At the risk of sounding like I have a personal axe to grind, I've always believed that priest shortages and the shrinking of the religious orders has always been a self-inflicted wound by the Church. If the priesthood, for example, is portrayed as a generic way to help people then the priest becomes a social worker who can't have sex. If religious life and marriage are equal in how they can lead us to salvation, then why would any generous young man or woman want to give up sex and children?Young Catholics are spurning religious life. According to the Official Catholic Directory, there were only 1,853 seminarians studying for American religious orders in 2011. That’s less than half the number of religious seminarians that were studying in 1980 (4,674), and less than one tenth the number that were studying in 1965 (22,230), according to Kenneth Jones’ Index of Leading Catholic Indicators. Even the most successful religious orders are suffering. The U.S. Dominicans boast of increased vocations, but today they have only about 100 student brothers (compared to 343 in 1965). Dominican vocations may have increased in the past few years—likely as a result of perceived orthodoxy, strong community life, and aggressive promotional efforts—but they are still anemic. Orders like the Dominicans look successful only because everyone else has hit rock bottom....Vocations directors, however, are unwilling to talk about religious life as the most effective means to sanctity. One reason for this unwillingness is their fear of contradicting the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness. According to Lumen Gentium: “All Christians in any state of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.” This message is both true and good. But many Catholics take the message a step farther than it was intended to go. They infer that because all people are called to become saints all vocations must be equally effective means to sanctity. This is a great error. The view that marriage and religious life are equal paths to holiness is contrary to the writings of saints like Bernard, Athanasius, and Theresa, but it is also condemned by the Council of Trent and contradicted by John Paul II in Vita Consecrata. Session XXIV of the Council of Trent declared: anyone who denies that it is “better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.” Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this teaching inVita Consecrata: “it is to be recognized that the consecrated life… has an objective superiority.”Today’s ubiquitous assumption that marriage and religious life are equal paths to holiness is not merely bad doctrine. It is also a deathblow for religious life. Once you accept that religious life and lay married life are equally effective means to sanctity, you undercut the only compelling motivation for becoming a religious. If lay married life provides an equally effective means to sanctity, plus the goods of pleasure, family, property, one’s own will, etc., then it is irrational to choose religious life. Choosing religious life over marriage would mean punishing yourself for no good reason. It would mean turning your back on—showing contempt for—the goods of God’s creation while gaining nothing from your sacrifice. If lay married life gets you to sanctity just as easily and reliably as religious life, then all that religious life amounts to is a kind of masochism. In the words of University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark, “what does a woman gain in return for her vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, if she… acquires no special holiness thereby, while spending her working hours side-by-side with married women who now are officially seen as her equal in terms of virtue, but who are free from her obligations?”
The saints did not sugarcoat the difficulties of the religious life. But they did say that it is the safer and more secure way to work out one's salvation. As Brother Hannegan notes, vocations directors are loathe to portray it that way. Dioceses seldom pitch the priesthood as a life of offering sacrifice and leading people to heaven, but as a way to lovingly preside over the community. And the poor sons of bitches wonder why they find so few takers. Men are willing to give their lives for a mystery, but not for a question mark.
In one sense, it's depressing to contemplate how many men and women have been wrongfully turned away from religious life. But on the other, it's a sign of hope. The wound is self-inflicted, but it can be solved through personal conversion and a proper understanding of what a vocation is and why we embrace it.