the shortage of priests in some areas.
Would the number of vocations be even greater if married men could be ordained? There is no evidence for this. For example, Eastern Orthodox churches (which allow married men to become priests) are not experiencing any greater increase in vocations.
The discipline of priestly celibacy has been with us from the earliest centuries of the Church. Although this is not an unchangeable aspect of the priesthood—it is a Church discipline that the Church has the authority to change if it sees fit—I would not look for the change to come. Celibacy is an enormous blessing to the Church, not a burden. It allows priests to serve Christ and his flock in ways that otherwise would be impossible. The Church has decided to maintain this discipline rooted in the example and the teaching of Jesus and Saint Paul.
Saint Paul recommends celibacy on the grounds that it frees people to devote their lives exclusively to serving God in prayer and service to the world, whereas marriage limits their ability to devote themselves to those things (1 Cor. 7). Likewise, Jesus speaks of “those who have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” A more literal translation refers to those who have “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:11–12). The term eunuch refers to a celibate royal servant who was in charge of taking care of a king’s wives. In the same way, priests have embraced consecrated celibacy in order to care for the Church, the bride of Christ—the King of Kings.
It would be unwise to do away with priestly celibacy in an effort to increase the numbers of priests. Could you imagine if the U.S. military took that approach? Imagine government leaders saying, “We don’t have enough Navy Seals. Maybe we should just lighten up the requirements. Push-ups are overrated anyway. Instead of making them run for miles, let them use golf carts. Just imagine how our ranks will swell!” Just as the military needs its elite soldiers who are willing to sacrifice everything for our country, the Catholic Church needs priests who are willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of their bride, the Church.
In conclusion, I think that a vocations crisis is not the result of abstinence among clergy but of an absence of the virtue of chastity within families. In the words of one Church document, “A lack of vocations follows from the breakdown of the family, yet where parents are generous in welcoming life, children will be more likely to be generous when it comes to the question of offering themselves to God.”
I also believe that our lack of prayerfulness is to blame for the lack of priests in some areas. Jesus told us to ask the harvest master to send out laborers to gather his harvest (Matt. 9:38). Have you prayed for vocations, and—more importantly—have you prayed to know your own vocation? You never know: perhaps God wants to use you to solve the vocations crisis!
. Dossier, “Church Experiencing Unprecedented ‘Boom’ of Seminarians,” Zenit News Agency, June 4, 1999.
. John Thavis, “Vatican Stats Confirm Growth of Church, Especially in Asia, Africa,” Catholic News Service, February 12, 2007.
. John Thavis, “The Numbers Game: Stats Give Picture of Pope John Paul’s Pontificate,” Catholic News Service, May 5, 2006.
. Dossier, “Church Experiencing Unprecedented ‘Boom.”’
. Doug Tattershall, “Dear Bishop: If You Really Want More Vocations . . .” New Oxford Review (April 2001), 25–28; The Official Catholic Directory (New Providence, N.J.: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 2006).
. Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1996), 33.