The Church in the United States stands in the mists of sea change concerning the priesthood. From at least 2002, studies conducted on the priesthood show that most new priests ordained in the Catholic Church reflect a more traditional and conservative worldview. I often highlight concerns over potential heterodoxic and heteropraxic (unorthodox belief and practice) movements within the Church. These movements often surround progressive Catholic prelates. For example, the German Synodal Way, which authorized the blessing of same-sex couples, in defiance of Rome.
For this article, I share encouraging news! Well, encouraging for conservative Catholics (for progressives, not so much). If the data proves true, the future of the Catholic Church appears theological sound and faithfully bright.
2002 LA Times’ Survey Shows Rise
In 2002, the LA Times conducted a poll of 5,000 priests out of 45,382 in the US and Puerto Rico. This poll analyzed whether priests were satisfied with their lives. The poll found that, while priests in the Pre-Vatican II and Vatican II generation held similar religious ideologies (31% liberal religious, 41% moderate religious and 26% conservative religious), a great divide began to emerge between the Vatican II and Post-Vatican II generations. In the Post-Vatican II generation, only 21% considered themselves liberal, 36% moderate, and 39% conservative. The poll goes on to state that other studies conducted by Catholic researchers show that most young men entering seminary “are more conservative than their older counterparts.” Furthermore, nine out of ten priests of the Vatican II generation thought younger priest were more conservative than older ones.
2017 Time’s The God Squad: The Next Generation of Catholic Priests
Fast forward fifteen years. In the 2017 Time article, The God Squad: The Next Generation of Catholic Priests, the online magazine highlighted the newest batch of young millennial Catholic priests. As in 2002, the trend towards theological conservatism among priests continued to increase. These priests view their vocation as an act of cultural rebellion. Moreover, they come from homes with still married parents, are Catholic since birth, and celebrate daily Mass. Millennial priests also believe sex outside of marriage between two people of opposite sexes is sin (which should be a given for all priests). Unlike their older peers, the new batch of priests often wear their collars on their days off or even when visiting a bar or attending other social events.
Finally, they prefer a more traditional liturgy with all the smells and bells. This move towards conservatism even caused Pope Francis to suggest seminarians be “less rigid” and see “shades of grey.”
2021 Survey of American Catholic Priests: Overview and Selected Findings (SACP)
Almost twenty years after the initial LA Times poll, three researchers: Brad Vermurlen and Mark D. Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin, and Stephen Cranny of Baylor University, decided to replicate it. The authors published their findings on SSRN. They asked 1,036 Catholic priests the same questions from the LA Times poll to assess what changed over the previous nineteen years. What did the researchers find? An acceleration of the same trends in 2002 and 2017. They state:
Among priests, the perception is more common now than it was in 2002 that younger priests in America are more theologically conservative or orthodox than their older counterparts.
Moreover, the priests polled reported even less in favor of women deacons, women priests, and married priests than in 2002. They also were more upfront about their politics, with many describing themselves as politically conservative. Citing numerous studies, the authors confirm this trend goes back to the mid-1980s.
A consistent finding of nationwide priest surveys since the mid-1980s, all things considered, is that younger Catholic priests and priests ordained in more recent years tend to be noticeably more conservative on a host of issues, morally, politically, and ecclesiologically (Hoge et al. 1988; Young and Schoenherr 1992; Stammer 1994; Watanabe 2002; Hoge and Wenger 2003; Gautier et al. 2012)
Of course, not everyone within the Church sees this trend in a positive light. Some in the media see it as a slight against the current pope, Pope Francis, and as a disconnect between conservative clergy and an increasing liberal lay population.
Contra Pope Francis and Liberal Laity
Drawing from the above findings (and another survey on the laity), The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article in December, 2022 titled, U.S. Catholic Priests Are Increasingly Conservative as Faithful Grow More Liberal. Citing a 2021 survey for American magazine, WSJ reports the following concerning Catholic laity in the US:
- More than 52% supported the ordination of women as priests
- 62% said priests should be allowed to bless same-sex relationships
- 38% were very or somewhat opposed to euthanasia or assisted suicide
If accurate, these findings represent a major breach in Catholic fidelity among the “faithful.” The article goes on to state that Pope Francis “opened up” previously “closed” topics, like contraception, homosexuality, and priestly celibacy. Liberal laity see hope in Pope Francis, and in the global Synod of Synodality, to move the Church into allowing more “gray areas.” Due to this emphasis on “openness,” many conservative priests (and laity) report disappointment with Pope Francis’ pontificate. As the WSJ reports:
Almost 80% of priests ordained before 1980 “approve strongly” of the current pontiff, compared with 20% of those ordained in 2010 or later, according to the 2021 survey. Nearly half of the younger priests disapprove of the pope, either “strongly” or “somewhat.”
The Great Shift
The data confirms what surveys and polls suggest, that is, most liberal priests and bishops were ordained in 1980 and prior. Furthermore, the conservative “shift” started in the mid-1980s and reached new heights post 2010. We also see this reflected in the hierarchy in the US Church. Most liberal Catholic voices among the hierarchy were ordained in or prior to 1980. For example, Cardinal Cupich (1975), Cardinal McElroy (1980), and Cardinal Tobin (1978). Conversely, well-known conservative prelates were ordained after 1980, such as Archbishop Cordileone (1982), Bishop Strickland (1985), and Bishop Barron (1986). Of note, the later were formed at the beginning of the pontificate of St. John Paul II and served as priests for the duration of it.
The Liberal Catholic Response
Given this encouraging data for conservatives, Catholics on the liberal side of the aisle express increased concern. Writing for the progressive Catholic outlet National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters’ opinion piece pits fidelity to Church teaching against fidelity to Pope Francis and his vision for the Church in Amoris Laetitia. Winters calls fidelity to Church teaching “moralism” promulgated by conservative churchmen and lay theologians, especially in seminaries. He laments:
How different would our church be if the bishops had spent the last year wrestling with the implications of those sentences from Amoris Laetitia for seminary education, rather than trying to find a way to deny Communion to Joe Biden?
For Catholic liberals, like Winters, Amoris Laetitia provides the “gray areas” where God’s unconditional love becomes untainted by His own moral law. Conservative clergy reject this “vision” and are therefore labeled “moralists.” And disloyal to the Pope. They even created a website called Where Peter Is to “call out” continued disloyalty.
The Future of the US Church
The future of the US Catholic Church appears bright. Seminaries continue to turn out energetic young priests with a fire for fidelity and a passion to share the faith “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). As faithful sons of the Church, they desire to serve the Church, its people, and yes, the Pope. Their frustration, shared by others (including me), stems from a continued lack of support regarding uncontroversial things (like the universal call to holiness) from the Vatican. Moreover, the Pope recently referred to fidelity as an appeal to “ideologies,” leaves some within the US Church asking the question: Why Does the Pope Dislike Me?
Regardless, the US Church continues to produce conservative priests and some of these priests will one day become bishops and archbishops. Given the horrendous results of the poll from America magazine, the work of proper catechesis and re-evangelization of the faithful stands before them. Please continue to pray for new priests. According to the data above, they not only stand against the evils of the world, but also many within the Church, as well.
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