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.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Stephen Kokx is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of political science living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has previously worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office for Peace and Justice. His writing on religion, politics and Catholic social teaching has appeared in a number of outlets, including Crisis Magazine, The American Thinker and his hometown paper The Grand Rapids Press. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, and is a graduate of Aquinas College and Loyola University Chicago. Follow Stephen on twitter @StephenKokx

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