“That the Catholic Church is not doing well is something progressive and conservative priests agree upon, even if their reasons for saying so might be different.”
Priests on both sides of the U.S. political divide are largely pessimistic about the state of the U.S. church and its future, according to a study released on Nov. 2 and based on an email poll of 1,036 Catholic clergymen. They also view their brethren as increasingly “theologically conservative or orthodox,” thanks to younger members of the clergy. Younger U.S. priests were also notably more negative in their assessments of Pope Francis.
“Just over half [of respondents] indicate things in the Catholic Church in America are ‘not so good,’ and this holds true across the full range of the political spectrum,” wrote report co-author Brad Vermurlen, of the University of Texas at Austin, in the journal Public Discourse. “As it happens, if one segment of Catholic priests can be identified as relatively less pessimistic, it is those who call themselves politically moderate.”
From Public Discourse, which compared the results this year to a similar survey in 2002:
Most Catholic priests in the United States perceive a conservative shift among younger priests. Indeed, it is more common now than it was in 2002 to think that younger priests are more theologically conservative or orthodox than their older counterparts. Figure 1 depicts this point. In both 2002 and 2021, about 47 percent of priests said younger priests in America were “somewhat more conservative” than their older counterparts. However, the biggest change occurred as it pertains to seeing younger priests as “much more conservative.” The percentage of respondents who see younger priests as “much more conservative” increased from 29 percent in 2002 to 44 percent in the new survey. This shift in perception thinned out the opposite side of the response options; not a single priest in the 2021 survey agreed that younger priests today are “much more liberal” than their older counterparts…
… Perhaps the most striking change from 2002 to the present concerns priests’ own perceptions of the current state of the Catholic Church in America. Both surveys asked priests: “Overall, would you rate things in the Catholic Church in America today as . . .” with response options of “excellent,” “good,” “not so good,” and “poor.” In 2002, 58 percent of priests said the state of things in the Church was “good,” but by 2021 over half (51 percent) now held that the state of the Church is “not so good.” Over that same period, the percent of priests rating the Catholic Church as “poor” leaped from 5 percent to 13 percent. Although the surveys don’t get into details about what priests think makes for a good, not so good, or poor state of the Church, there is no doubt a pronounced turn toward pessimism.
We wondered how priests with different outlooks answered this question, so we broke the responses down by priests’ self-reported political convictions, ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative” (not shown). It became apparent that pessimism is common regardless of their personal politics. Just over half indicate things in the Catholic Church in America are “not so good,” and this holds true across the full range of the political spectrum. That the Catholic Church is not doing well is something progressive and conservative priests agree upon, even if their reasons for saying so might be different (and they probably are). As it happens, if one segment of Catholic priests can be identified as relatively less pessimistic, it is those who call themselves politically moderate.