Major survey finds ‘conservative’ and ‘orthodox’ priests on the rise

Accountability to the pope

The researchers asked survey participants whether they value their accountability to various people or parties: “God,” “Pope Francis,” “my bishop,” “my brother priests,” “my parishioners,” “the laity,” and “the general public.”

The researchers found that 67% of priests in the cohort of priests ordained since 2000 agree that they value their accountability to the pope, versus 82% of those ordained before 1980. Similarly, 64% of priests under the age of 45 agreed that they value accountability to Pope Francis compared with 82% of priests over the age of 75. 

Father Matthew Schneider, a priest of the Legionaries of Christ and a theology professor at Belmont Abbey College, said he believes that social media tends to “emphasize the extremes” and amplify voices that are critical of Pope Francis, whereas he believes most priests, especially those entrusted to a parish, are focused on their pastoral ministry day-to-day and don’t pay much attention to online debates. 

“Most priests I know are generally supportive of the pope,” Schneider, who maintains an active social media presence, told CNA. 

“The ones in the middle can get drowned out in that natural tendency for social media to go to the extremes. And I think that a lot of Catholics, a lot of priests, are much more in the middle. We want to follow the entire magisterium. We follow Pope Francis.”

Schneider said that among priests he knows, many of them appreciate Pope Francis’ emphasis on and personal example of care for people on the margins of society. But that’s not to say that he or his peers think every word or decision from Pope Francis is perfect. 

“We generally think he’s doing an okay job; we might critique a few decisions in certain cases, but that’s not to say he’s a bad pope, or he’s an evil pope. And I think that that’s where a lot of people are,” Schneider said. 

Griffin said that at his seminary, they seek to emphasize that the papacy is not “just another political agency that we agree with or disagree with” but rather that the pope is the “father of a family.”

“Popes are going to have different personalities and different priorities. And what makes us Catholic, in part, is … being able to have that love for the Holy Father, no matter who the Holy Father is, and that sense of obedience and respect for him,” Griffin commented.

“Having said that, there may be prudential judgments that the pope makes that people can disagree with. And I think being able to make some of those distinctions, I can still love and respect and obey without necessarily agreeing with everything that the pope says and does.”

Trust and polarization

Turning to the topic of trust, the October 2022 report states that on average, 49% of diocesan priests overall today express confidence in their bishop. Levels of trust varied considerably across dioceses, and the data show that 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, exploded in the U.S.

In the new analysis, the 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 researchers say, 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 researchers found. 

If a priest describes himself as theologically conservative, for example, and he believes that his bishop is also theologically conservative, it is likely that he would report a high degree of trust in his bishop, they said. 

In contrast, if a priest reported that he did not align with his bishop on theological matters or in political views, he would report low trust in his bishop’s leadership. 

Clerical victims of abuse, priests as first responders

The researchers asked priests to agree, disagree, or choose not to respond to the statement “I personally experienced sexual harassment or abuse or suffered sexual misconduct during my formation or seminary. Eighty-five percent said no, 9% said yes, and 6% said they were unsure or preferred not to answer.

Priests who are victims of sexual abuse and speak about their experience publicly are relatively rare. One such public figure is Father John Riccardo, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit who founded The Rescue Project, a video series and discussion course that aims to equip clergy and lay leaders to share the Gospel message. 

Riccardo has spoken publicly, both in his Rescue Project videos and elsewhere, about being sexually abused as a child, which he says took place at the hands of multiple people who were outside his family. He has said the abuse he suffered made him feel “disposable” and “discardable” but that he has come to find healing through the Church. 

“I never would have thought of sharing that [information] 30 years ago — maybe with a spiritual director. I share it all the time now,” Riccardo said in a recent interview. 

Jesus “doesn’t hesitate to show his wounds” and make himself vulnerable, he noted, and said that fact is part of the reason he speaks today about his abuse and about his healing. 

“I share it for a lot of reasons. I think the Church is in desperate need of learning how to be human again; I think that’s one of the most fundamental problems in the Church. We relate very functionally and transactionally to one another, often. Not always, but often. And you can’t love what you don’t know,” Riccardo continued. 

Returning to the survey, 69% of priests said that they feel well-prepared to minister to a victim of abuse, and 54% report that they are already doing so. Seventy-one percent of priests reported knowing at least one victim-survivor of clergy sexual abuse, with 11% knowing five or more. 

Priest retention

Just 4% of priests answered affirmatively to the statement “I am thinking of leaving the priesthood.” According to the researchers, some of the factors associated with a higher likelihood to consider leaving include lack of confidence in bishop leadership, a younger age, and a perceived or actual lack of support.

Griffin said they think a lot at his seminary about the ways they can proactively address the reasons a man might later leave the priesthood.

“The wider culture is one that is not friendly to commitment,” he commented. 

“And so these guys are like the rest of us, breathing in that air. It’s an atmosphere that can really be toxic to marriages, faithful marriages, to persevering priests. And so that’s part of what we’re working against in this wider culture.”

“We are witnessing a major shift in the way priests in the United States view themselves and their priesthood,” the researchers concluded.

“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.”

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.”

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