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Study shows priestly generation gap stirs tension


Younger priests have a radically different view of their ministry than do “Vatican II generation” clergy and the predominantly female lay ministers who increasingly staff parishes.

Just under the statistical surface of the information released Sept. 9 on clerical attitudes and beliefs lies another layer: The cassock-wearing, rosary-praying youngsters and their socially conscious, liberal-minded elders often don’t like one another.

One result of this generation gap, agreed participants at a symposium on “Priestly Identity in a Time of Crisis,” is tension at the parish level among pastors, their priest associates and lay ministers.

Catholic University of America sociologist Dean Hoge painted the picture, drawn from a random survey of priests conducted last year, the fourth such project conducted by Hoge since 1970.

While only one-third of priests between the ages of 25-35 embrace optional celibacy for diocesan clergy, more than 70 percent of priests between the ages of 56-65 welcome the idea.

Thirty percent of the older generation, double the percentage of their younger colleagues, see the notion of a priest as a “man set apart” as a barrier to “true Christian community.”

Eighty-six percent of the older priests say the church needs to empower laypersons in ministry, contrasted with the 54 percent of younger priests. A similar number of the older priests -- 81 percent -- agree that “parish life would be aided by an increase in full-time professional ecclesial lay ministers.” Fewer than half of the younger clergy share that enthusiasm for their nonordained predominantly female colleagues.

Nearly 70 percent of the older generation would like to see their former colleagues, resigned priests, invited back to the priesthood, whether they are married or single. Less than 25 percent of the younger generation would welcome such a move.

Hoge broke the generations into two groups -- a “cultic” or “sacramental” model, which “puts emphasis on the sacramental functions of the priest and the distinction between priest and layperson.” Those are the younger generation. The Vatican II generation priests, said Hoge, are more likely to adopt a “servant leadership model,” emphasizing “close collaboration with laity, de-emphasis of the clergy-lay differences, and greater social involvement.”

“If there are tensions in the future, they will probably be between the more educated, older lay ministers and the younger priests,” said Hoge. “As the number of lay ministers increases and the number of priests decreases, some priests will feel that their turf is being encroached upon.”

The generational differences among priests, said Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, are “most disquieting” and represent a “huge issue” for the U.S. church. “Conflict seems inevitable.” Mercy Sister and canon lawyer Sharon Euart agreed: The attitudes of the young priests “suggest some future difficulty” between younger priests and lay ministers.

Solutions? First, suggested Fr. Michael Renninger, director of vocations for the Richmond, Va., diocese, the older generation should lighten up. The assumption that “cultic” means bad is wrongheaded, he said, explaining that many younger priests gravitate to a sacramental view of priesthood as a reaction to a priestly identity crisis.

Schuth said older priests ask, “How can we get along with these guys?” A first step to solve “a big problem that is getting worse” is for the younger generation and their older counterparts to talk to each other. “Assumptions of disagreement and dislike” might be overcome by dialogue, said Schuth.

The bottom line, said Schuth, “is not whether you are conservative or liberal -- but are you an effective pastoral minister?”

Job satisfaction high among Catholic clergy

Job satisfaction is not a problem for U.S. priests, nearly 100 percent of whom either “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” with the statement: “Overall, I am satisfied with my life as a priest.” That was among the findings of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, CARA, in a telephone poll of 1,212 priests released Sept. 9.

Other findings:

  • Ten percent of priests have “seriously considered” leaving the priesthood in the past five years.
  • Priests work long hours -- 40 percent report working more than 60 hours a week, while 20 percent say they work more than 80 hours a week.
  • Nearly 75 percent of parish priests would prefer less administrative work, while 28 percent say they are “too busy to meet most of the pastoral needs of the people I serve.”
  • Both diocesan priests (70 percent) and religious priests (82 percent) say they have a good relationship with their bishop or superior.

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002