Sheep without Shepherds


(Men, women and children at the Lord's table)

            My local Gannett paper a while back featured two major articles on the loss of Hispanic Catholics to fundamentalist Protestant faiths: "Pentecostal Faith Gaining Ground" and "Hispanics Embrace Protestant Faiths". Perhaps this should cause the Roman Catholic community to ponder in a prayerful manner why such a phenomenon has come about both here and in Latin America?

            Will the Catholic faithful and their leaders accept complacently the fact that, according to the paper, "Each year 60,000 Hispanics nationwide convert from Catholicism to evangelical faiths, including Pentecostalism" or that "The number of Hispanics who consider themselves Catholics dropped from 90 % to 70 % in the past 25 years."

            A local Hispanic Protestant pastor in my area was quoted extensively in both articles. He stated that, "Many Catholic churches don’t have the personnel." I would submit that one of the reasons for this is that, for the moment, priestly ministry in our church is limited to celibate men only. Yet, in spite of the serious hemorrhaging of Catholics from the church, one could read in Catholic New York, in English as well as in Spanish: "Celibacy isn’t the issue." "El Celibato No Es el Problema."

        This phenomenon is not new to church watchers in recent decades.  What came as a real surprise to this writer was a more recent  New York Times article about the loss of Hispanic Catholics to Islam! This should be a further cause of concern to church leaders. But Rome doesn't seem to care if we are to judge from its present policies.

            I would respectfully submit that the rules of mandatory celibacy in our church are at least a part of the problem. Church history clearly demonstrates that in the early centuries celibacy was optional and that a married clergy coexisted with the monastic celibate tradition. We know the first pope was married. Peter’s mother-in-law is mentioned in all three Synoptic Gospels? Why have we left out Peter’s wife from our calendar of saints? Living with Peter must have required some sanctity! To the objection that some of the apostles like Christ were not married Erasmus would reply that "they lived in a time of persecution when their mission as evangelists was difficult to combine with with matrimony, but we live in an age when moral integrity is nowhere better exemplified than in marriage." (1)

            The great humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, has much to say on the subject of celibacy and a lot of it remains relevant even today.  The illegitimate son of a priest himself, Erasmus was ordained in 1492 and was a close friend of Sir Thomas More. He extols marriage above all other sacraments:  "It was the first to be instituted, and by God himself.  The other sacraments were established on earth,  this one in paradise;  the others as a remedy, this one as fellowship in felicity;  The others were ordained for fallen nature, but this one for nature unspoiled." (op.cit)

            Erasmus does not denigrate the celibate state but is hard on those who live a lie.  "Let them prate as they will of the status of monks and virgins.  Those who under the pretext of celibacy live in license might better be castrated.  I would like to see permission given to priests and monks to marry, especially when there is such a horde of  priests among whom chastity is rare.  How much better to make concubines into wives and openly acknowledge the partners now held in infamy." Of course Erasmus lived in another era, but his message still rings true.

            As for marriage for priests he writes,  "Why refrain from that which God instituted, nature sanctions, reason persuades. divine and human laws approve?... What is more sweet than to live with her with whom you are united in body and soul."  When someone objects to him that sadness can overshadow the happiness of marriage:  "Your children may die," they say.  He replies, "Do you think you will have no sorrows if you are celibate? Nothing is more safe, felicitous, tranquil, pleasant and lovable than marriage." (op.cit)  Someone should have listened to Erasmus.

            To this day, the Eastern-rite churches, in union with the pope, have maintained the tradition of a married clergy - with his blessing. It is also a fact that Protestant clergymen, who enter the church and are ordained Catholic priests, are allowed to remain married while exercising their priesthood. It cannot honestly be claimed, therefore, that only a celibate clergy is fit to exercise priesthood, nor that a priestly vocation within the church is limited to unmarried men alone. The law of celibacy is a human law, not divine, and is purely disciplinary. One must question then whether there really is a "personnel" problem?

            A time-honored principle in the church states that sacraments exist for people (sacramenta propter homines ) and not the other way around. One must ask then why Catholics in many parts of the world, including the U.S., are deprived of sacramental ministry for the sake of a human law. In some dioceses in the U.S. nearly half of the parishes are without a resident priest. (For example, according to a recent statistic, in the diocese of New Ulm, MN, 47 % of its parishes were without a resident priest.)

            The Second Vatican Council states that the people of God have the right to a Sunday Eucharist. Yet too often there is no priest to celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday for a community. They are denied the very rights guaranteed them by their church. A simple communion service on Sunday without a priest is not a Eucharist. As Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester has stated, "The reception of communion can never replace the action of celebrating the Eucharist."

            Are readers aware that a pope (Benedict IX) permitted a religious priest to marry in order to propagate the Spanish royal family of Aragon that was threatened with extinction? (Gasparri, 1932)  If preserving a royal family was a good enough reason to allow a priest to marry, isn’t providing enough priests for the Christian community a slightly better reason?

            In an Hispanic community, for instance, why could not a respected married person be chosen, trained, and ordained to minister to that community? If Hispanic Catholics genuinely chose to embrace another faith and follow their conscience into that faith, we should rejoice with them. But it should never be simply because we Catholics lack the "personnel" to minister to our own people!

            Should we not rethink some of our present discipline and address this issue openly as part of our evangelization effort? Otherwise the current trend will continue. People will be deprived of priestly ministry and continue to drift away.


1. Bainton, Roland. Erasmus of Christendom.  Scribners, 1969.

Reference for Benedict IX: Gasparri, Tractatus Canonicus de Matrimonio (ed. nova, 2 vols., Romae: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanus, 1932),   I, 373.


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