While priests today are slightly less likely to leave the priesthood than they were in 2002, “life satisfaction” for priests is lower overall, the researchers write, down from 72.1% of priests in 2002 saying they were “very satisfied” with their life as a priest, to 62% saying the same in 2021.
“Over the same time that priests became more conservative in multiple ways, their perceptions of the current state of the Catholic Church in America took a pessimistic turn, now with a majority of priests saying things in the Church are ‘not so good’ — and this holds true across the political spectrum,” the researchers, two of whom work at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote.
The researchers’ measure of “orthodoxy” was a theological question: whether the priests surveyed believe faith in Jesus Christ to be the “sole path to salvation.”
The Catholic Church teaches in Paragraph 846 of the Catechism that “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body,” and notes that Jesus Himself “explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism.”
However, in the next Catechism paragraph, the Church affirms that those who “through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.” Nevertheless, “the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men."
Priests in 2021 were, overall, slightly more likely to affirm belief that faith in Jesus Christ is the “sole path to salvation” than priests in 2002, but stark differences emerged among the different political persuasions.
Among priests who self-identified as “very liberal,” nearly 40% “disagreed strongly” with the assertion that the sole path to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ. On the other end of the spectrum, among “very conservative” priests, 82% said they “agreed strongly.”
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To assess opinions on morality among the priests, the researchers laid out six activities that the Church teaches to be sinful, and asked whether the surveyed priests also consider them sinful. These activities were: nonmarital sex; abortion; birth control use in married couples; homosexual behavior; suicide to relieve suffering, and masturbation.
The researchers concluded that priests in 2021 were more likely than their 2002 counterparts to say each of those six activities to be sinful.
Assessment of Pope Francis
The researchers also asked about the priests’ approval of Pope Francis. They found that priests ordained in more recent years are less likely to approve of how Pope Francis is handling his duties.
“In the latest cohort of priests, ordained in 2010 or later, only 20.0 percent ‘approve strongly’ of Pope Francis and nearly half (49.8 percent) disapprove, whether ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly,’” the researchers found.