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Catholic priests survey finds lower morale, ‘conservative shift’ among U.S. clergy

Jonah McKeown   By Jonah McKeown for CNA

(Image: Lisa F. Young/Shutterstock)

Denver Newsroom, Nov 29, 2021 / 13:00 pm (CNA).

First in a series of articles examining the 2021 Survey of American Catholic Priests (SACP) findings.

A new survey released this month suggests a more “pessimistic” view of the Catholic Church among U.S. priests today as compared to 2002, as well as an increasing perception of “more theologically conservative or orthodox” young priests as compared to their older counterparts.

A Nov. 1 report summarized findings from the 2021 Survey of American Catholic Priests (SACP), which comprised 54 questions posed to 1,036 Catholic priests in the United States.

“If the major story of the SACP had to be summarized briefly it would be noticeable conservative shifts among U.S. priests over the last two decades coupled with a turn toward pessimism about the current state and trajectory of the Catholic Church in America,” write the report’s three researchers.

When asked about politics, the priests surveyed were significantly more likely to describe themselves as “conservative” as compared to respondents in 2002, the researchers say.

In addition, the percentage of priest respondents overall who view younger priests as “much more conservative” than older priests increased from 29% in 2002 to 44% in the new survey.

To track changes in answers over time, the survey reused questions from a 2002 poll of Catholic priests conducted by the Los Angeles Times, and also a few questions from a survey of priests from 1970.

The priests were contacted in late 2020 via two unconnected email lists, one provided by the Official Catholic Directory and one provided by an unidentified “Catholic NGO.” Despite the small sample size, the authors say the results they garnered from the two email lists are “reassuringly similar,” both to each other, and to the 2002 results.

The researchers analyzed the data they collected, classifying each priest by his self-described political persuasion. They also classified the priests into “cohorts” based on their ordination year.

Brad Vermurlen, the survey’s co-author and a sociologist with the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an article announcing the study that researchers observed a “relatively conservative cohort of priests ordained prior to 1960” followed by “more permissive or liberal men ordained to the priesthood in the 1960s and 70s.”

“After the permissive cohorts, there is a steady move toward more conservative views with each successive cohort. Catholic priests ordained since the year 2000 tend to be the most conservative,” Vermurlen wrote.

Priests in the more recent survey were, on average, less in favor of female deacons, less in favor of ordaining women as priests, and less favorable toward the idea of married priests compared to the 2002 survey, the researchers write.

Morale

While priests today are slightly less likely to leave the priesthood than they were in 2002, “life satisfaction” for priests is lower overall, the researchers write, down from 72.1 percent of priests in 2002 saying they were “very satisfied” with their life as a priest, to 62 percent saying the same in 2021.

“Over the same time that priests became more conservative in multiple ways, their perceptions of the current state of the Catholic Church in America took a pessimistic turn, now with a majority of priests saying things in the Church are ‘not so good’ — and this holds true across the political spectrum,” the researchers, two of whom work at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote.

Orthodoxy

The researchers’ measure of “orthodoxy” was a theological question: whether the priests surveyed believe faith in Jesus Christ to be the “sole path to salvation.”

The Catholic Church teaches in Paragraph 846 of the Catechism that “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body,” and notes that Jesus Himself “explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism.”

However, in the next Catechism paragraph, the Church affirms that those who “through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.” Nevertheless, “the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”

Priests in 2021 were, overall, slightly more likely to affirm belief that faith in Jesus Christ is the “sole path to salvation” than priests in 2002, but stark differences emerged among the different political persuasions.

Among priests who self-identified as “very liberal,” nearly 40% “disagreed strongly” with the assertion that the sole path to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ. On the other end of the spectrum, among “very conservative” priests, 82% said they “agreed strongly.”

Morality

To assess opinions on morality among the priests, the researchers laid out six activities that the Church teaches to be sinful, and asked whether the surveyed priests also consider them sinful. These activities were: nonmarital sex; abortion; birth control use in married couples; homosexual behavior; suicide to relieve suffering, and masturbation.

The researchers concluded that priests in 2021 were more likely than their 2002 counterparts to say each of those six activities to be sinful.

Assessment of Pope Francis

The researchers also asked about the priests’ approval of Pope Francis. They found that priests ordained in more recent years are less likely to approve of how Pope Francis is handling his duties.

“In the latest cohort of priests, ordained in 2010 or later, only 20.0 percent ‘approve strongly’ of Pope Francis and nearly half (49.8 percent) disapprove, whether ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly,’” the researchers found.

Is the Church getting better or worse?

The priests were asked about their opinion of the Catholic Church’s “trajectory”— whether the Church is getting better, staying the same, or getting worse.

The researchers noted that priests who assessed the Church as “not so good” spanned the political spectrum, and speculated that the apparent pessimism seems to be a “period effect,” meaning “there is something about the early 2020s distinctly different from 2002 generating these changes.”

