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A single unavoidable fact looms large in the future of Catholicism – in the last half‐century the number of priests has plummeted by 40% while the number of Catholics has increased by 65%. The specter of a faith defined by full pews and empty altars confronts the church. The root cause of this priest shortage is the church's insistence on mandatory celibacy, a requirement in place since the 1100s. Today, one in three ordained American priests under the age of 35 says he would marry if permitted. Given the potential recruiting advantages of abandoning the celibacy requirement, Richard Schoenherr asks why the conservative coalition – headed by the Pope – is so adamantly opposed to a married clergy. The answer is that acceptance of married priests is but the first step toward a gender inclusivity that will result in ordained women – a move that will not only alter the structure of the Catholic church forever but also will destabilize patriarchy in the wider society.
Combining demographic data, historical analysis, and theoretical reflection, Schoenherr argues that such change is not only necessary if the church is to thrive but unavoidable if it is to survive. Currently, the priesthood exercises sacramental, sacerdotal, male, celibate monopoly over the Catholic means of salvation, but of these four characteristics, only sacramental sacerdotalism constitutes the deep structure of the priesthood. Priest shortage is the ‘linchpin’ in a powerful matrix of forces for change – pluralism over dogmatism in worldviews, personalist over transcendentalist views of sexuality, egalitarianism over inequality in gender relations – that are driving the church toward abandoning the celibate male exclusivity that now threatens authentic ministry in the church. The book is arranged in five parts (I. Celibacy, patriarchy, and the priest shortage; II. Social change in organized religion; III. Conflict and paradox; IV. Coalitions in the Catholic Church; and V. Continuity and change), and has an introduction by the editor David Yamane, who prepared the book for publication after Schoenherr's death in 1996. It is a companion work to Full Pews And Empty Altars: Demographics of the Priest Shortage in United States Catholic Dioceses (Richard Schoenherr and Lawrence Young, 1993), an analysis of the drop‐off in numbers of priests in the USA dating from the 1960s.