American Catholics may not know all the latest statistics, but they've been talking about the altar-level realities for decades.
Half a century ago, there were nearly 60,000 U.S. priests, and about 90% of them were in active ministry – serving about 54 million self-identified Catholics.
The number of priests was down to 36,580 by 2018 – while the U.S. Catholic population rose to 76.3 million – and only 66% of diocesan priests remained in active ministry. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, half of America's priests hope to retire before 2020. Meanwhile, 3,363 parishes didn't have a resident priest in 2018.
It's understandable that concerned Catholics are doing the math. Thus, activists on both sides of the priestly celibacy issue jumped on an intriguing passage in the "Instrumentum Laboris" for October's Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region.
"Stating that celibacy is a gift for the Church, we ask that, for more remote areas in the region, study of the possibility of priestly ordination of elders, preferably indigenous," stated this preliminary document. These married men "can already have an established and stable family, in order to ensure the sacraments that they accompany and support the Christian life."
The text's key term is "viri probati" – mature, married men.
"Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed," noted Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit journalist best known as the former editor of America magazine. He left that post in 2005 after years of conflict with the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
While Pope Francis has praised celibacy, "he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don't have priests," argued Reese in a Religion News Service commentary. "After all, which is more important: a celibate priesthood, or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, 'Do this in memory of me,' not, 'Have a celibate priesthood.'"
Survey results have shown that many American Catholics are ready for married priests, noted Reese, reached by email. A 2018 report by the Pew Research Center found that 62% of Catholics said their church should "allow priests to get married." That's 1% more than those agreeing that "cohabitating Catholics" should be allowed to receive Holy Communion, a doctrinal shift that would infuriate traditionalists.
Reese said he has not seen a survey comparing attitudes of conservative and liberal Catholics on the issue of ordaining married men. "I think in general," he said, "that all categories have moved to more acceptance of married priests." However, once this practice starts, many Catholics are convinced that married priests will become the norm.
Still, many conservatives may fight this change, seeing it as "just another example of Francis giving in to contemporary culture," noted Reese in his RNS essay.
There are other divisive issues to debate. The pre-synod document also praises "indigenous rituals and ceremonies" in the Amazon region, noting that, "Love lived in any religion pleases God."
At some point, Catholics will need open, honest doctrinal debates about ordination issues, noted Father Dwight Longenecker of Greenville, South Carolina, a former journalist who is a popular writer in the conservative Catholic press. A former Anglican priest, he is married and has four children.
It's easy to get caught up in "utilitarian," "sentimental" and "political" arguments that make normalizing married priests seem inevitable. But as soon as some new part of the Church of Rome takes this step, it is going to spread, argued Longenecker in a blog post. He called this a "stealth synod" form of doctrinal change.
"This change by stealth synod is insidious," he added. "Just read the working document. They want to downplay doctrine. They want to get rid of an overarching doctrine for all Catholics. They want to bring in a 'recognized ministry for women.' That's code for women deacons, of course.
"Note that I am not saying things should not change. I'm speaking about the WAY things are changing. ... This is not Catholic. It is relativistic and secular."
Would married priests solve many of Rome's current problems? Longenecker added this warning: "Check out the present state of the Church of England."
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.