At a gathering of the Italian Bishops' Conference on Monday, Francis voiced alarm at the collapse in vocations in what was once the heart of Christendom.
"How many seminaries, churches, monasteries and convents will be closed in the next few years?" he asked. "God only knows."
Pope Francis faulted demographic changes, Church scandals and growing materialism (the "dictatorship of money") for the collapse in vocations and warned a certain "vocational sterility" is overtaking Europe — a condition he suggested is unsolvable.
The Pontiff has suggested the Church study ordaining married priests to cope with the shortage in South America's interior, a proposal expected to come into sharper focus during the October 2019 Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region.
Reeling from its own vocations crisis — ordinations are at an all-time low — Germany has indicated it would be interested in this solution. In April, Bp. Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, vice president of the German Bishops' Conference, announced that if the Pope opens the door to married priests in the Amazon, German bishops will ask him to do the same for their own country.
But rather than ending clerical celibacy, traditionalists maintain, the key to nurturing vocations is fidelity to Church teaching, a deepening of devotion to the truths of the Faith.
From 1978 to 2011, they point out, the number of vocations began to recover, with the greatest gains coming during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II.
They note that wherever orthodoxy is nurtured, vocations flourish. From 2014–15 (the last year for which figures are available), the number of priests fell by 2,502 in Europe — an epicenter of theological dissent — even as they continued to climb in more tradition-minded Africa and Asia.
Abandonment of orthodoxy, critics say, is the common root of vocational collapse; whether it manifests through leftist movements like Liberation Theology (Latin America) or the heresy of Modernism (Europe), dissent from Church teaching spawns an erosion of faith and a collapse in vocations.
In the heady years before Vatican II, throngs of American and European missionaries flowed into the Amazon to nourish the Faith. But as Modernism spread across the West, vocations waned and the flow dwindled. Liberation Theology, meanwhile, sapped the strength of homegrown seminaries. Today, the Amazon region counts one priest for every 10,000 Catholics.
Likewise, as Germany has reemerged as a hotbed of heresy and dissent in recent decades, seminaries have emptied and churches have closed. Munich — the heart of German Catholicism — counted just one new seminarian in 2016.
Tradition-minded Catholics point to theological orthodoxy as the key to vocational vibrancy; in a 2017 article titled "Return of the Vocations Crisis," for example, Vaticanista Marco Tosatti illustrated this position with two examples from the United States:
In the diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, a liberal atmosphere prevailed until 2003 — a year that had six seminarians. Robert Morlino became bishop that year, and his efforts brought the number of seminarians to 36 in 2015. ... A similar situation may be found in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. Bishop James D. Conley has explained to the Catholic World Report that, in his opinion, the growth of vocations in his diocese had its root in fidelity to the traditional teachings of the Church.
Faithful Catholics note that the capacity for turnaround isn't a strictly American phenomenon. Contrary to Pope Francis' suggestion, they assert the European vocations crisis is in no way insoluble. They point to Belgium — one of the countries worst-hit by Modernist dissent — as an example.
From 2010–15, the archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels was led by André-Joseph Léonard, a noted traditionalist. During his time as archbishop, Léonard oversaw the creation of a new traditional association, the Priestly Fraternity of the Holy Apostles (PFHA). Its growth was explosive.
Whereas other Belgian seminaries hadn't registered a single vocation in years, the PFHA produced six priests and 23 seminarians between 2013 and 2016.
But in 2016, the orthodox order was shut down by Léonard's successor, Abp. Jozef De Kesel, a noted liberal. De Kesel said he decided to shutter the PFHA because "too many" of the order's seminarians were French, instead of Belgian.
His explanation found no traction among tradition-minded Catholics. Brussels is the capital of the European Union, whose motto is "Unity in Diversity." Half the city's residents are imports from other EU states or migrants from the Muslim world. More residents follow Islam than any other faith. In light of these facts, for faithful Catholics, De Kesel's "too many French" fell flat.
The founders took their case to the Vatican supreme court, which was expected to soon decide in favor of reviving the fraternity.
But before the court could rule, Francis intervened. In April — six weeks before lamenting Europe's vocations crisis — he signed a decree of dissolution for the flourishing religious order, extinguishing the resurgence of vocations in Belgium.