From a September 30th article and interview in The Wall Street Journal about Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, who was president of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987:
WSJ: In your day, the Church produced figures such as Bishop Sheen and Father Drinan and Pope John XXIII. Who are the Catholic leaders today of their caliber? Are there any?
Father Hesburgh: That's a fair question. I'm not in a position to come up with an answer, but I have my ideas about it. I think somehow, either in the educational system for clergy or in the kind of people we attract to the clergy, we are going to have to take a very close look at that, because whatever we're doing, let's say it's not working. The number of Catholic clergymen is going down, and the same is probably true of many other churches. It's one of the key problems that exists in our country, and we ought to find a way of getting at that problem.
The Catholic Church, like any other human organization, depends on leadership, and leadership depends on performance. If you look for leaders in a given group and you don't find them, something is wrong. When you had leaders, such as you just mentioned, a few decades ago, I have to say the Church seemed more vital to most people, even to people outside the church.
Is the lack of leadership why the Church ended up in the priests' scandal?
Father Hesburgh: Everything is part of an organic whole, and the scandal is one aspect. I wouldn't want to be personally buffaloed about whether there was a scandal, because there is no question there was. The answer is to find a different caliber of training and of selection and of inspiration of young men going into priesthood. And I think, more and more, women have to be involved in this, and I suspect that in the long run, married people are going to be a lot more involved in this whole problem than we have today.
It has to evolve over time. I have no problem with females or married people as priests, but I realize that the majority of the leadership in the Church would. But what's important is that people get the sacraments. You have to remember, there were married priests, even married popes, in the first 1,000 years of the church.
Actually, the Catholic Church continues to ordain married men, most often in the Eastern Catholic Churches. As for the Church ordaining women, I do hope that Fr. Hesburgh is aware that although he might "have no problem with females...as priests," the Magisterium has been fairly clear and consistent about the matter.
The article, by the way, notes that Fr. Hesburgh "holds the record for the most honorary degrees: 150 to date."
UPDATE: Mark Brumley made some excellent comments, which I'm adding to the post for wider readership:
1. With all due respect, Father Hesburgh's comments regarding women priests help us to understand why Notre Dame for so long had some of the problems it had.
2. Indeed, he comes across as if the question of the male-only priesthood does not have deep theological import, as if it were simply an institutional policy issue. The majority of the leadership of the Church, says Fr. Hesburgh, has a problem with women priests but Fr. Hesburgh doesn't. Whether you reject the 2000-year old Catholic Tradition on the matter, along with the theological underpinings of the Church's teaching regarding the nature of gender, the nature of ordained ministry, and the divine authority of the Magisterium, or whether you hold to all of these things as the Church understands them, the issue is not a "some say yes, some say no" matter. If women can be priests, then it seems that a grave injustice has been done and, even worse, continues to be done to them. If women cannot be priests, because the priesthood is an essentially male reality, then it is wrongheaded and destructive of the Catholic faith to push for women's ordination. Either way, it is no small matter; it should generate more than an "I have no problem with" it outlook.
Let's hope that Father Hesburgh has been misquoted or taken out of context.
3. Why, one wonders, is it most important, as Fr. Hesburgh states, that the people get the Sacraments? It is not a self-evident proposition or a deduction from universally accepted philosophical premises or a matter of scientific induction that this is so. Whether it is so rests on revelation and the reliability of the Church's claim faithfully to convey that revelation. The same Church that says, as a matter of revelation, that it is important for people to receive the Sacraments also insists that the objective reality of the gift of the Sacraments is dependent upon, in various ways, the validity of the ordination of priests. What's more, that same Church also authoritatively and definitively teaches that the validity of the ministerial priesthood depends on the maleness of the one who would be ordained.
Now, you may reject that proposition but it is not at all clear that, having done so, you can still consistently and coherently maintain the rest of this supposedly revealed business about the important thing being that people get the Sacraments. As Christopher Derrick observed in Church Authority and Intellectual Freedom [Ignatius Press, 1981], the question is not, "What would happen if a bishop attempted to ordain a women as priest?", but, "What grounds have we for thinking anything happens when a bishop attempts to ordain a priest?".
4. Interestingly enough, some radical feminists who still associate themselves, however vaguely, with the Catholic Church, recognize, in their own way, the force of this problem. Which is one reason some of them have ceased advocating the ordination of women to the priesthood. They now regard the whole notion of a ministerial priesthood, in the traditional sacramental sense, as erroneous and as reinforcing hierarchy, which they judge to be inherently wrong and oppressive.
Having repudiated any theological grounds for thinking Christ established a ministerial priesthood or if he did that his decision in the matter should be determinative for us, they now have little reason to desire that women be priests or think that priesthood is a position worthy of being sought.
Some would see such radical feminists as extremists; others would seem them as simply working out the logic of their premises.