By Jonah McKeown
A new survey released this month suggests a more “pessimistic” view of the Catholic Church among American priests today compared to 2002, as well as a growing perception of young priests “more theologically conservative or orthodox” in relation to it. to their older counterparts.
A November 1 report summarized the results of the 2021 American Catholic Priests Survey (SACP), which included 54 questions asked of 1,036 Catholic priests in the United States.
“If the major history of the SACP were to be summarized briefly, it would be notable conservative changes among American priests over the past two decades, coupled with a shift to pessimism about the current state and trajectory of the Catholic Church. in America, ”write the report. three researchers.
When asked about politics, the priests polled were significantly more likely to describe themselves as “conservative” compared to those polled in 2002, the researchers said.
In addition, the percentage of priests surveyed overall who view young priests as “much more conservative” than older priests has increased from 29% in 2002 to 44% in the new poll.
To track responses over time, the survey reused questions from a 2002 Los Angeles Times survey of Catholic priests, as well as a few questions from a 1970 survey of priests.
The priests were contacted at the end of 2020 via two unconnected mailing lists, one provided by the official Catholic directory and the other provided by an unidentified “Catholic NGO”. Despite the small sample size, the authors claim that the results they obtained from the two mailing lists are “reassuringly”, both to each other and to the 2002 results.
The researchers analyzed the data they collected, ranking each priest according to his or her self-proclaimed political belief. They also classified the priests into “cohorts” according to their year of ordination.
Brad Vermurlen, co-author of the survey and a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an article announcing the study that the researchers observed a “relatively conservative cohort of priests ordained before 1960″ followed by ” more permissive or liberal men ordained to the priesthood in the 1960s and 1970s.
“After the permissive cohorts, there is a constant shift towards more conservative views with each successive cohort. Catholic priests ordained since 2000 tend to be the most conservative, ”Vermurlen wrote.
Priests in the most recent survey were, on average, less in favor of women deacons, less in favor of ordination of women priests and less in favor of the idea of married priests compared to the 2002 survey, write the researchers.
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, compared to 72. , 1% of priests in 2002 declaring themselves “very satisfied” with their life as priests. a priest, 62% saying the same thing in 2021.
“At the same time that priests have become more conservative in many ways, their perception of the current state of the Catholic Church in America has taken a pessimistic turn, now with a majority of priests saying that things in the Church are failing. are “not so good” – and this is true across the political spectrum, “wrote the researchers, two of whom work at the University of Texas at Austin.
The measure of the researchers’ “orthodoxy” was a theological question: do the priests interviewed believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the “only way 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 affirmed the need for faith and baptism”.
However, in the following paragraph of the Catechism, 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 precepts of their conscience – these too can attain eternal salvation. Nevertheless, “the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men”.
Priests in 2021 were, on the whole, slightly more likely to assert the belief that faith in Jesus Christ is the “only way to salvation” than priests in 2002, but marked differences emerged between the different political beliefs.
Among priests who self-identified as “very liberal,” nearly 40% “strongly disagreed” with the claim that the only way to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ. In contrast, among “very conservative” priests, 82% say they “strongly agree”.
To assess opinions on morality among priests, the researchers presented six activities that the Church teaches as sinners and asked whether the priests interviewed also viewed them as sinners. These activities were: non-marital sex; Abortion; use of birth control 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 that each of these six activities was a sin.
Balance sheet of Pope Francis
The researchers also asked about the approval of Pope Francis by the priests. They found that priests ordained in recent years are less likely to approve of the way Pope Francis performs his duties.
“In the last cohort of priests, ordained in 2010 or later, only 20.0%” strongly approve “of Pope Francis and almost half (49.8%) disapprove of him, either” a little “or” strongly “”, the researchers found.
Is the Church getting better or worse?
Priests were asked about their views on the “trajectory” of the Catholic Church – whether the Church gets better, stays the same, or gets worse.
The researchers noted that priests who rated the Church as “not so good” covered the political spectrum, and hypothesized that the apparent pessimism appears to be a “period effect,” meaning “that there is something about the early 2020s that is distinctly different from 2002 driving these changes. “
Researchers believe that one of the reasons for increased pessimism among priests could be “the spiritual and moral life of lay Catholics.” Researchers say only 22% of priests said “most” of the laity they meet apply Church teachings on moral issues such as those related to sexuality, down from 30% in 2002 .
They also cited a “difficult,” post-Christian “society and the fallout from the sexual abuse crisis as likely factors for lower morale.