May 25 (UPI) -- Priests are Catholicism's greatest figures: shepherds who manage believers' relationship with the divine.
In Argentina, a predominantly Catholic country, the church lost 23 percent of its priests and nuns from 1960 to 2013. France and Spain have also seen a dramatic reduction in clergy. Across Europe, the number of priests declined almost 4 percent between 2012 and 2015 alone.
Why is the church "hemorrhaging" priests, to use Pope Francis' words? I study Catholic history, so I have long considered this question.
Why are there fewer priests?
The demands of the job are a killer combination in today's world.
Between strict restrictions on sexuality and the loss of priests' social status, there are ever fewer seminary students. Consequently, fewer men become priests, particularly in remote parts of the world. In the Amazon region, there is one priest for every 10,000 Catholics.
Responding to this challenge, Francis in 2017 suggested that the church might allow married men to be ordained. Many church officials believe the requirement of celibacy is the main reason fewer men are joining the priesthood.
The pope's statements are not aimed at undoing an historic pillar of the sacred institution of the priesthood.
Rather, Francis has simply suggested that the church consider some exceptions. Among other changes, the pontiff has indicated that married Catholic men could assume certain church duties in far-flung regions, invoking the figure of the "viri probati" -- or men of unquestionable faith, virtue and obedience.
More men of the cloth
In other words, the pope has suggested filling the gaps in the priesthood with something markedly similar to an existing institution, the diaconate.
Also known as "deacons," these men complete a two- to four-year course and are ordained to assist priests and bishops. They can baptize, marry, preach and administer the Eucharist, but they cannot take confession.
Though the concept is as old as Christianity itself -- the church traces it to the apostles -- the diaconate has garnered renewed interest in recent years as priests have become scarce.
Invite women into the ministry
Deacons don't have to remain chaste. However, like the priesthood, this ministry does not allow women.
So, in August 2016, at the request of the Synod of Bishops, the highest Catholic decision-making body, Francis established a commission to study female deacons. Ordained female deacons supporting an all-male ministry would not entirely fulfill progressive Catholics' demands to allow women in the priesthood, but it has calmed some anxiety and indicated a potential path forward.
It might also ease some of the priesthood's staffing shortages.