A Portrait of Catholic Clergy

Deal W. Hudson

Published December 1, 2002

In a survey of 1,854 Catholic priests, the Los Angeles Times has provided a fascinating—and troubling—report on the state of the priesthood. The poll tells us that our priests are more satisfied with the priesthood than is generally assumed but lack conviction about central moral teachings of their Church.

The Los Angeles Times poll was the most extensive survey of Catholic priests since its last poll in the mid-1990s. Questions were sent out to 5,000 priests, a representative sample of the nation’s 45,382 Catholic clergy. The questions were comprehensive, covering fundamental attitudes toward Catholic teaching, the sexual-abuse crisis, and the leadership of Pope John Paul II. Partial results can be viewed at http://www.latimes.com; the Times promises to release the full results at a later date.

The good news is that priests are not demoralized in the wake of the sexual-abuse scandal. Ninety-one percent of all respondents report being satisfied with their way of life as a priest. Those who think celibacy is a negative factor for priestly life should note that only 2 percent of all priests regard celibacy as “not relevant to [their] priesthood.”

As many Catholics have surely noticed, younger clergy are much more faithful to the magisterium than priests from the baby boom generation. In the poll, four in ten priests under the age of 41 described themselves as conservative while three-fourths said they are “religiously orthodox.” Younger priests evince more appreciation for the Holy Father, his moral teachings, and the magisterium of the Church in general.

But, not surprisingly, among Vatican II–generation priests between the ages of 42 and 59, 51 percent support the ordination of women, 72 percent say Catholics can disagree with Church teachings and “remain faithful,” and only 60 percent say John Paul II’s moral views are “about right.”

The results of questions about homosexuality in the priesthood were mixed but telling. Thirty-one percent of those ordained within the last 21 years said there was a homosexual subculture at their seminary. Reports from older generations of priests were markedly lower. Sixty-seven percent of all respondents said they were definitely heterosexual, while 28 percent reported being either somewhere in between or definitely homosexual (5 percent refused to answer).

While many of these statistics reflect what we might have already assumed about the state of the American priesthood, some of the numbers in the poll are shocking. For years we have been saying that the Catholic laity would be better off if only their priests would teach them. As it turns out, many priests do not themselves accept the moral teaching of the Church on culture-of-life issues. Take, for example, the following numbers:

• Only 71 percent agreed that abortion is always a sin.

• Only 59 percent agreed that committing suicide if suffering from a debilitating disease is always a sin.

• Only 49 percent agreed that homosexual behavior is always a sin.

Is it surprising that a large part of the laity dissents from the Church’s moral teaching when the clergy themselves don’t believe it? No wonder we don’t often hear homilies on abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia—many of our priests lack a firm conviction that these acts are intrinsically sinful. It is possible that by using the word “sinful” rather than, say, “wrong,” the Times invited a confused response; as they are formulated, the questions seem to elide the important distinction between personal culpability and objective evil. Perhaps the low numbers reflect an appropriate hesitation on that point. But it is also possible—and all too likely—that they reflect the popularity of situational ethics, which has nothing to do with Catholic moral theology.

“Cafeteria Catholicism” evidently exists among the teachers of the faith as well as among those who learn from them. But we shouldn’t despair quite yet. After all, perhaps the most important fact about this poll is that these numbers are actually better than the ones from the Times’s earlier poll. I have no doubt that this is in part due to the tenacity of the Holy Father in his commitment to speak the truth at all costs. The other good news is that the fervor and fidelity of our young priests is helping to rejuvenate the Church across the country. Let’s hope this trend continues.

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