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The question of married priests is primarily a Christological and ecclesiological one. But it has important practical and pastoral aspects, as well. Many claim that eliminating the celibacy requirement would increase the supply of priests, thereby increasing the pastoral capacity of the Church. This sounds plausible, since the requirement of celibacy is a barrier, or cost, and lowering the cost of entry into the priesthood would seem to lead more men to choose it.

But theologians may not realize that claims about bringing more men into the priesthood are at root economic claims, in that they are claims about the supply of labor. The guiding assumption is that eliminating the celibacy requirement would increase the supply of priestly labor to the Church without a commensurate reduction in quality. It presumes that ending clerical celibacy would increase the supply of good priests.

There are good reasons to believe that this hypothesis is false. It is at least as likely that eliminating the celibacy requirement would decrease the pastoral capacity of the Church. Indeed, it might decrease the number of priests at the same time that it decreased their average quality. How can this be? Let’s begin with an analysis of the decision to become a priest and the role of celibacy in that decision.

Priests are not paid well. A survey conducted by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found that the median salary of Catholic priests in the United States in 2017 was $29,619. After adding other forms of cash and ­non-cash compensation such as housing and food allowances, Mass stipends, and bonuses, CARA estimated that the median total compensation for U.S. priests in 2017 was $45,593. Estimates of hours worked per week are harder to obtain, but if we assume that the priestly vocation requires nine to ten hours per day, the implied hourly wage ranges from $13 to $14.50 per hour—­consistent with the minimum wage in many states.

In addition to priests’ low implied hourly wage, there is the celibacy requirement. Though there are numerous estimates of the male marital wage premium—that is, the increase in wages earned by males due to marriage—there are not many recent estimates of the value of marriage itself. A 2002 study by Clark and Oswald found that the implied monetary value of the marital state (that is, the value of utility gained from it) is around $105,000, and that the cost of divorce (disutility of loss of the marital state) is around $255,000. Though these estimates are likely imprecise, as they are derived from data generated by life-satisfaction surveys, they reinforce the commonsense notion that marriage is a high-value good. When we subtract the cost of celibacy from the already low implied hourly wage of priests, we find that priests’ implied hourly wage is certainly below minimum wage, and possibly negative on net.

Why, then, do young men choose to become priests? There are only two possible answers. The first is that priests have a low stock of human capital, and therefore the market would place a low or even negative valuation on their time. That is, priests are priests because they cannot get another job. Clearly, this is a silly explanation. In general, priests are carefully selected. Young men entering the seminary are evaluated on their intelligence, their ability to work with people, and their capacity to lead a parish.

The second, more likely, explanation is that men become priests because they place a value on the sacred that is high enough to overcome low wages and the lost value of the married state. It is not rational to accept wages that are negative on net. Therefore, it must be the case that men choose the priesthood because their valuation of the sacred more than offsets the negative wage.

This leads us to an insight regarding the “value of celibacy”: The celibacy requirement ensures that men who become priests do so because they love the Church, and almost exclusively for that reason. Because the cost of celibacy is so high, there is only one way in which a man’s choice of a priestly vocation can be rational. A man chooses to become a priest because, for him, God and the Church represent the “pearl of great price”—a pearl whose value is high enough to offset the cost of celibacy.

It may seem cruel to impose such high costs on good men who love God and the Church. But without mandatory celibacy, the pool of men who choose to become priests would be very different. The question is not whether we are imposing celibacy on good and holy men; the question is how we are to find good and holy men in the first place. Celibacy is how the Church finds the good shepherds who lay down their lives for the sheep.

In other words, celibacy is what economists call a “screening mechanism.” Screening mechanisms are necessary when the thing supplied—for example, pastoral labor—has two characteristics: Its quality is highly variable, and its quality is at least partially hidden from the purchaser until after the purchase is made. Without screening mechanisms, markets in which the quality of the good is both ­variable and hidden can fail to form at all—supply and demand vanish. Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof first explained this effect in 1970.

Akerlof’s paper relied on the example of used cars that sorted into two types: lemons and good cars. A potential seller knows whether his car is a lemon and has an incentive to sell it in order to off-load its disutility onto someone else. Potential buyers cannot tell whether a used car is a lemon or not, but from experience they know that a certain percentage of cars are lemons. Buyers will pay, at most, a price that weighs the values of good and bad cars according to their proportions in the market. For example, if the value of a good car averages $100 and the value of a lemon averages $25, and the ratio of good and bad cars is 50:50, then the most a buyer will offer a seller is $62.50—in between the average values of good and bad cars.

However, almost none of the sellers who own good cars will sell them at this price—after all, good cars are worth $100 on average. By contrast, the sellers of bad cars see $62.50 as a great deal. As a result, good cars leave the market and lemons flood it.

