Poll of Priests Indicates Signs of Future Church: Most Love Their Work, but Survey Forebodes Accelerating Shortage. (Analysis)

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Poll of Priests Indicates Signs of Future Church: Most Love Their Work, but Survey Forebodes Accelerating Shortage. (Analysis)


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


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 down-turn 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. …

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