In late 1993 and early 1994, the Los Angeles Times conducted a survey of Catholic priests and found that younger priests were more likely to be politically conservative and religiously orthodox compared to middle-aged priests who entered the priesthood in the 1960s.
A new survey of priests, conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, posed many of the same questions the Times did. The Austin Institue released the results of the survey this week: as in 1994, younger priests tend to be more conservative, both politically, morally and theologically.
Among other findings of the Austin Institute survey, the aging of the priesthood has slowed and perhaps stopped, though the mean age of Catholic priests today is about 60 years. That’s a lot older than it was in 1970, when it was 35, but no older than it was in 2002.
When asked about the trajectory of the Catholic Church in America, priests in 2002 on average told the Los Angeles Times in a follow-up survey that things were “staying about the same.” By 2020, that average answer took a distinct dip to between “staying about the same” and “getting worse.” One reason for the pessimism might be the spiritual and moral lives of the Catholic laity, Austin Institute researchers said.
“Among priests who come into contact with the laity, only about 22% said most of the laity they come in contact with are following the Church’s teachings on moral issues such as sexuality, marriage, and reproduction,” the survey said. “This, too, is a significant decline from 2002, when the figure was 30%.”
Priests today, on average, are less in favor of female deacons, less in favor of ordaining women as priests, and less favorable toward married priests compared to the 2002 LA Times survey. They tend to agree more with the belief that the sole path to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ. And, when asked about politics, priests in the recent samples were significantly more likely to describe themselves as conservative compared to 2002.
Overall, a bit more than half (53.4%) of priests in the U.S. “approve strongly” of how Pope Francis is handling his duties, and another 22.8% “approve somewhat.” There is a notable correlation between priests’ political views and their approval of Pope Francis. Among priests who describe their politics as “very conservative,” for instance, 68.9% disapprove of Pope Francis, whether “somewhat” or “strongly.”
“On the other end of the spectrum, remarkably, not a single priest in our dataset who describes himself as liberal on politics (whether ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’) disapproves of the job Pope Francis is doing (whether ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’),” researchers said.
There also is a pronounced turn toward pessimism among priests in the U.S. as it concerns the current state of their own Church in America. While in 2002, more than half (57.8%) of priests rated the Catholic Church as doing well, by 2021 more than half of priests (51.3%) rated the Church as doing “not so good.” Over that same period, the percent of priests rating the Catholic Church as “poor” increased from 4.8% to 13.3%.
“It is apparent that pessimism is common regardless of political ideals,” the survey said. “Just over half of priests indicate things in the Catholic Church in America are ‘not so good,’ and this holds true across the full range of the political spectrum, from ‘very liberal’ to ‘very conservative.’ That the Catholic Church is not doing well is something liberal and conservative priests can agree on even if their reasons for saying so are different.”
Researchers believe the turn toward pessimism since 2002 is a “period effect, not a cohort effect.” That is, there is something distinct about the present time compared to 19 years earlier that makes priests … less likely to say things are going well for the Catholic Church in America.”
Three issues that may contribute to this pessimism, researchers suggested: one, being in contact with Catholic laity who increasingly seem not to follow the Church’s teachings, two, a heightened sense that American society has become a challenging, “post-Christian” cultural and spiritual climate, and, three, the negative social fallout directed toward priests after the sexual abuse scandals. At this juncture it must remain an open question.”