Buyers realize that at $62.50, few if any good cars will be offered. But they also realize that if they decrease their offered price all the way to $25, then sellers, each of whom knows the value of his vehicle, will offer only cars whose value is less than or equal to $25, the average value of lemons. This means that the average value of the cars that sellers are willing to supply at an offered price of $25 will be below $25. This problem persists no matter what price buyers offer. For example, if buyers offer $10, the only cars supplied by sellers will be those worth $10 or less, resulting again in an average value below the price offered by the buyers. In the end, the result is no market at all. Buyers and sellers both see the problem, and either they exit the market, or the market never forms in the first place.

This problem is called “adverse selection.” When sellers hide information about the quality of what they are selling, markets “adversely select” toward low-quality products and ultimately collapse.

Later economic research examined the mechanisms by which market participants resolve the adverse selection problem. Foremost among these mechanisms is “screening.” Screening is a way for buyers to impose a requirement on sellers that forces the sellers to reveal indirectly whether they are offering something of high quality, low quality, or in-between.

A common example of screening is educational requirements. Many employers require employees to have a college degree, even for jobs that can be performed by people who lack a college education. They do so because job candidates know their type (good learner or bad learner, disciplined in doing work or not), but the employers do not. Interviews are poor means of determining whether a candidate has the capacity to learn and perform a job. One solution is for employers to require employees to have completed a degree that demonstrates their ability to learn and their capacity to see assignments through to the end. This costly requirement allows employers to screen the labor supply, albeit imperfectly, for candidates with an ability to learn and the discipline to complete a course of study.

The celibacy requirement is similar, except that it deals with a much more important problem of hidden information. Catholicism requires assent to an array of rigorous propositions that are difficult to accept: God is a Trinity; Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God; Christ’s death on a cross is necessary in order for mankind to escape the slavery of sin and damnation; the consecrated host is Christ; sin is a reality; many sins are mortal; grace is real; Christ instituted seven sacraments as the primary means by which God gives aid to humanity; and so on. A priest is charged with teaching these propositions to his flock. He must therefore understand the reasoning for each, and he must accept each as true. But his understanding and acceptance are hidden. Unlike the quality of used cars, the heart and mind of an aspirant to the priesthood cannot be revealed by any amount of examination.

The priest is also charged with leading a holy life. The Catholic Church teaches that the priest embodies Christ—he is in persona Christi. It is fitting that he should have a deep and abiding love of Christ and his Church.

The celibacy requirement, much like college degree requirements, makes it very likely that the men chosen to become priests believe and love what the Church teaches. It increases the chances that seminarians are called to be priests and that they place the value on the sacred necessary for them to be effective pastors.

Pope Benedict XVI observed:

The renunciation of marriage and family is thus to be understood in terms of this vision: I renounce what, humanly speaking, is not only the most normal but also the most important thing. I forgo bringing forth further life on the tree of life, and I live in the faith that my land is really God—and so I make it easier for others, also, to believe that there is a kingdom of heaven.

Celibacy makes manifest the priest’s true vocation and validates in the eyes of the laity the things the priest believes. It is obvious to the laity that only someone who truly values the sacred would accept the sacrifice of marriage and family for the sake of his vocation.

The celibacy requirement is therefore an extremely powerful mechanism. Its discipline is an asset for the Church, allowing her to identify men worthy of her. It follows that eliminating or limiting the use of that asset, especially on pastoral grounds, brings with it the risk of “adverse selection,” and thus a breakdown in the “market” for priests.

Economists call the argument above a “model.” Models are simplified, logic-driven accounts of individual decisions. From these decisions flow explanations and predictions of social outcomes. The “celibacy as a screening mechanism” model contains important predictions about what will happen if the Church eliminates the celibacy requirement. The starkest of these is that both the demand for, and the supply of, priests will dry up rather than increase.

There is a “transaction” in our model, one between the laity and the priest. Though at a formal level bishops select and ordain priests, at a substantive level the laity demand them. In the end, it is the laity who must believe, love, pray for, and pay for the clergy and the operations they lead. The laity must “buy the product.”

On the demand side of this transaction, removing the celibacy requirement removes the mechanism, or signal, that allows the laity to trust the quality of the product. In the same way that employers lose vital information about the quality of potential employees if they are not allowed to “discriminate” against candidates who lack a college degree, so too do the laity lose crucial information if they are not allowed to discriminate against some potential priests by requiring priests to take a vow of celibacy.

Consider the commercial labor markets. If employers are unable to screen candidates based upon educational attainment, they will do the same thing the car buyer does in Akerlof’s lemons model. They will decrease their willingness to pay—they will decrease the offered wage in order to offset the risk of hiring a “lemon.” Because of this decrease in the offered wage, they will attract fewer employees.

