The Catholic Church is facing a “priest crisis” in two senses: (1) fewer men are entering the priesthood and (2) many who are entering are not fit for the office. A diocesan priestly promise of poverty may alleviate both problems.
Diocesan priests currently make two promises—ones of celibacy, and one of obedience to the local ordinary (bishop). Although, as the USCCB website notes, there is an expectation that diocesan priests “will lead a life of simplicity consonant with the people they serve,” diocesan priests do not make a promise of poverty. The long-time pastor of my childhood parish had a summer home and a boat.
In short, a diocesan priestly promise of poverty could make the priesthood more appealing to the right men and less appealing to the wrong.
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Young men want to give their lives to something beautiful, adventurous, and self-sacrificing. Boys want to be soldiers or superheroes who use their training and powers to vanquish villains and rescue the oppressed, especially if it means standing in harm’s way. The romantic tendencies of young men are the same—seeking dramatic gestures of self-giving, even to the point of laying down their lives for their beloved. St. John Paul the Great knew his audience when he exhorted the crowds on World Youth Day: “[N]ever, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”
And young men who fall in love with Christ naturally want to give away everything for this love. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). As Brother Charles de Foucauld, who forswore a life of excess and debauchery to live in a desert, poignantly testified, “As soon as I believed there was a God, I understood that I could not do anything other than live for him.” The field of diocesan work should be elevated, and thereby made more coveted, by being available only to those willing to sell everything.
What data we have supports this proposal. The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture recently surveyed priests on a range of more than 50 questions, including their views on priestly morale and moral issues. The survey found younger priests were significantly more orthodox than older ones. They are less likely to consider celibacy a problem or waver in that promise or vow, spend more time praying the Divine Office, spend more time per week on priestly work, and spend more time hearing confessions. In short, these men are giving everything for Christ. Why not a promise of poverty, as well?
And the opposite dynamic is well documented. The great lesson learned from the experiments in liberal Protestantism and German synodality is that every effort to accommodate the faith to “the world” (1 John 2:16) makes the faith less appealing. Progressive Protestants and German Catholics are on the verge of extinction.
In addition to making the priesthood more attractive to the right men, a promise of poverty may make it less attractive to the wrong ones.
The late, great Paul Mankowski, S.J., identified two types of men who entered the priesthood for the wrong reasons and therefore became bad priests. The first sought the social prestige and celibate trappings of the priesthood as cover to pursue illicit sexual desires. The second are what he called “tames,” “men who are incapable of facing the normally unpleasant situations presented by adulthood and who find refuge, and indeed success, in a system that rewards concern for appearance, distaste for conflict, and fondness for the advantageous lie.” In tandem—the second facilitating the first—these two types of men have scarred the Church, ruined countless lives, and bankrupted dioceses throughout the world.
Needless to say, a lack of disposable income would significantly dampen the appeal of the priesthood for both groups of men. Sexual escapades, such as those facilitated by hook-up apps or grooming minors, cost money. And a young man seeking to escape adulthood will also flee from the challenge of genuine privation.
The obvious retort to this proposal is that the religious orders—the Jesuits, Dominicans, Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, etc.—require a vow of poverty, and they have not been spared the “priest crisis” in either sense. But the retort actually strengthens the argument.
Anyone familiar with these orders knows that many of these priests eat better, live in better housing, enjoy better healthcare, take better vacations, and in general enjoy better economic security than many Americans. These priests enjoy all the material benefits available at posh educational resorts because of their order’s affiliation. And these priests earn healthy salaries as teachers, professors, and administrators, which the order receives, furthering its institutional wealth. Upon visiting a Jesuit residence in the 1970s, Daniel Berrigan purportedly quipped, “If this is poverty, bring on chastity.” That observation still holds today.
Unaffiliated with universities, dioceses are largely free of these dangers. And even within religious communities, an efficacious promise or vow of priestly poverty is obviously still possible. Founded in 1987, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who minister to the poorest communities in Europe and North America, appear to have largely escaped the scourge of tames and sexual miscreants.
A diocesan promise of poverty is not an elixir to the priest crisis. Much more needs to be done. To prepare more of the right men for the priesthood, parents must revere and frequent the sacraments, as well as teach their sons about heroic priests, especially martyrs. As long as families remain small, parents will be reluctant, if not adamantly refuse, to give up their sole son to the priesthood. And parents must teach their sons to pray. But a diocesan promise of poverty, which presents the priesthood as a pearl of great price, may go some way toward alleviating the priest crisis.