success stories

Polling People's Impression of Younger Priests

From the Los Angeles Times
Teresa Watanabe, Times Staff Writer

Younger Roman Catholic priests in the United States are markedly more conservative than their elders, a Los Angeles Times poll has found, reflecting a global trend toward Christian orthodoxy that is reshaping the world's largest church. Clerics under age 41 expressed more allegiance to the clerical hierarchy, less dissent against traditional church teachings, and more certainty about the sinfulness of homosexuality, abortion, artificial birth control and other moral issues than did their elders, the poll found.

Those attitudes place the younger priests at odds with many priests who were shaped by the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and who tend to support further changes in the church 覧 including women priests, optional celibacy, more lay empowerment and the direct election of bishops.

The poll found that overall, 30% of priests described themselves as liberal on religious and moral issues, while 28% described themselves as conservative and 37% as moderate. Among younger priests, however, nearly four in 10 described themselves as conservative, and three-fourths said they were more religiously orthodox than their older counterparts.

The shift to orthodoxy has been actively promoted by Pope John Paul II during his 24-year pontificate. In addition to their predominance among the younger generation of American priests, orthodox views are in the ascendancy worldwide as Catholicism's center of gravity shifts from liberal Europe and North America to the more conservative regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America, according to scholars of the church.

As the influence of those regions grows in the American church 覧 in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for example, Latinos and Asians already constitute more than 80% of the faithful 覧 disagreements over the U.S. institution's future are certain to deepen, many experts say.

"The church has developed a fissure whose size most people do not fully appreciate," said Philip Jenkins, a Pennsylvania State University professor and author of "The Next Christendom."

The Times Poll surveyed a nationwide sample of 1,854 priests in 80 U.S. dioceses. The survey is the most extensive independent nationwide poll of Catholic priests since a similar Times poll conducted in 1993 and 1994. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll paints a portrait of a gradually diversifying and aging priesthood. Eighty-eight percent of priests are non-Latino whites 覧 a figure that is down a few percentage points from the last Times poll but remains higher than the white percentage among lay Catholics. Younger priests are also considerably more likely to identify themselves as gay than are those who were ordained in earlier decades.

As the number of new priests graduating from seminaries fails to keep pace with the number reaching retirement age, the average age of a Catholic priest has risen to nearly 61; in the 1994 survey it was 54.

Great Expectations

The survey shows the vast majority of priests to be happy with their vocations, but the shortage of priests causes many to struggle with burnout. Some talk of feeling caught between what one poll respondent referred to as "a bishop who expects everything and a people who expect everything."

Throughout the poll, the clearest divide was the one between the younger and older generation.

That gap is reflected in men like Father Vincent Inghilterra, a 60-year-old Army chaplain based in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., and Father Matthew O'Donnell, a 39-year-old pastor from San Andreas, which is east of Stockton.

Inghilterra came of age during Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council was launched by Pope John XXIII in 1962 as a way to "bring the church up to date." The council launched a revolutionary effort to bring the church closer to the people by emphasizing a greater role for the laity, declaring the primacy of individual conscience and abandoning centuries of traditional practices, such as Latin Masses. Particularly in the United States, the reform ideas associated with Vatican II strongly influenced a generation of priests.

Influenced by such dissident theologians as Hans Kung and Charles Curran, who were both subsequently investigated by John Paul II's more orthodox Vatican, Inghilterra said he was encouraged to open all subjects to examination and to think for himself.

A Careful Approach

"I was taught to be very respectful of the conscience of people and not denounce everything as a sin," he said. "The Catholic people will do what they feel is right in their hearts 覧 with or without the blessing of the local priest."

O'Donnell was raised in West Covina with such traditional Catholic practices as nightly family rosaries and frequent attendance at daily Mass. But he said that he, like many younger Catholics, longed for stability and certainty amid a climate of moral relativism, sexual permissiveness, social degeneration and a sense that the experiments of Vatican II had created more confusion than success.

In his seven years as a priest, O'Donnell said, he has gently but firmly laid down church teachings 覧 telling one couple who had wed in a civil ceremony, for instance, that they could not receive Communion unless they married within the church.

"The beauty and liberty comes in accepting church teachings, not making your own theology," O'Donnell said.

Many younger priests, like O'Donnell, see themselves as carrying out the mission of the pope. Indeed, the poll found that younger priests who came of age after Vatican II and during John Paul's papacy were the most positive toward him, with 79% ranking him outstanding. That compared with 60% of Vatican II-generation priests, and 64% of pre-Vatican II priests 60 years of age and older.