Recently, four German economists argued that this is exactly what will happen if the Church eliminates or loosens the celibacy requirement. In “Should the Catholic Church abolish the rule of Celibacy?,” Benz, Foellmi, Franck, and Meister argue that celibacy allows the Church to signal to the laity that its priests actually believe in an afterlife and adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church. In other words, from the Catholic laity’s perspective, celibacy ensures authenticity. This, in turn, induces the laity to believe that priests deserve their financial support. In Benz et al.’s model, the laity buy more of the “product” (make greater financial contributions) due to celibacy, and would buy less without it.

One implication of this argument is that proposals to eliminate celibacy are a disguised form of clericalism. Taking away the celibacy screening mechanism means that the Church hierarchy must ensure that candidates for the priesthood are viri probati, which is to say, men who are “probated” and whose spiritual virtue is proven. Other clergy would of course perform this probating or testing. A man would be deemed fit for the priesthood strictly on the say-so of the men who run the Church. This is not presently the case. By requiring celibacy, the laity have a screening mechanism that helps ensure that their priests are of the quality they deserve. In a celibacy-optional regime, the laity must trust the priesthood to screen itself.

On the supply side, the predicted result is equally stark. Returning to our analogy of employers and educational attainment requirements, if employers are suddenly not allowed to require particular degrees, they will respond by paying lower wages in order to guard against the increased likelihood of hiring lemons as workers. Lower wages mean that the quantity of labor will fall (as we saw with the lemons car market), and those willing to supply their labor will be of lower average quality. Thus, the supply side of the market will select toward lower-quality candidates, who will constitute a larger percentage of a smaller pool of candidates.

Benz et al.’s model also predicts that the laity will be less inclined to adhere to the teachings of the Church and provide financial support if priests are less willing to make visible sacrifices for those teachings. It predicts lower attendance and lower donations because the priesthood and what it stands for will be taken less seriously. The laity, in other words, will offer a lower “wage” to the priesthood by offering less support (measured in commitment as well as money). Such a decrease in conviction and funds available to pay priests must in turn decrease the quantity supplied.

Unsurprisingly, enthusiasm for married clergy appears to be strong in Germany. In that country, a state-collected church tax, rather than donations from the faithful, funds the Church’s operation, and its charitable work is professionalized and bureaucratized, so that little in the way of Christian conviction is necessary to sustain its institutions.

Thus, the analysis predicts not only a lower supply of priests, but also a lower average quality of the priests in supply. Without the screening mechanism of celibacy, young men with lower average valuations of the sacred would find it rational to become priests.

One objection to this analysis is the possibility of a two-track priesthood. We could loosen the celibacy requirement and still allow young men to choose celibacy voluntarily. High-quality priests could signal the intensity of their commitment to the teachings of the Church and the call to holiness by living a celibate life.

But a two-track priesthood is unlikely to succeed. To understand why, we must identify the other primary mechanism by which markets solve the adverse selection problem. Economists refer to this mechanism as “signaling.”

The main difference between screening and signaling pertains to which side of the market uses the mechanism. Screening is used by the side that seeks to discern hidden information (for example, car buyers or employers). Signaling is used by the side of the market that has the information (car sellers or potential employees). Signaling is a way for those with hidden information about their type to convey their quality credibly to buyers.

Let’s return to our example of the used-car market. A person selling a high-quality car can pay a reputable car dealer to “certify” his vehicle. This certification signals to the market that the vehicle is not a lemon. Similarly, even if employers are not allowed to ask about a job applicant’s educational attainments, the applicant may still obtain a college degree and tell the employer about it.

Thus, one way to think about the proposal to drop the celibacy requirement is this: It is ultimately a proposal to replace a mandatory screening mechanism with a nonmandatory signaling mechanism. A crucial question, then, is whether nonmandatory celibacy by some priests, in the presence of other priests who are not celibate, is a credible signal. That is, would the laity view this signal as a reliable demonstration of the priest’s quality?

The answer is almost surely “no,” for several reasons. First, in a world in which priests can marry, the supposedly celibate ones can “date.” They can, at any point, choose a married life. If a bishop allows married and celibate priests to coexist in his diocese, he will be hard-pressed to enforce the vow of celibacy upon a celibate priest who later decides he wants to marry. It seems highly unlikely that the bishop will require such a priest to leave the priesthood. If celibacy is optional, then there is an option to switch.

Thus, celibacy loses its signaling power. The priest on the “celibacy track” is not really signaling anything, because his celibacy may not last. Father’s willingness to give up marriage is not much of a sacrifice, if he might at any point meet a wonderful woman and marry her.

