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Church in Crisis - Analysis

Poll of priests indicates signs of future church

Los Angeles

The majority of U.S. Catholic priests love their work. They are overworked and angry at the U.S. bishops’ handling of the sex abuse crisis.

Among younger Catholic priests there’s a shift in orthodoxy: There are almost as many self-identified “conservatives” (28 percent) as self-identified “liberals” (30 percent). There is an increasing number of homosexuals.

In these findings by a Los Angeles Times nationwide survey of U.S. Catholic priests released Oct. 20 and 21, the reassuring element is that because the bulk of hardworking priests love their work, the notion of the parish as the dynamo of the church, the Catholic norm and goal, is reinforced.

Matched against some earlier statistics, plus surveys from Catholic sources, the Times poll helps shade in greater detail the silhouette though not the content of the 21st-century emerging church. Taken together, the Times and earlier polls provide an outline of a church that is priest-short, yet with a laity willing to welcome ordained married men and women as priests. It is a church faced with a widening orthodoxy variance between younger priests and older priests, and, similarly, between younger priests and the laity.

Given the latest activity in the Vatican regarding denying ordination to homosexuals, the Times poll does send the priest-short bishops a warning shot on the numbers.

The Times poll focused on a topic the bishops don’t want to face: While some 15 percent of the current clergy listed themselves as “gay or on the homosexual side,” among younger priests 23 percent did so.

If such young men in the future are denied ordination, the U.S. Catholic church priest population graph, which already resembles the 1999-2000 stock market downturn chart, will show a decline as precipitous as Wall Street’s Great Depression.

In the mid-to-late 1990s there were some 4,500 seminarians in theology (down 60 percent from 1965). Now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reports (September 2002) only “more than 3,400 seminarians” studying for the diocesan priesthood.

Reduce today’s 3,400 numbers by 15-25 percent by denying ordination to “homosexuals and those inclined that way” now entering U.S. seminaries, and the bishops are suddenly looking at an American church of 63 million Catholics that, by about 2010, could barely sustain one priest for every 2,000 Catholics -- compared to one priest for every 651 Catholics in 1950, and about one for every 1,270 Catholics in 2000.

At the very least, the possible consequences from a ban on 15-25 percent of entering seminarians:

  • Overworked and aging priests become saddled with ever-larger burdens.
  • At a time of downward trends among younger Catholics (people generally more tolerant of homosexuality and favorable to ordaining women), hierarchical teaching will be regarded as increasingly remote from reality.
  • At the parish/diocesan level, laypeople will be expected to take on more duties and authority. (The downside there, however, is that there is some anecdotal reason to think that diocesan/parish lay staffs are being trimmed, or, like the priests, having to double up in the amount of responsibility they’re shouldering. And it is still the case that many laypeople working within the church structure know they have responsibility without authority commensurate to the position, because the bishop or pastor demurs.)

The Times survey, billed by the newspaper as “the most extensive nationwide opinion survey of American priests since 1994,” reported that on the sexual abuse scandal, U.S. priests in written comments (in addition to their survey comments) said the U.S. bishops were faulty in their delayed response to the crisis initially, “then compounded the problem by adopting a zero tolerance policy, the ‘Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.’ ” The Times quoted Franciscan Fr. Frank Jasper, a psychotherapist in Indianapolis, who told the paper, “probably at this point the safest place for any kid to be is in the church.”

While 55 percent of priests believe the charter restored confidence in the church, only 34 percent rated its fairness to priests as “good or excellent,” and 45 percent called it “fair or poor.”

Priests told the Los Angeles Times the rights of the accused as well as the rights of the victims must be honored, and “many asked if Christian forgiveness had also become a victim of the scandal, particularly in cases in which a priest may have abused once decades ago and led an abuse-free life with an effective ministry ever since.”

