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Posted April 12, 2005

Daring to Question

Taken from the book: Faith That Dare To Speak
With a commentary by Fr. Gene Hemrick

This book is already cited on our web page

The history of the church is to a considerable degree a history of daring questions, either explicit or implicit. Paul’s confrontation with Peter and the Jerusalem church regarding the necessity of Gentile converts submitting to Jewish cultural and religious traditions and laws raised a fundamental question for the early followers of Jesus. From Catherine of Siena questioning the self-serving machinations of a pope to modern-day believers questioning the restricted roles for women in ministry, the vitality of the church has been sustained by challenges and questions put to those in leadership. Healthy individuals question how they might live more authentic, faithful, and integrated lives. Healthy institutions understand the necessity of raising questions about how things are being done and of proposing possibly better ways to get them done. The “grace of self-doubt” applies to institutions, even divinely inspired institutions.

Bishop Heaps understood that to question even out of love an loyalty requires courage. For questions, as we have seen, break through the mirage of surface calm revealing issues that threaten current structures of power and order necessary for the mission of the church. To raise them is to risk criticism an even assault. For some, it means risking one’s job, one’s career, even one’s place at the eucharistic table. At the same time, raising questions in the church today requires humility. One may be misguided, misinformed, or just plain wrong. One’s self-respect and personal dignity are often on the line when a question is asked, when an issue is raised. But the humble person takes the risk believing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Humble people don’t always have to be right. But they do want to be faithful — and people of integrity. In this light, not to question unmasks cowardice and pride.

. . . . The Clergy Vocation Crisis

U.S. Catholics have watched with concern and surprise as the number of priests dropped a staggering 40 percent in the last decades of the twentieth century; a figure exceeded by an even greater decline in the number of candidates preparing for the priesthood. The average age of the ordained moves steadily up into the sixties, with more priests currently in their nineties than under thirty-five. All this while the American Catholic population rose during the same period to an all time high of sixty-seven million. Approximately one out of five American parishes is without a resident pastor while one half of the world’s Catholic parishes worship without a priest — at least on most Sundays. With exceptions in scattered parts of the world, church authorities in Western Europe, North America, and most countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia cope as best they can with the ever-growing priest shortage and the concomitant sacramental crisis.

Although most theologians and biblical scholars find no doctrinal or scriptural reasons prohibiting the ordination of women, Pope John Paul II has spoken definitively that it is not possible for the church to ordain women as priests. In light of this teaching, many Catholics ask what is keeping the church form ordaining women as deacons. Perhaps church authorities fear that ordaining women deacons would fuel the still vibrant movement for the ordination of women to the priesthood. The issue of mandated celibacy for diocesan priests (at least in theory, religious order priests believe they are called by charism both to priesthood and to celibate life in community or shared apostolic ministry) and the barring of women from the priesthood remain in the midst of many Catholics significant factors in the vocation crisis. Still another factor deserves consideration.

Demographic research indicates that the average number of children in a Catholic family is 1.8 — the very same number of children per household in the U.S. population as a whole. With two children or less, it is likely that most Catholic households will have but one son. Concern for the family name alone might dissuade Catholic parents from encouraging their son from pursuing studies for the priesthood. Furthermore, a study commissioned by the U.S. Catholic bishops found that two-thirds of Catholic parents would disagree or strongly disagree with the following statement: “I would encourage a son or daughter who showed interest in the priesthood or religious life.” A half century ago, the majority of Catholic parents would have taken pride in a son or daughter who felt called to the priesthood or religious life. The significant decline in the average number of children in Catholic families when linked with the startling change in parents’ attitude toward their children’s possible interest in a religious vocation augurs poorly for any surge in candidates for the priesthood or religious life.

In addition to the factors we have already mentioned, the very social and economic success of American Catholics is pertinent. Vocations were abundant when Catholics in the U.S. were mostly immigrant and ethnic. Working class parents understood that the convent and seminary would provide an education for their children the likes of which they could not afford. Add to this practical consideration the status and dignity attached to religious vocations in the middle of the twentieth century and, form a human perspective alone, it is not surprising that parental encouragement and family support were abundant. Fifty years later, Catholic parents are generally well educated, often holding undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. The explosion in the number of vocational choices now available for their children and enjoying the financial mans to pursue them have played major roles in the current dearth of religious vocations. For numerous Catholic students and young adults, priesthood and religious life aren’t even “on their screen,” to use a cyberspace idiom. When the damage to the image and status of the priesthood caused by the sexual abuse scandal is factored in, the immediate future is abysmal.

Still, the only action taken by many bishops in face of this ministerial crisis is to call for prayers for vocations and more active recruiting. There is little recognition from church authorities that the present vocation crisis is — to a considerable extent — a crisis aided and abetted by the institutional church itself.


As much as the ordination of women to the diaconate and the ordination of married men needs continual discussion, unless the next pope changes the church’s view on these issues and a synod of bishops rules on it, we can’t expect much movement toward a married priesthood or the diaconate of women. It is not that the question is mute or has no grounding in scripture and the tradition of the church, rather, it is timing. Is this the time to change these traditions? Would the church, which in many places is struggling, be able to undergo the drastic changes this would require? No doubt the abuse scandals and changing attitudes of parents toward giving their children to the church have crippled the church’s ability to increase vocations to religious life. This raises the present, pressing question: how do you get a crippled church to start taking baby steps in order to walk upright again? Or should it think in terms of taking “big” steps in order to run? Would a big institutional overhaul succeed in today’s weakened atmosphere in which we are so split between conservative and liberal thinking, and crippled by a lack of confidence in church leadership? Would it create more unity or division?

This is not to say that an institutional overhaul may not be just the thing to jump start vocations. But does the institutional church have the strength and resources to initiate a “jump start” and carry it through to success? Where are the thinkers who could make this possible? Where are the people in the trenches for activating all that would be required? Who is carrying on an on-going dialogue with the hierarchy on these issues? Where is the will power needed for achievement? Seminaries, universities and colleges are definitely not moving in this direction. Parishes on the local level haven’t spoke out on the issue to any important degree. Church observers have spoken out, but most do not know how to work with the “inside” church. Their main role [understandably so] is to stimulate thinking, and not carry it to concrete conclusions. Could it be that the time is not ripe because we don’t have the needed players in place to make a church movement happen?

An even more daunting question is: where are the players to be found? Where are the risk takers needed to ask the hard questions and steadfastly pursue them? At the moment, to what university or institution can we point to where something is really happening? Where is our “energy”???

When Vatican II came along, most universities, parishes and church agencies went into action carrying out its changes. Is, as some very astute church observers contend, another Vatican council needed? Is this where we need to start? If so, do we need another Pope John XXIII and those thinkers who were moving us toward the changes Vatican II initiated?

Do we dare to continue to ask questions along these lines and risk being labeled an upstart? Do we dare to cause restlessness by continuing to quote dire statistics? Do we dare to continue to conduct research whose results are often disturbing? Do we dare to cause even more anxiety in times charged with high anxiety? Is there something in the Catholic moment that the legacy of Pope John Paul II created we need to capitalize on in order to increase vocations to the religious life? Do we just go along with the times, or try to change them?