Getting rid of priestly celibacy will not fix Catholic education

According to Patrick McCloskey and Joseph Claude Harris, Catholic education isn’t what it used to be. In fact, it’s experiencing a crisis

The reason? Priestly celibacy. The solution? Getting rid of priestly celibacy.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, McCloskey – a project director at the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University Chicago – and Harris – author of “The Cost of Catholic Parishes and Schools” – argue the following:

Catholic parochial education is in crisis. More than a third of parochial schools in the United States closed between 1965 and 1990, and enrollment fell by more than half. After stabilizing in the 1990s, enrollment has plunged despite strong demand from students and families…

Until the 1960s, religious orders were united in responding to Christ’s mandate to “go teach.” But religious vocations have become less attractive, and parochial schools have faced increasing competition from charter schools. Without a turnaround, many dioceses will soon have only scatterings of elite Catholic academies for middle-class and affluent families and a token number of inner-city schools, propped up by wealthy donors.

In my view, McCloskey and Harris give an honest account of the grim reality faced by many Catholic schools.

They proceed to argue that we can save the Catholic school system if we get innovative with fundraising, increase the percentage of funds the church spends on its schools, and institute reforms so financially strapped parishes can more easily seek help from wealthier ones.

I think these ideas are quite good. And McCloskey and Harris deserve to be applauded for their originality. But it’s their final suggestion that deserves a closer look:

After finances, personnel is the biggest challenge…and one solution is in hand.

In the late 1960s, the Vatican allowed men to be ordained as deacons, who are clergy with many but not all the powers of a priest. Today there are almost 17,000 in the United States, about the same number as active diocesan priests. Over the next decade, the diaconate will continue to grow, while the number of ordained priests is projected to decline to 12,500 by 2035.

Many deacons have valuable professional, managerial and entrepreneurial expertise that could revitalize parochial education. If they were given additional powers to perform sacraments and run parishes, a married priesthood would become a fait accompli. Celibacy should be a sacrifice offered freely, not an excuse for institutional suicide.

Yes, you heard that right. Catholic education is suffering because priests aren’t allowed to marry.

It is astonishing that McCloskey and Harris would regurgitate this age-old trope after writing such an insightful essay. After all, they offer no statistical evidence for their position. They – like the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement – simply assume that opening up the priesthood will result in flourishing parishes.

While it might seem tempting to side with this logic, their solution only compounds the issue.

Here’s what Brother Andre Marie over at thinks about their suggestion:

What this is saying, unless Messrs. McCloskey and Harris are really confused about sacramental theology, is that the Church should ordain all the married deacons as priests. That will fix the parishes and the schools.


Leaving aside the problems associated with a married clergy, this point needs to be made: By and large, the men under discussion have paychecks from their non-ecclesiastical sources of employment. Will they all leave their jobs voluntarily to become full-time employees of the Church? Would they all want major mid-stream career changes? Where will the money come from to pay them, and won’t the Church lose a substantial amount of support from the donations these deacons give? Will their wives want the social pressures of being the “priest’s wife” and their children of being the “preacher’s kid” (or PK as such individuals are known in the Southron speech)? Would the cultural and economic demands of this totally new status quo in the Catholic Church really fix more problems than it creates?

This is ideology parading as common sense. It was liberalism and progressivism that destroyed Catholic education in this country. Liberal progressive solutions will only worsen the matter, not fix it.

As Brother Marie indicates, there could be far-reaching, unintended consequences if McCloskey and Harris’ theologically illiterate proposal were adopted.

McCloskey and Harris’ essay reminds me of Chapter 8 of the Gospel of Matthew. The apostles and Jesus were in a boat when suddenly a furious storm came over them and tossed waves upon their vessel, causing them to exclaim, “Lord, save us. We’re going to drown!” Jesus responded by saying “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up, rebuked the winds, and the sea was calm.

In many ways, the Catholic Church is experiencing some turbulent times when it comes to its school system. I agree that reforms are needed, but I reject the argument that she should adopt a means justifies the ends mentality.

