Sacraments on Life Support
Imagine that a retired couple in the not-too-distant future embarks on a treasure hunt with their metal detectors. While the wife unearths a Buffalo nickel and a few battlefield musket balls, her husband discovers a rusty chain and religious medal with the curious inscription, “In case of an emergency, call a priest.” They wonder why, in an emergency, people didn’t want an ambulance instead!
Will the majority of American Catholics in the future still desire the sacraments—like anointing during an emergency—if their direct experiences of them become too infrequent? If the sacraments are not readily available in the Church today, it will be increasingly difficult to prevent them from being relegated in the life of the faith community over time.
“The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments,” insists the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1113). Yet there aren’t even enough priests at present—much less in the foreseeable future—to sufficiently celebrate the sacraments reserved to ministerial priesthood, especially the Eucharist.
According to the 2018 Official Catholic Directory, 523 new priests were added to the number of diocesan and religious clergy in the our country, bringing the total to 37,702. Ordinations have rebounded in recent decades but are nowhere near the numbers needed to replace priests who die, retire, or withdraw from ministry. Consequently, the number of parishes without a resident pastor in the United States grew from 571 in 1970 to 3,363 in 2018. Of a priest’s varied duties—pastoral, catechetical, and administrative, to name a few—his sacramental role is primary. He is seen as a “servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). All of our sacraments—but especially in the Eucharist—“manifest and communicate” to us the mystery of our communion with God (CCC 1118).
Astoundingly, more than 3,000 parishes in the United States alone are grappling with the reality of being less sustained, nourished, and identified by the Church’s seven sacraments, despite our theological belief that “the sacraments make the Church” (CCC 1118).
At the Synod of the Bishops last fall, a highly contentious working document contained the suggestion that “the possibility of priestly ordination be studied for older people, preferably indigenous, respected, and accepted by their community, even if they have an existing and stable family, in order to ensure availability of the Sacraments that accompany and sustain the Christian life.” In the end, the synod offered a recommendation to the pope but with significant reservations and dissent. However, if approved and applied universally in the Latin Church, it could potentially affect centuries of tradition of a celibate priesthood but affirm centuries of tradition for the prominence of the sacramental life of the Church.
Can the Church continue to have it both ways? Can we maintain theologically that the vital sacramental function of the Church depends on celibate priests, and at the same time allow the sacramental function of the Church to be severely compromised by its lack of celibate priests? That’s an emergency case for the Church, now and in the future. Without major solutions to this conundrum, the sacraments themselves will be in need of what we once called extreme unction.