I knew that the letter—approved by Pope John Paul II and issued by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—was unlikely to be good news. It was 1986, and for the previous seven years, Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the office charged with safeguarding official theology—had been investigating my work. As a professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., I lectured and wrote about traditional church teachings. But I also pointed out areas where I believed Catholicism and modern life were misaligned, including Rome’s opposition to birth control for married couples; its stance on homosexuality, divorce, and remarriage; and the status of women in the church. The Vatican had finally had enough. “One who dissents from the Magisterium as you do,” the letter said, “is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology.”
Despite that rebuke, I remain a committed Catholic, a priest in good standing, and a professor of Catholic theology (albeit at a Methodist institution). I also continue to care deeply about the church, which I believe is facing a crisis that predates the sex-abuse scandal of recent years. Today, about a third of people who were raised Catholic have left the church; no other major religion in the United States has experienced a larger net loss in followers in the last 30 years.
Many of the issues that troubled me decades ago have contributed to this decline. Some, like those related to contraception, homosexuality, and family life, are considered matters of divine or natural law—the will of God—and, therefore, are immutable. I disagree, and I’m not alone, but we have been unable to persuade the church to make changes. Other matters are considered a product of human law, which is alterable if the church thinks that doing so is in its best interest. The vow of priestly celibacy is one such statute: none, I believe, would be easier to change or, quite possibly, is more important to the short-term health of the church.
Lifting the ban might help address the pedophilia crisis—which, at least in the popular mind, was caused in part by the frustrations of celibacy. More important, it would reverse a damaging shortage of clergy. Between 1975 and today, the number of Catholic priests in the United States has slid from nearly 60,000 to about 40,000. Protestant churches, which allow their minsters to have families, have suffered no such struggles. I can only conclude that celibacy laws are to blame.
The shortage has created related problems. For example, the church has tried to make up for the shortfall by using foreign priests. Without strong English skills or a knowledge of American culture, however, some of these substitutes struggle to connect with their followers. Some parishes are closing because no one can be found to lead them, while others remain open but no longer offer the eucharistic liturgy—the heart of Catholic faith and life—because there’s no priest to preside at it. (Catholic bishops have had to devise alternative services for those communities.) In essence, by mandating celibacy, the church contributes to a dilution of Catholicism.
Now, I’m not wholly at peace with would-be reformers placing all the emphasis on the celibacy issue. Women, whom the church treats as second-class citizens, are hurting most today; changing the laws that forbid male clergy from marrying will do nothing to speed women’s path to the priesthood. We should treat rewriting the celibacy laws as an initial edit—a change on the way to redressing the multitude of other needed reforms. Even at the risk, I’d argue, of getting an unfriendly letter one day from Rome.
Curran is a Catholic priest and a professor of human values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.