Shift To The Right Poll Indicates Young Priests Holding More Conservative Attitudes Than A Quarter-Century Ago
Daniel Greving is welcoming Pope John Paul II to St. Joseph’s Seminary with open arms, anticipating that being in the pope’s presence will be the greatest honor he will ever experience.
Fellow seminarian Vincent Depaul Howley shares the sense of anticipation for the pontiff’s visit on Friday to the seminary.
“Ideologies - I don’t really have any problem with the pope,” Howley says. “I think he’s a great guy.”
In a watershed change in attitudes toward the church, a new generation of priests is emerging that strongly defends a hierarchical church.
Once, young priests challenged older priests to move forward faster on social and ecclesiastical issues. Now, priests who began their ministry in the heady days of church change in the 1960s and ‘70s find young priests in their parishes closer in attitudes on many issues to older clerics ordained before the Second Vatican Council.
And while the 60 million U.S. Catholics consistently express a desire for a greater role in church affairs, the newest priests are more likely to see themselves as essentially different from the laity.
If this development may be welcomed by the pope, who visits the United States Oct. 4-8, some see the potential for conflict ahead as conservative priests enter the nation’s 20,000 parishes.
“That just could be one of the big tensions coming up,” said sociologist Dean Hoge of Catholic University of America, a lead researcher in a major 1993 survey of priests.
“It’s a concern I hear registered as I go across the country. … The younger priests are much more conservative than we had anticipated,” said the Rev. Nick Rice, president of the National Federation of Priest Councils.
Rice said laypeople admire young priests for making the sacrifice a vocation requires at a time when few others are doing so, but they will not let some of the newest clerics push them back into the pews.
“I think they will find themselves being more and more corrected by congregations who, by and large, appreciate the advances made in lay ministry,” Rice said.
Consider the dramatic turnaround in attitudes among younger priests shown in national polls.
In 1970, 85 percent of priests ages 26 to 35 said celibacy should be optional for diocesan priests. In 1993, only 38 percent of young priests said celibacy should be a matter of personal choice.
Nearly four in five young priests in 1970 supported inviting back married or single priests who resigned from the priesthood, an action favored by only a third of young priests in 1993.
Half of priests ages 26 to 35 in 1970 said ordination confers on the priest a new status that makes him essentially different from people in the pews. In 1993, 71 percent of young priests agreed the priest is essentially different from laypeople.
In 1970, 44 percent of young priests supported allowing parishes to choose their own priests. In the 1993 survey, just 7 percent of young priests favored giving the laity that option.
Experts offer several theories for the change in attitudes.
The Rev. Thomas Bevan, director of the Secretariat for Priestly Life and Ministry for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it reflects the different eras each group grew up in, with younger priests more likely to have been brought up in upper middle class homes and reflecting the more conservative values of that setting.
Hoge said the pope has sent a clear signal of what the church is going to be like, so more conservative young men may feel more welcomed in the priesthood.
And sociologist Andrew Greeley of the University of Chicago said the change may just reflect generational swings.
“It would be surprising if a cohort of priests who were trained during the social unrest of the late 1960s would not be different from a cohort trained during the time of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II,” Greeley said.
Some seminarians at St. Joseph’s also spoke of generational differences.
After a period of upheaval in the nation and in the church, Howley said, “Society, the church, people in general are turning back to see there is real benefit in these institutions.”
Antonio Armonte, who says the pope represents “the absolute truth of Christ,” suggested that laypeople understand the social needs of the world and are looking for clear answers on questions of faith.
“Don’t just tell me Jesus loves me. I need more than that” is what Armonte hears laypeople asking of the church today.
Despite the differences, one young seminarian said, each generation of priests faces a similar standard.
“I would just caution that we not judge the priests of the ‘70s or the priests of the ‘80s by statistics that tell us what they thought,” said George Hafemann, 22. The bottom line, Hafemann said, is this question: “Are they good priests?”
Graphic: Two generations of priests