Three-fourths of younger priests ranked the pope's moral views as "about right," compared with 60% of Vatican II-era priests and 61% of pre-Vatican II clerics. About one-third of the older two groups found John Paul's views "too conservative."

To priests such as O'Donnell, the pope represents "a guiding light and a strength." Amid social and religious confusion, he said, "Pope John Paul II speaks with certainty, love and compassion. This is what young people need."

In addition to their admiration for the pope, the younger priests surveyed were more upbeat about the church in general, with 69% ranking conditions "excellent" or "good" compared with 56% among priests of the Vatican II generation, defined by Catholic officials as those ages 42 to 59.

'Empower the Laity'

The younger priests were more apt to believe that no reform is needed in the church, compared with priests of the Vatican II generation, who most frequently chose "democratization" and "empower the laity" from a list of possible reforms.

Younger priests were also far more likely to fully embrace traditional church teachings 覧 and expect the same from their fellow Catholics.

While 72% of Vatican II priests said Roman Catholics could disagree with some church teachings and remain faithful, only 48% of younger priests agreed with that proposition. The younger priests were the most likely to regard as "always a sin" such acts as premarital sex, abortion, artificial birth control, cloning, using fetal stem cells for research, gay sex, masturbation and wearing condoms as protection against AIDS.

About two-thirds of younger priests opposed the ordination of women as deacons or priests, although a narrow majority favored ordination of married men as priests in the Latin, or Western, rite.

By contrast, among the older priests, large majorities favored women deacons and ordination of married men as priests; among the Vatican II-era priests, 51% also supported the ordination of women as priests.

Shortage of Priests

The differences between liberal and conservative priests color views on everything from the cause of sex scandals that have rocked the church to the solution for shortages of priests 覧 a problem named as the church's most pressing issue by the largest number of respondents across the ideological spectrum.

Liberals argue that the church must open the priesthood to women and married men. But many conservatives assert that the dioceses and religious orders headed by orthodox leaders are brimming with people eager to devote themselves to the religious life.

An example frequently cited by conservatives is the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., home to 90,000 Catholics.

According to Msgr. Timothy J. Thorburn, the diocesan vicar-general, the number of candidates for the priesthood or religious orders is growing at both seminaries in the area, and within three orders of nuns 覧 including a new Carmelite monastery of cloistered women established last December.

One of the seminaries, Thorburn said, recently had to expand its quarters to accommodate the surge of young men 覧 more than 60 覧 attracted to the Latin liturgies and other traditional practices of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.

Thorburn called the priest shortage "a short-term problem" that would be solved in a few decades by the return to orthodoxy. "Young people with ideals are not looking for the easy path," he said. "A 'Catholic lite' is not attractive to them."

Some critics fear that younger, conservative clerics will alienate a more liberal Catholic lay population. But conservatives argue that orthodoxy is growing among the laity as well.

According to Father Joseph Fessio, editor of the conservative Ignatius Press in San Francisco, about 20 new Catholic magazines have been launched in the last two decades 覧 all of them orthodox.

Conservative Catholics, he added, have started a host of new organizations, such as St. Joseph Communications, which holds an annual family conference in Long Beach that has grown from 300 participants when it began a decade or so ago to 7,000 today. In addition, he and others assert that younger families are having more children and increasingly choosing to home-school them.

As the Catholic population continues to change complexion, with increasing numbers of the faithful coming from immigrant communities, Jenkins and other experts say, ideological conflict between younger traditionalists and an older generation of reformers is bound to increase.

In Southern California, for instance, conflict frequently occurs over the role of the laity, said Father Thomas Rausch of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Discomfort "comes out all the time" from younger priests over the issue of treating lay pastoral associates as equal, professional partners, he said.

"It's very important that these younger Catholics not become so enamored with tradition that they lose sight of the need for greater inclusion of the laity or a more collective style of decision making," Rausch said. "Laypeople are claiming their ministry and won't have it taken away from them by some conservative cleric."

In a recent essay in the national Catholic magazine America, however, Rausch wrote that he had also become more sympathetic to some of the concerns of the younger, more conservative theologians.

"After all the confusion and 'Cafeteria Catholicism' in the post-Vatican II climate," he said, referring to the practice of selective adherence to church teachings, "there is a real desire for a greater sense of Catholic identity, more Jesus-centered piety and a rediscovery of the purity of the tradition."

He called on the church and its theologians to bridge the growing divide.

To many Catholics, however, diverse opinion is as old as the church itself.

"We've never been a community that thought the same way," Inghilterra said. "We're richer for the diversity."