Major survey finds ‘conservative’ and ‘orthodox’ priests on the rise

priest Credit: Yeti studio/Shutterstock

The new analysis of a study that claims to be the largest national survey of Catholic priests conducted in more than 50 years has found, among other things, that priests describing themselves as “progressive” are practically going “extinct” among U.S. seminary graduates, with the vast majority of young ordinands describing themselves as conservative and orthodox.

Conducted by The Catholic Project, a research group at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., the newest release focuses on polarization, generational dynamics, and the ongoing impact of the sexual abuse crisis.

Part 1 of the survey, released last October, found that despite relatively high levels of personal well-being and fulfillment among priests as a whole, a significant percentage of priests have issues with burnout, distrust in their bishop, and fears of being falsely accused of misconduct. 

The new November report highlights “several themes which have emerged from closer analysis of the quantitative data, as well as careful study of the qualitative data collected from the one-on-one interviews with priests.” The study used survey responses from 3,516 priests across 191 dioceses and eparchies in the United States.

Of note, the researchers assert that self-described “liberal” or “progressive” priests have all but disappeared from the youngest cohorts of priests and that priests describing themselves as “conservative/orthodox” reached more than 80% among those ordained after 2020. 

The new analysis also found that diocesan size has an effect on how much a priest trusts his bishop, with priests in smaller dioceses being more likely than priests in larger dioceses to trust their prelate. Priests who consider themselves to be in the same ideological camp as their bishop — whether politically or theologically — also tend to trust him more. 

‘Progressive’ priests going ‘extinct’

The report says it shows a “significant divide” between the political and theological self-identification of older priests vs. younger priests. 

“Simply put, the portion of new priests who see themselves as politically ‘liberal’ or theologically ‘progressive’ has been steadily declining since the Second Vatican Council and has now all but vanished,” the report asserts. 

“More than half of the priests who were ordained since 2010 see themselves on the conservative side of the scale. No surveyed priests who were ordained after 2020 described themselves as ‘very progressive.’”

The researchers said a full 85% of the youngest cohort describes itself as “conservative/orthodox” or “very conservative/orthodox” theologically, with only 14% describing themselves as “middle-of-the-road.” 

The report also says that nearly 70% of priests ordained in the mid- to late 1960s describe themselves as somewhat or very “progressive.” By 2020, fewer than 5% of priests describe themselves that way. 

The Second Vatican Council and the 2002 revelations about the sexual abuse crisis were watershed moments, the researchers said, with the data showing that priests largely began to see themselves as more “progressive” after Vatican II and more “conservative” after 2002.

The Catholic Project’s findings regarding priestly ideology comport with other surveys of U.S. priests in recent years, one of which in 2021 noted an increasing perception of “more theologically conservative or orthodox” young priests as compared with their older counterparts. 

In addition, two priests with ties to seminaries who spoke to CNA said the survey results fit within their own experience regarding the ideology of the young men currently entering and graduating seminary. 

Father Carter Griffin, rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C., said most of the young men coming to his seminary are looking to be “part of the solution … they want to make themselves available for the needs of the Church.”

He also cautioned that young men describing themselves as “orthodox” do not necessarily have a preference for “traditionalist” practices. Rather, he said, young men entering the seminary today are looking to become a part of something bigger than themselves, he said, preaching the Gospel and serving the poor in the context of total fidelity to the Church. 

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“Nobody wants to give their life for a question mark … I think the ones who are going to come forward who are open to the idea of entering the priesthood are going to be the ones who are most intent on ensuring that they are Catholic and that they’re on board with everything,” Griffin said in an interview with CNA. 

“[T]he men coming forward for the priesthood now are men who really love the Lord and love the Church. They believe in her. They believe that he founded her. And so there’s not an instinct at all to believe anything other than what the Church believes, to teach what the Church believes,” Griffin continued.

“I think many of them are reacting to the wreckage of secular materialism, and many of them have seen the effect of that materialism, that secularism, on their peers. They’ve seen people trapped in sin, and they want to make a difference in the world. They want to be people who are helping to bring light and joy and hope back into a world that seems to have lost them.”

