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.
Stark differences exist between older and younger priests on many major areas of concern within the Church. The 2002 Los Angeles Times study reveals that priests of the Vatican II generation overwhelmingly support the idea that priests should be allowed to marry. In the study 80 percent of priests aged forty-six to sixty-five were in favor, as were 74 percent of those aged sixty-six to seventy-five. Only about half the priests under thirty-five, however, supported the idea. The study revealed a clear divide, too, on the ordination of women. Sixty percent of priests aged fifty-six to sixty-five, and at least half of those aged forty-six to seventy-five, supported the idea, but only 36 percent of priests under forty-six did. Significantly, even priests over seventy-five—whose views took shape well before Vatican II—were slightly more likely to support the marriage of priests and the ordination of women than were the young priests.
The lines are a bit less clear on questions of sexual ethics. According to the same Los Angeles Times study, about half of all priests reject premarital sex and homosexual sex as always wrong. But only about 40 percent of the younger generation believe that birth control is always wrong—a revealing failure of the Restoration efforts of the past thirty years, which have been fundamentally opposed to birth control. And younger priests seem to have a higher general regard for women than older priests do—an attitude demonstrated most clearly in the 1994 Los Angeles Times study, in responses to questions about support for official condemnation of sexism and for better ministry to women, and concern for the situation of nuns. This attitude, which is in line with the views of the laity, explains some of the clergy's resistance to the Church's teachings on sexuality. Nonetheless, younger priests are more than twice as likely as priests aged fifty-five to sixty-five to think that birth control and masturbation are always wrong, and they are significantly more likely to think that homosexual sex and premarital sex are always wrong.
Priests as a group are simply not in touch with the laity. In the 2002 Los Angeles Times study only thirty-six of 1,854 priests identified clericalism as one of the major problems facing the Church's laity. Astonishingly, only forty-seven priests thought the sex-abuse scandals worth mentioning. For some reason, priests of all generations are unable or unwilling to see the clergy as responsible for the departure of disaffected laypersons—a problem that today plagues the U.S. Church.
To explain the laity's dissatisfaction with the Church, priests from all generations tend to trot out the usual litany: individualism, materialism, secularism, lack of faith, lack of prayer, lack of commitment, media bias, hedonism, sexual freedom, feminism, family breakdown, lack of education, and apathy. The advantage of such explanations is that they free priests from any personal responsibility and put the blame on factors over which the clergy cannot be expected to exercise much control. The rectory thus becomes an isolated citadel battered by cultural forces, which encourages precisely the sort of closed, band-of-brothers mentality that the Vatican II reforms were designed to break down.