New survey of priests finds that younger priests are happier
and more conservative
By Tony Staley
Today's younger priests hold some views that most Catholics would find encouraging, but also some views that will disturb some lay Catholics, as well as older priests.
The findings were revealed in a sociological study of U.S. Catholic priests done by Catholic University of America sociologist Dean Hoge and doctoral student Jacqueline Wenger. It was commissioned by the National Federation of Priests' Councils with funding from the Duke University Divinity School's Pulpit and Pew Research Study on Pastoral Leadership.
The mail survey of 858 diocesan and 421 religious-order priests found that the religious views of today's younger priests are similar to those held by older priests in 1970.
Here are some highlights:
Priests in 2001 were happier than in 1970, fewer were thinking of leaving the priesthood and fewer thought they would marry if celibacy became optional.
Priests in 2001 were more concerned than priests in 1970 about overwork and unrealistic demands of lay people. Hardly surprising given that the Catholic population increased 30% while the number of nonretired priests declined 30-35% from 1970 to 2001. Plus, the average age of priests went from 47 in 1970 to 60 in 2001.
Younger priests are less prepared than older priests to invite resigned priests, married or not, back to active ministry.
Younger priests, despite concerns about overwork, are less in favor of empowering lay ministers as parish leaders than are older priests.
Younger priests think the issues that need more open discussion in the church today are problems of rectory or community living, problems of living arrangements and salaries.
Older priests think the issues that need more open discussion in the church are celibacy, the ordination of women, the process of selecting bishops, the problem of sexual misconduct by priests and sharing ministry with laity.
Younger priests are less critical of how the church is governed and how church authority is exercised than older priests.
All priests -- just as in previous surveys -- ranked presiding at the liturgy, celebrating the sacraments and preaching as their greatest sources of satisfaction.
The study notes that eventually when priests ordained in the 1960s and '70s are gone, the prevailing attitudes among priests about church life "will again be similar to those held by priests ordained prior to the 1960s."
These attitude shifts by priests show why the church is slow to adopt change. New ideas must be tried and tested to see if they are passing fads or reforms worthy of adoption. It's sometimes hard to tell immediately which is which. Many common practices were once unthinkable and other "sure bets" have long since been forgotten. We also need to remember that change is constant and anything truly worthwhile will be back or remain.