Father Bryce Sibley, a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, and coordinator for intellectual formation at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, told CNA that he has seen a similar phenomenon among his seminarians, saying he has observed a “desire for certitude, for clarity, in a world where things seem to be so fluid, so chaotic, and so uncertain.” 

Sibley said that most of the young men are already “on the conservative side” when they enter seminary, with many having been formed by conservative online Catholic personalities. He said in his experience, “there is nobody” currently studying in his seminary who would describe himself as “progressive.”

Sibley, who was ordained in 2000, said a large majority of his peers were inspired to enter the seminary, at least in part, by the example of St. John Paul II. He said in his opinion, many older priests were educated in a time when there was “such an emphasis on the pastoral, that the intellectual and the orthodox perspectives were just kind of dismissed.” 

Today, he said, a lack of “orthodoxy” within seminary settings is less of an issue now than in the past. 

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“Today’s seminary faculties are great. A lot of the problems that existed in the past have been cleared up. Really every seminary that I know has a vibrantly orthodox faculty who really care about forming good priests,” he said. 

At the same time, Sibley said he seeks in his teaching to emphasize the importance not only of forming the men intellectually but also giving them the tools to make them effective communicators and pastors to the Catholics they will serve. 

“[We] need priests who are going to be able to not just know their theology, to be able to preach well, but are also going to be able to manage a parish, to be able to guide a flock,” he said. 

Griffin, who has served as rector for the past five years, said he thinks the resurgence of young priests describing themselves as orthodox has been driven, in part, by young men seeing the example of newly-ordained priests in their dioceses and parishes, many of whom are not much older than they are. 

“I think that what we need to be helping these young men do is come to a deep and mature love for the Church as she is,” Griffin said. 

“It’s not always going to be how we wish she were, or that every decision made by a bishop or by a pope is what we wanted it to be. But it’s still the Church. And if we believe that, we have to believe that all the way.”

Accountability to the pope

The researchers asked survey participants whether they value their accountability to various people or parties: “God,” “Pope Francis,” “my bishop,” “my brother priests,” “my parishioners,” “the laity,” and “the general public.”

The researchers found that 67% of priests in the cohort of priests ordained since 2000 agree that they value their accountability to the pope, versus 82% of those ordained before 1980. Similarly, 64% of priests under the age of 45 agreed that they value accountability to Pope Francis compared with 82% of priests over the age of 75. 

Father Matthew Schneider, a priest of the Legionaries of Christ and a theology professor at Belmont Abbey College, said he believes that social media tends to “emphasize the extremes” and amplify voices that are critical of Pope Francis, whereas he believes most priests, especially those entrusted to a parish, are focused on their pastoral ministry day-to-day and don’t pay much attention to online debates. 

“Most priests I know are generally supportive of the pope,” Schneider, who maintains an active social media presence, told CNA. 

“The ones in the middle can get drowned out in that natural tendency for social media to go to the extremes. And I think that a lot of Catholics, a lot of priests, are much more in the middle. We want to follow the entire magisterium. We follow Pope Francis.”

Schneider said that among priests he knows, many of them appreciate Pope Francis’ emphasis on and personal example of care for people on the margins of society. But that’s not to say that he or his peers think every word or decision from Pope Francis is perfect. 

“We generally think he’s doing an okay job; we might critique a few decisions in certain cases, but that’s not to say he’s a bad pope, or he’s an evil pope. And I think that that’s where a lot of people are,” Schneider said. 

Griffin said that at his seminary, they seek to emphasize that the papacy is not “just another political agency that we agree with or disagree with” but rather that the pope is the “father of a family.”

“Popes are going to have different personalities and different priorities. And what makes us Catholic, in part, is ... being able to have that love for the Holy Father, no matter who the Holy Father is, and that sense of obedience and respect for him,” Griffin commented.

“Having said that, there may be prudential judgments that the pope makes that people can disagree with. And I think being able to make some of those distinctions, I can still love and respect and obey without necessarily agreeing with everything that the pope says and does.”