What we need to do, like the apostles didn’t do in that boat, is to trust in God and know that he will always provide for his flock.

This doesn’t mean we should be ignorant of issues facing the church, but we needn’t adopt the apocalyptic view presented by McCloskey and Harris. Indeed, there are many encouraging statistics regarding the Catholic faith. Here’s just a few:

  • The number of seminarians, not only in the United States but worldwide, has been on the rise for the past several years
  • The pro-abortion movement is less popular, especially among young women, than ever before
  • Traditional Catholicism is gaining traction with young adults

Even if school closings continue to occur, the church itself will not end. We must work to arrest this development, but the Catholic faith has survived world wars and outlived genocidal dictators for hundreds of years. How little faith those who believe it must change its ways in order to survive must have.



  • Ruth Curcuru

    The loss of teaching sisters has hurt the Catholic school system; however those schools everyone could afford, those schools which were supported by the parish rather than by the parents through tuition, would be unacceptable to most Catholic parents today. In 1967 I was in a Catholic school that had 40 kids in a class (class size was determined by number of parish kids in the grade, not by some pre-determined number). Some of the teachers were sisters; others underpaid laywomen. There were no computers. The only non-classroom teacher was a semi-retired sister who taught music. In 1973, across the country I was in another Catholic school that had 35 kids in a class. It had 1 teacher per grade, but one teacher was only part-time; the principal took that spot in the afternoon. They had a special ed teacher and a semi-retired sister who helped her part-time. Again no computers, little av equipment. They had two moms who worked part-time in the library.

    Fifteen years ago I was looking for a Catholic school for my oldest. In our area at that time the norm was 30-35 kids per class. Tuition was about $1500. Today the norm is 25 or less, and tuition is $4500. Heath insurance has gone up and we have lots of technology to support. We have a music teacher, a pe teacher and we share a Spanish teacher with another school. We have a full-time librarian, a full time technology person and a full time religion teacher. Someone has to pay for all that and the someone is the parents. As fewer and fewer parishioners have kids in the school it becomes harder to justify substantial parish contributions to the school, which means even more money out of pocket.

    For the most part people who can afford to pay tuition want “good” schools, which they define as having small classes, experienced teachers and lots of technology. While each time tuition goes up, more people decide they don’t need it, reducing tuition by reducing class size, technology or ancillary classes isn’t popular either.

  • Mark Hartman

    I don’t think that ordained men (priests or deacons) should be allowed to marry (or remarry, as the case may be), but the Eastern Catholic churches ordain married men to both the diaconate and the priesthood; the pastor at our parish is such a married priest, who switched rites upon marrying his Ukrainian Catholic spouse (as permitted by canon law), and later discerned a vocation to the priesthood. Certainly there are many concerns when it comes to married priests, but in this – as in many things – perhaps the West can benefit from the experience and insights of the East. In the end analysis, a celibate, non-married priesthood is a discipline, not a dogma.

  • Grisha357

    Some observations:
    1: The drop in women’s vocations is the #1 cause of the long term problems Catholic schools face.

    2: Brother Marie is right. The deacons are irrelevant to the problem.Ditto for married priests.

    3: A marginal , below replacement level, increase in vocations, any change in the abortion situation or a return to so called “traditional Catholicism” have nothing to do with this problem.

    4: I suspect part of the problem is that parents lack confidence that their children will be protected from molesters in our schools.

    5: The way to save Catholic schools is better marketing (my wife calls our school a “hidden jewel”) making financial support by the diocises a higher priority and creative fundraising.

    6: Here in San Francisco, Most Holy Redeemer, an affluent parish which does not have a school gives part of it’s revenue to the closest Catholic schools. Inititives like this ought to be considered around the country
    ~Greg Smith~

  • Marvin Derks

    Stephen, in my opinion, you seem to have your head in the sand.

    • chris scanlan

      which ideas of his are you referring to?

      • Marvin Derks

        It’s apparent to me that allowing priests to marry could resolve this shortage problem. In addition, allowing women to become priests would also resolve this issue. Holding on to ancient beliefs simply because they’re ancient is hurting the Catholic Church.



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