A closer look at the largest survey of U.S. Catholic priests in 50 years has revealed "a major shift in how priests view themselves and their priesthood," said researchers.
Compared to their older peers, younger priests are far more likely to describe themselves as theologically orthodox or conservative, politically conservative or moderate, and prepared to be "first responders" to the abuse victims they encounter in their ministry. Furthermore, researchers noted "a significant proportion of American priests say that they had 'personally experienced sexual harassment or abuse or suffered sexual misconduct' during their formation or time in seminary."
The findings were detailed in "Polarization, Generational Dynamics, and the Ongoing Impact of the Abuse Crisis: Further Insights from the National Study of Catholic Priests," a November 2023 report released by The Catholic Project, an initiative from The Catholic University of America designed to foster effective collaboration between the Church's clergy and laity in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.
The report drew on data collected for The Catholic Project's landmark "National Study of Catholic Priests," the results of which were issued in October 2022 and featured responses from 3,516 priests (out of 10,000) across 191 dioceses and eparchies. The national study also included in-depth interviews with more than 100 priests selected from those respondents and a census survey of U.S. bishops that drew 131 responses.
Three themes were the focus of the November 2023 report on that data: polarization, generational dynamics and the ongoing impact of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.
Stephen White, executive director of The Catholic Project, told OSV News the research represents an effort "to really understand how our priests are doing ... so that we can provide the data that can help bishops and priests."
He said, "This is really a tool for the edification and help of the Church."
With respect to theology and doctrine, younger priests are far more likely to describe themselves as "conservative/orthodox" or "very conservative/orthodox," as opposed to "very progressive," "somewhat progressive" or "middle of the road," according to the report.
"More than half of the priests who were ordained since 2010 see themselves on the conservative side of the scale," said the report. "No surveyed priests who were ordained after 2020 described themselves as 'very progressive.'"
The report noted that while theologically "progressive" and "very progressive" priests once made up 68 percent of new ordinands — the 1965-1969 cohort — it added that number today "has dwindled almost to zero."
The researchers found as well that priests tended to trust bishops whom they perceived to share their theological and political views. Overall, levels of trust expressed by priests in their bishop varied widely among dioceses, from 100 percent to as low as 9 percent.
Regarding the abuse crisis, the report anonymously quoted several respondents ordained after 2002 who indicated they accepted that healing the wounds is essential to their pastoral ministry.
"The Lord intends to use me and my priesthood to help restore this and restore the trust and credibility of the priesthood for people," said one respondent.
The majority of priests surveyed (69 percent) "say that they feel well-prepared to minister to a victim of abuse.
"There's a sense in which the Church in the United States is about two decades ahead of much of the rest of the Church in responding to the abuse crisis," White said.
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