The researchers speculate that one reason for the increased pessimism among priests might be “the spiritual and moral lives of the Catholic laity.” The researchers claim that just 22% of priests reported that “most” of the laity they encounter are living out the Church’s teachings on moral issues such as those relating to sexuality, a decrease from 30% in 2002.

They also cited a “challenging, ‘post-Christian’” society and the fallout from the sexual abuse crisis as likely drivers of lower morale.


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23 Comments

  1. I don’t understand why priests believing what the Church teaches is remarkable or even shocking (alarming) to some. Shouldn’t that be a given? Another way of writing this headline is…”Younger Catholic Priests Believe Catholic Stuff!”

    How could it be otherwise? I honestly don’t understand what this institution is anymore. What exactly am I “in communion” with when it seems a sizeable number of our clergy (including Bishops and the Pope) seem to have major issues with the teachings they’re called to uphold and promote? Why is believing what the Church teaches considered fo be so odd by our leadership? It makes no sense.

    • Andrew,

      Without doubt you have asked some simple questions that a whole lot of other Catholic folks have been asking for a long long time.

  2. This comes as no surprise given the type of candidate bishops have been selecting for ordination in the last few decades. They do not believe in the primacy of conscience and lack hope – their pessimism shows they do not believe our Lord’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. and they do not accept that the baptised live the life of Christ. They should be ignored.

  3. Hope for the future, in any case, if the younger not crushed by the burdens of multiple parishes and non-priestly admin work.

    If they stay strong, continue their message, the essentially non-Catholic parishes of baptised pagans will fade away, leaving stonger parishes and more realistic workload for those priest who remain, and a reinvigorated smaller US Church, and from where new bishops will arise, as put forward by “some guy” over 50yrs ago.

  4. The problem with surveys is the abundance and multiplicity of interpretations that can be put into or taken out of them. Putting in consists in the way questions are formulated which basically is generated by the surveyor’s worldview. Taking out is the process by which the answers are again generated in the light of the surveyor’s worldview. This particular survey analyzed here is not an exemption. The narrative of this survey is evident in the way the results are presented. A notable example is the association of being conservative as orthodox with the implication that the progressives are not orthodox. Another is the reduction of faith to moralism. A timely one is the American Catholic conservatism’s resistance and rejection of Pope Francis or Vatican II. That this is about American priests, the survey only muddles rather than clarify the phenomenon. I suggest by going beyond the picture of American priests but into the bigger Catholic Church in the U.S., that those with the energy and resources to get a copy of and read the book, “Catholic Discordance: Neoconservatism vs. the Field Hospital Church of Pope Francis” by Massimo Borghesi.

    • The priest responders categorized their political inclinations, so how could the surveyor’s worldview influence response? The respondents themselves also rated their agreement or disagreement (strongly, always, never, sometimes, etc.) with moral, theological, and ecclesiological parameters.

      The complete methodology and description of the survey is found at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3951931. It is interesting to note that the 2021 survey from U. of Texas (Austin) mirrored that of the LA Times of 2002. There are many interesting conclusions we can draw from looking at the 26-page report, but influence or bias by surveyors?

    • Josephine,
      Yours is a carefully worded commentary. I still would be interested in hearing more on your views about any distinctions that might be made within the seamless package you seem to presume with Francis and Vatican II…

      Much of the “conservative” criticism, beginning with the dubia, has been Pope Francis’ silence at times when clarification would be opportune, his ambiguous wording on key points (the “pluralism” of religions), the implicit exemptions he signals or implies to morality, his difficulty in governing (e.g., w/r/t the German synodal way), and refusal to engage even respectful criticism. (Easier to simply label the peasants as “conservative, bigoted and rigid.”)
      Never an explicit rupture, but a pattern brinkmanship? Why? This gets us back to the tension and even the difference between the actual Documents of Vatican II and the alleged and seemingly freelance spirit of Vatican II.

      In short, some see a problem when Francis says of himself that he is not a theologian, but instead looks people in the eye. At the very least, and with his predominantly administrative background, the challenge of actually reconciling concrete cases with principles? Or, perhaps, the charism of Ignatius of Loyola (the Jesuits, still?) with the very different charism of his selected namesake—St. Francis?

      Yes? No? Maybe?

    • “Progressivism,” like any and all human vanity, is antithetical to Christianity, evidenced by the evil notion of implicitly disparaging objective moral truth as “moralism”. The silly book, to which you refer, seeks to create a false dichotomy between a Catholicism slandered as excessively moralistic, a profoundly evil notion, in contrast to a compassion that deemphasizes morality, which is also a profoundly evil notion. There is no compassion without recognizing objective morality that, because it reflects the perfect unchanging mind of God, never changes and has the effect of preserving us from damaging ourselves, no matter how many lies we would prefer to live with. It is a false compassion that interprets moral guilt as an evil.

      Discovery exists. But we can only discover what God already knows, which can only be consistent with the absolutes we have received from God from eternity. Progress, in the sense that human nature is malleable, does not exist because human nature is not malleable, no matter how many moronic theologians, hiding from their own sinful lives, desire to promote this fiction.

