Goodbye Father: The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church

Goodbye Father: The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church

Goodbye Father: The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church

Goodbye Father: The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church


In the last half-century, the number of Catholic priests has plummeted by 40% while the number of Catholics has skyrocketed, up 65%. The specter of a faith defined by full pews and empty altars hangs heavy over the church. The root cause of this priest shortage is the church's insistence on mandatory celibacy. Given the potential recruitment advantages of abandoning the celibacy requirement, why, Richard A. Schoenherr asks, is the conservative Catholic coalition--headed by the pope--so adamantly opposed to a married clergy? The answer, he argues, is that accepting married priests would be but the first step toward ordaining women and thus forever altering the demographics of a resolutely male religious order. Yet Schoenherr believes that such change is not only necessary but unavoidable if the church is to thrive. The church's current stop-gap approach of enlisting laypeople to perform all but the central element of the mass only further serves to undermine the power of the celibate priesthood. Perhaps most importantly, doctrinal changes, a growing pluralism in the church, and the feminist movement among nuns and laywomen are exerting a growing influence on Catholicism. Concluding that the collapse of celibate exclusivity is all but inevitable, Goodbye Father presents an urgent and compelling portrait of the future of organized Catholicism.


This is a landmark book, and its importance is best appreciated if the reader knows something of its history. Richard Schoenherr and his colleague Lawrence Young worked for years to document carefully the decline in numbers of Catholic priests in the United States. in the 1980s they made some preliminary reports to the Catholic bishops, and in 1993 they published their final analysis in the book Full Pews and Empty Altars. Put briefly, they documented a sharp drop-off in numbers of priests from the 1960s to the end of the century, with more decline projected as coming later. For many Catholics, including not a few bishops, this was bad news, and it incited attacks on the authors. Yet the demographic analysis in the book was never challenged.

Meanwhile Schoenherr worked on a companion work, in effect volume 2 of his magnum opus, to be entitled Goodbye Father. He finished the manuscript in April 1995 and looked for a publisher. But it was too long to publish, and Schoenherr hated to make the necessary cuts. By this time other sociologists of religion knew about the second manuscript and its weightiness. Some of us urged Schoenherr to cut it down soon before too much time passed. But it was not to be. Schoenherr died suddenly in 1996, and nobody knew if the manuscript would ever be published.

We owe gratitude to David Yamane for taking a big scissors and cutting down the manuscript. He cut it by two-thirds. He tried to make the cuts while minimizing any damage to the force of Schoenherr's argument. It was a success. Now Schoenherr's work is available to all. His first book gave us the numbers, and this one gives us his interpretation. This book answers the big questions: Why is there this shortage of priests? What will it lead to? What else is happening in the Catholic Church, and how is it related to the scarcity of priests? What can be done?

Schoenherr is not afraid of coming to conclusions and making recommendations, and he is not worried about possibly offending somebody. the future of the Church is too important to let such matters get in the way. in this regard, he admires Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee for his bold initiatives in opening up discussion in his archdiocese even in the face of Vatican opposition. Schoenherr's conclusions have been attacked by some Catholics in the past, and this opposition may continue. in this book he predicts that we will see a married male priesthood in the next two or three generations, and our grandchildren will . . .

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