A new survey of Catholic priests has found that the vast majority of young seminary graduates in the U.S. describe themselves as conservative and/or orthodox – with researchers describing it as a “major shift”.
A research group at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., also found that despite relatively high levels of personal well-being and fulfillment among priests, a significant percentage of priests experienced burnout, distrust in their bishop, and fears of being falsely accused of misconduct.
The research group, The Catholic Project, says “several themes which have emerged from closer analysis of the quantitative data, as well as careful study of the qualitative data collected from the one-on-one interviews with priests.”
The study used survey responses from 3,516 priests across 191 dioceses and parishes in the United States.
It found that priests describing themselves as “conservative/orthodox” reached more than 80% among those ordained after 2020 – and claimed that there is a “significant divide” between the political and theological self-identification of older priests in comparison to younger priests.
“Simply put, the portion of new priests who see themselves as politically ‘liberal’ or theologically ‘progressive’ has been steadily declining since the Second Vatican Council and has now all but vanished,” the report says.
“More than half of the priests who were ordained since 2010 see themselves on the conservative side of the scale. No surveyed priests who were ordained after 2020 described themselves as ‘very progressive.’”
Researchers said a full 85% of the youngest cohort describes itself as “conservative/orthodox” or “very conservative/orthodox” theologically, with only 14% describing themselves as “middle-of-the-road.”
The report says the survey found that nearly 70% of priests ordained in the mid- to late 1960s describe themselves as somewhat or very “progressive.” By 2020, fewer than 5% of priests describe themselves that way.
Researchers said that the data showed that priests largely began to see themselves as more “progressive” after Vatican II and more “conservative” after 2002.
Father Carter Griffin, rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C., told Catholic News Agency that most of the young men coming to his seminary are looking to be “part of the solution … they want to make themselves available for the needs of the Church.”
“Nobody wants to give their life for a question mark … I think the ones who are going to come forward who are open to the idea of entering the priesthood are going to be the ones who are most intent on ensuring that they are Catholic and that they’re on board with everything,” he said in an interview with CNA.
“[T]he men coming forward for the priesthood now are men who really love the Lord and love the Church. They believe in her. They believe that he founded her. And so there’s not an instinct at all to believe anything other than what the Church believes, to teach what the Church believes,” Griffin continued.
“We are witnessing a major shift in the way priests in the United States view themselves and their priesthood,” the researchers said.
“Younger priests are much more likely than their older peers to describe themselves as politically conservative or moderate. Younger priests are also much more likely to see themselves as theologically orthodox or conservative than do older priests. These shifts can be a source of friction and tension, especially between younger and older priests,” they wrote.
The report states that, on average, 49% of diocesan priests overall today express confidence in their bishop, with levels of trust varying considerably across dioceses, while the level of trust was down from 63% in 2001 — the year before the sexual-abuse crisis, which included many revelations of bishops mishandling abuse cases, became a huge story in the U.S.
Researchers report that diocesan size has a moderate effect on priests’ trust in their bishop, with levels of trust among U.S. dioceses ranging from 100% to a mere 9%.
One reason for this, the report said, may be that priests in very large archdioceses have a harder time getting to personally know their bishops as well as priests in smaller dioceses.
Beyond diocesan size, a priest’s perception that his bishop shared his theological and political views — or not — showed itself to be predictive of his level of trust in that bishop, the research found.
Also of note, they said, was the large majority of priests (71%) who say they know at least one victim of clerical sexual abuse, while only 30% of priests personally know three or more.
“Against the backdrop of all these challenges, priests remain largely satisfied in their ministry and few (4%) are considering leaving,” the researchers continued.
“It is our hope that the data presented here can strengthen that understanding among all Catholics, but particularly for our bishops and priests upon whom so much depends.”