  5. Well if the trend is a correlate of fewer practicing homosexuals in the ministry there is hope for the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

  6. A most welcome trend, a true example of the work of the Holy Spirit. A Spirit that doesn’t diminish revelation of the Word by presumptuous surprises. When I taught older lecturer priests were more modernist and in agreement with current Vatican policy, some confused and searching. That younger men are more traditionally oriented speaks to a more spiritually formed and convinced men prepared to examine and identify truth. Likely a desire to strenghten our Church when everything points to adversity for faithful priests. Inspiration of the Holy Spirit experienced in young African men when lecturing in Malawi, Tanzania. Christ will never abandon us.

  7. The prophet Jerimiah is called the weeping prophet. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, soon to be destroyed (Luke 19:41-44). The prophetic life can place great personal demands on a faithful prophet, even the death of the prophet. Jesus points this out in His woes in Matthew 23 where He laments over Jerusalem. Prophetic witness led to the death of Christ, St. John the Baptist, and St. Stephen. One major function of a prophet is that of prophetic correction, the admonishment of sinners. See Ezekiel 3:17-21.
    *
    The Church needs to prepare people to be all-weather Catholics. Too often she appears to be turning out lukewarm, fair-weather Catholics unprepared to live, and to be defenders of, the faith. In the book of Revelation the letter to the church in Laodicea contained blunt words about being lukewarm. Many of the letters to the churches in Revelation contained rebukes. We need to better prepare people for living and defending their faith.

  8. There is then reason for hope. God reward our priests who are abandoning the rose colored glasses and responding to the gross reality of present ecclesiastical existence with a renewed assent to the perennial Magisterium.

  9. I was raised a Protestant and in my early fifties I converted to Catholicism. I would classify myself as a Conservative in belief and one of the reasons I joined the church was because most of the Protestant denominations were running amok accepting any belief and any behavior as alright. My Catholic faith was very precious to me and I found great joy in it. And then Francis became Pope and has packed the the top tier with Bishops and Cardinals who agree totally with his agenda. If Francis were to die tomorrow, the church will no doubt have a Pope who echoes Francis’s thinking. So I RE-verted and moved back to the Protestants. I miss the sacraments especially the Eucharist; but I surely love the deep Biblical teachings that I hear every week from my pastor. And being with people who share my conservative bent of mind.

    • Kay, you should not let feelings and the information dished out by the MSM, including the Catholic version of MSM, influence your personal relationship with our one and only Redeemer. When Simon Peter kept his focus on Jesus, he was able to walk on water, but when he shifted his focus he started sinking. Jesus described the Church as a tree, a Vine in which he was the the Vine and we the branches attached to it. He ushered in the New Covenant and to make the blessings, the promises available to us, he established this Church in which the members are in union with him. And, because of this union, the graces contained in the New Covenant flow through Jesus to us. There is no salvation for anyone who wants to go it alone or with any other group.
      Believe me, Pope Francis is as conservative as any faithful conservative Catholic. He has not, and will not, change doctrine. He just wants us to ensure that Jesus lives in us, and to act through us, to reach out to all, including the sinners and prostitutes. He wants everyone to have the opportunity to be saved.

  10. I think that those who are encouraged by this survey will be, in the end, sorely disappointed. There is a Pope in place who is packing the curia and the College of Cardinals (who will elect the next pope) with people who think exactly like he does. The Catholic Church is a church that works from the top down and it is unlikely that the conservatives will be able to change the course that Francis has set it on. More’s the pity.

    • Faith, Kay!

      Turning away from the sacraments is throwing out bath water, baby, and the entire universe besides!

      Don’t you think that the Holy Spirit knows what’s going on in Jesus’ Church? We’ve had problematic popes and difficult times before.

      But Jesus keeps coming to us in the Eucharist.

      So take heart, dear Kay! Don’t despair!

      It will all work out in God’s time.

      • And, Kay, the Scriptures are the glorious Word of God, absolutely!

        But in the end, reading the Scriptures is hearing about Jesus.

        Whereas receiving the Eucharist is actually BEING WITH Him!

        With all due respect and affection, dear Kay, I’m not sure you’ve chosen the best part.

    • The Catholic Church has the living Christ as its founder and its head. The occupants of visible Church offices are administrators. That some are hireling shepherds, wolves in sheep’s clothing, false prophets, or outright hitmen intent on preaching ambiguity and error are conditions God allows to make us saints. Scripture has warned us. He graces us to endure, to pray for those who persecute us/Him, and to seek His succor and consolation until we live eternally with Him. Abiding in our faith, remaining with Christ in his suffering Church, asking Him to abide in us seems a small price to pay. Hope springs eternal when God is with us, and He is.

  11. The sooner the aging 1970’s “Spirit of Vatican II” hippies that form the majority of the Episcopate are put out to pasture, the sooner the new generation of priests can take their place and the sooner the Church will be restored to it’s former glory.

  12. The Tower of Babble still exists, right here on this site. Too many words.
    We need more acts of loving kindness. Just follow Jesus’ lead.

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