Young Fogeys

Young reactionaries, aging radicals—the U.S. Catholic Church's unusual clerical divide

Some forty years ago, as the dramatic events of the Second Vatican Council unfolded, a spotlight was trained on the Catholic Church. It was, commentators said, a revolutionary time. The Church fathers broadened the canons of scriptural interpretation, invited other churches and denominations to engage in friendly dialogue, and attempted to understand the strengths of the modern world. They defended religious freedom, condemned anti-Semitism, and recalled the traditional notion that the Church was made up not just of its clerical hierarchy but also of its laity. They approved the translation of the liturgy into vernacular texts. Although in actual practice the reforms were only modest attempts at housekeeping, made by moderate men who had no intention of destabilizing the Church, they nevertheless contradicted the Church's traditional attitude toward reform—that the Church had not changed, would not change, and could not change. In that regard any reform at all was indeed remarkable.

For more than three decades now, as a sociologist and a priest, I have been tracking the evolution of the beliefs and practices of the Catholic clergy and laity in the United States. My most recent analysis, based on survey data that I and others have gathered periodically since Vatican II, reveals a striking trend: a generation of conservative young priests is on the rise in the U.S. Church. These are newly ordained men who seem in many ways intent on restoring the pre-Vatican II Church, and who, reversing the classic generational roles, define themselves in direct opposition to the liberal priests who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

The divisions created by Vatican II are not new, of course. Caught up in the reform euphoria that followed the council, the lower clergy and the laity almost immediately developed a new ideology based on respect for women and for the freedom (including the sexual freedom) of the laity. On these matters, quietly or loudly, the laity and the lower clergy did resist the teachings of the Church.

The backlash was swift. Church leaders, realizing that reform had slipped out of their control, grew increasingly convinced of the need for a Restoration—a movement in which the upper clergy would close ranks and reassert their authority. Newly appointed bishops would restore the rules; theologians who disagreed would be silenced; and, as much as possible, the old order would be re-established. Even some of the progressives of the council, frightened by the laity's exuberant interest in change and by the declining influence of the Church in the United States, lost their nerve and joined in the call for a Restoration. Today's young conservative priests are rallying to this call.

Who are these young counter-revolutionaries? Several studies are helpful in answering this question: a 1970 National Opinion Research Center study (with which I was involved); two studies released by the Los Angeles Times, in 1994 and 2002; and a 2002 study by the sociologist Dean R. Hoge. Hoge's The First Five Years of the Priesthood: A Study of Newly Ordained Catholic Priests is particularly useful. Hoge reports that half the newly ordained priests he encountered believe that a priest is fundamentally different from a layperson—that he is literally a man apart. Hoge also reports that almost a third of these priests feel that the laity need to be "better educated to respect the authority of the priest's word." These beliefs are strikingly at odds with those of the predominantly liberal generation of new priests studied in the 1970 NORC survey. Today's young priests tend to want to restore the power that the clergy held not only before Vatican II but also before a large educated Catholic laity emerged as a powerful force in the Church after World War II. Older priests today often complain that their younger colleagues are arrogant, pompous, and rigid, and that they love to parade around in clerical dress. The image that comes to mind is young versions of the old ethnic monsignors of the Depression era.

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