More than 53 percent of the priest respondents, said the Times, think “the church has been too lenient in disciplining those accused of misconduct.” Many priests expressed anger with how the news media covered the abuse scandal, with 73 percent maintaining the “news media had been negative in their treatment of the church.”

Seventy percent of priests were found “very satisfied” with their lives, and “76 percent approve of the way their local bishops manage the diocese” and expect the church to emerge “stronger and healthier in the long run” because of the scandal.

On the age differential affecting orthodoxy views among priests, “among younger priests nearly four in 10 described themselves as conservative, and three-fourths said they were more religiously orthodox than their older counterparts.”

In the polled segments, U.S. priests rated the problems facing the U.S. church as “shortage of priests, 25 percent; problems with bishops/hierarchy, 20 percent; child abuse by clergy, 18 percent; restoring credibility to priests, 13 percent.”

In a tabulated chart on “belief in church doctrine,” the Times asked:

  • “Do you think it is always, often, seldom or never a sin for unmarried people to have sexual relations: always, 53 percent; often, 32 percent; seldom/never, 9 percent.
  • “For a woman to get an abortion: always, 71 percent; often, 19 percent; seldom/never, 4 percent.
  • “For married couples to use artificial birth control: always, 28 percent; often, 25 percent; never, 40 percent.
  • “To engage in homosexual behavior: always a sin, 49 percent; often, 25 percent; never, 19 percent;
  • To take one’s own life if suffering from a debilitating disease: always, 59 percent; often, 18 percent; never, 17 percent.”

These views from America’s Catholic priests can be matched against the opinions of lay Catholics to reveal both a priesthood and a laity less inclined than ever “to define a good Catholic in terms that agree with church norms.”

James Davidson of The Catholic University of America used that phrase (NCR, Oct. 29, 1999), in a survey report, conducted with other university colleagues, on “the declining significance of the institutional church in the lives of American Catholics.” The “good news,” Davidson said, is that Catholics value the church’s core beliefs: “the sacraments, aiding the poor, and that Mary is the Mother of God.”

But the laity’s attachment to the church has waned in the 12 years between 1987 and 1999, he said. Fewer reported the church was an important part of their lives; fewer said they would never leave; and few accept “the church’s concept of what it takes to be a ‘good Catholic.’ ”

“These results,” wrote Davidson, “do not indicate the demise of the Catholic church in this country. Rather, as more and more Catholics make up their own minds about what it means to be Catholic, they seem increasingly indifferent to the institutional church.”

Davidson said of the 1999 report: “For leaders who feel the church and its traditional teachings should be preserved [supported by nearly 40 percent of the younger priests according to the Los Angeles Times], these findings represent a challenge to find new and more effective ways of interpreting the importance of church. Unless such means are found, indifference toward the church is likely to increase. For leaders who feel the church and its current practices need to change [not an insignificant numbers of priests feel the same, according to the Times], the challenge is to effect changes that will increase, not decrease, the importance of church for future generations.”

Katherine Myer, who contributed to the 1999 report, found that laypeople “treasured the services of their priests. They recognize the numbers have been dwindling.” They were willing to expand ordination to married men (70-plus percent), formerly active priests now married (close to 80 percent) and celibate women (63 percent) and married women (54 percent).

Which leaves the U.S. bishops pondering issues not immediately subject to resolution: a laity accommodating to the idea of widening ordination at a time when the Vatican is bent on narrowing it by excluding homosexual priests.

The Los Angeles Times survey, looking at the response on the gay priest issue, further asked “whether a ‘homosexual subculture’ -- defined as a ‘definite group of persons that has its own friendships, social gatherings and vocabulary’ -- exists in their diocese or religious order.” Forty-four percent of the priests said “definitely,” 17 percent said “probably,” while 52 percent said no.

Asked if the subculture existed in their seminary days, 26 percent said definitely (12 percent) or probably (14 percent), while 52 percent said no. Among the younger priests, those ordained in the past 20 years, 53 percent said the subculture existed in their seminaries.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002