Under these circumstances, the laity will not interpret voluntary celibacy as a signal of high valuation of the sacred. Something similar happened two generations ago when Protestant denominations allowed married clergy to divorce. Those denominations opened up the possibility that any minister currently married might get divorced, and the signaling power of marriage—this clergyman is faithful to his vows and we can trust him to be faithful likewise to his ministerial calling—was compromised.

Even if the Church required voluntary vows of celibacy to be permanent, the results would be negative. It would lead to a two-tier priesthood. Priests who did not choose celibacy would be signaling a lower valuation of the sacred in comparison to those on the “celibacy track.” This signaling would impair their ability to be effective as pastors, thus undermining the rationale for allowing non-celibate priests, which is to enhance the Church’s pastoral effectiveness.

Those proposing married priests seem to understand that optional celibacy removes the screening mechanism. They allow that the Church will need to employ a more intensive examination process before ordaining priests who have chosen not to be celibate. This raises the possibility of another problem, which economists call “cheap talk ­equilibrium.”

Cheap talk happens when one party, the seller (the information “sender”) knows his type as high quality or a lemon and can without cost provide either true or false information about his type. Which is to say, the seller can engage in “cheap talk” with the buyer (the information “receiver”). Imagine a situation in which the receiver must then act based upon this information—to buy or not to buy. Both the sender and the receiver have an interest in the receiver’s action. But those interests are not perfectly aligned.

Game theorists study whether and to what extent the sender in a cheap talk setting will provide true or false information to the receiver. Though cheap talk games are complex, the theory shows that many (perhaps most) involve sending false information (­lying). The basic results in the game theory of cheap talk ­indicate that if the incentives of the sender and receiver are not perfectly aligned, then in most instances the sender has an incentive to lie about his type, because doing so can help him get a better deal. The greater the degree of misalignment, the greater the likelihood that the sender will lie. In short, talk is not a good way to uncover quality when quality is hidden and variable.

There is an obvious invitation to cheap talk in the process of discerning whether or not a man is worthy of ordination to the priesthood, the proving or testing of the spiritual quality of a man and ensuring the ordination of viri probati. Suppose a candidate for the priesthood wants to be a priest but does not want to be celibate. Suppose further that he is not fully committed to the teachings of the faith. He wants to become a priest for more temporal and mundane reasons—he wants to help people and feels that the priesthood is a career that allows him to do so. Because the candidate refuses to signal his type through celibacy (and the Church can no longer use celibacy as a screening mechanism for identifying candidates with a high valuation of the sacred), the local bishop must interview and examine this candidate carefully, or rely on seminary professors who report on the candidate. In this process, most of the information that the bishop will use in deciding whether to ordain the candidate will come from the candidate himself—what he says to the bishop, in seminary classes, and in private sessions with his spiritual formator.

If the candidate can at low cost convey false information to the bishop or his seminary professors by pretending to love and adhere to the faith, he will. In other words, relaxing the requirement of celibacy and relying entirely on the subjective determinations of bishops and seminary formators turns the process of determining fitness for ordination into a cheap talk game. True, good seminary faculty will weed out men of weak or unorthodox faith. But the opportunities for cheap talk will increase. Our model suggests that there will be an increased number of bad seminarians who would never have considered the priesthood previously, largely because, given their low valuation of the sacred, celibacy is too costly for them.

Celibacy does not guarantee good priests any more than college degrees guarantee good employees. Now that clerical abuse is widely exposed, we can see that many men have become priests under false pretenses. Some apparently had evil motives. This suggests that cheap talk can occur despite a celibacy screening mechanism.

But this does not mean that the celibacy screening mechanism does not work. As with any screening mechanism, the celibacy requirement must be a real requirement. Employers who state that they screen on the basis of educational attainment, but who don’t bother to verify candidates’ claims about their educations, are not screening at all. In the same way, for celibacy to work as a screening device, seminary faculty must verify that candidates for the priesthood are celibate during their time at seminary, and bishops cannot look the other way when they know, or suspect, that priests are failing in their promises.

Furthermore, there must be careful examination of the character of men in formation for the priesthood. Testing the man is one thing seminaries have always done. But it would be a grave mistake for the Church to cast aside a screening mechanism that has for many centuries ensured that those being examined are already likely to possess a high valuation of the sacred.

This is especially true because celibacy is not merely a screening mechanism. As Fr. Carter Griffin has persuasively argued, celibacy is intrinsic to spiritual fatherhood. Fathers make sacrifices for their children. Children learn to sacrifice by observing this. This spirit of sacrifice is all-the-more powerful when observed in our pastoral leaders, who have given up the good of marriage to serve God and his people. Their witness, visible in the vow of celibacy, helps all of us learn how better to give our lives to Christ. 

Timothy Reichert is an economist living in Denver.