Trust and polarization

Turning to the topic of trust, the October 2022 report states that on average, 49% of diocesan priests overall today express confidence in their bishop. Levels of trust varied considerably across dioceses, and the data show that the level of trust was down from 63% in 2001 — the year before the sexual abuse crisis, which included many revelations of bishops mishandling abuse cases, exploded in the U.S.

In the new analysis, the researchers report that diocesan size has a moderate effect on priests’ trust in their bishop, with levels of trust among U.S. dioceses ranging from 100% to a mere 9%. One reason for this, the researchers say, may be that priests in very large archdioceses have a harder time getting to personally know their bishops as well as priests in smaller dioceses. 

Beyond diocesan size, a priest’s perception that his bishop shared his theological and political views — or not — showed itself to be predictive of his level of trust in that bishop, the researchers found. 

If a priest describes himself as theologically conservative, for example, and he believes that his bishop is also theologically conservative, it is likely that he would report a high degree of trust in his bishop, they said. 

In contrast, if a priest reported that he did not align with his bishop on theological matters or in political views, he would report low trust in his bishop’s leadership. 

Clerical victims of abuse, priests as first responders

The researchers asked priests to agree, disagree, or choose not to respond to the statement “I personally experienced sexual harassment or abuse or suffered sexual misconduct during my formation or seminary. Eighty-five percent said no, 9% said yes, and 6% said they were unsure or preferred not to answer.

Priests who are victims of sexual abuse and speak about their experience publicly are relatively rare. One such public figure is Father John Riccardo, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit who founded The Rescue Project, a video series and discussion course that aims to equip clergy and lay leaders to share the Gospel message. 

Riccardo has spoken publicly, both in his Rescue Project videos and elsewhere, about being sexually abused as a child, which he says took place at the hands of multiple people who were outside his family. He has said the abuse he suffered made him feel “disposable” and “discardable” but that he has come to find healing through the Church. 

“I never would have thought of sharing that [information] 30 years ago — maybe with a spiritual director. I share it all the time now,” Riccardo said in a recent interview. 

Jesus “doesn’t hesitate to show his wounds” and make himself vulnerable, he noted, and said that fact is part of the reason he speaks today about his abuse and about his healing. 

“I share it for a lot of reasons. I think the Church is in desperate need of learning how to be human again; I think that’s one of the most fundamental problems in the Church. We relate very functionally and transactionally to one another, often. Not always, but often. And you can’t love what you don’t know,” Riccardo continued. 

Returning to the survey, 69% of priests said that they feel well-prepared to minister to a victim of abuse, and 54% report that they are already doing so. Seventy-one percent of priests reported knowing at least one victim-survivor of clergy sexual abuse, with 11% knowing five or more. 

Priest retention

Just 4% of priests answered affirmatively to the statement “I am thinking of leaving the priesthood.” According to the researchers, some of the factors associated with a higher likelihood to consider leaving include lack of confidence in bishop leadership, a younger age, and a perceived or actual lack of support.

Griffin said they think a lot at his seminary about the ways they can proactively address the reasons a man might later leave the priesthood.

“The wider culture is one that is not friendly to commitment,” he commented. 

“And so these guys are like the rest of us, breathing in that air. It’s an atmosphere that can really be toxic to marriages, faithful marriages, to persevering priests. And so that’s part of what we’re working against in this wider culture.”

“We are witnessing a major shift in the way priests in the United States view themselves and their priesthood,” the researchers concluded.

“Younger priests are much more likely than their older peers to describe themselves as politically conservative or moderate. Younger priests are also much more likely to see themselves as theologically orthodox or conservative than do older priests. These shifts can be a source of friction and tension, especially between younger and older priests.”

Also of note, they said, was the large majority of priests (71%) who say they know at least one victim of clerical sexual abuse, while only 30% of priests personally know three or more. 

“Against the backdrop of all these challenges, priests remain largely satisfied in their ministry and few (4%) are considering leaving,” the researchers continued.

“It is our hope that the data presented here can strengthen that understanding among all Catholics, but particularly for our bishops and priests upon whom so much depends.”

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