From the Wires: U.S. Catholic Priests Are Increasingly Conservative as Faithful Grow More Liberal

In December 2022, the Wall Street Journal ran a story under the headline U.S. Catholic Priests Are Increasingly Conservative as Faithful Grow More Liberal: Almost half of young clergy in a survey disapprove of the liberalizing Pope Francis.” Citing ongoing research by the Austin Institute via the Survey of American Catholic Priests, the Journal reports:

younger Catholic priests and priests ordained in more recent years tend to be noticeably more conservative than older priests on a host of issues, including politics, theology and moral teaching.

In contrast to this, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found in 2021 that, among other figures,

thirty-five percent of millennial Catholics have considered leaving the church because of its teaching on LGBT issues.

Journal commentators attribute this divergence to a postmodern generation of priests “disillusioned with the ideas of progress and religious pluralism that found favor at Vatican II…more likely to stress the reinforcement of Catholic identity and the winning of converts.”

Most acutely to ecclesiastical life, the priestly generation gap extends to views on the current bishop of Rome:

Almost 80% of priests ordained before 1980 “approve strongly” of the current pontiff, compared with 20% of those ordained in 2010 or later, according to the 2021 survey. Nearly half of the younger priests disapprove of the pope, either “strongly” or “somewhat.”

Older priests may find this inconsistent with ordained life, seeing a generation of clergy “indoctrinated into total loyalty to the pope” who then “so easily dropped this loyalty when a new pope was elected…now they are only loyal to the pope if he agrees with them,” in the words of Rev. Thomas Reese, who was ordained in 1974.

In contrast, younger priests like Rev. Benjamin Petty (ordained 2019) maintain, “I didn’t become a priest because I wanted to be a culture warrior…I didn’t want to be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get up in the pulpit and convince all these ’70s libs.’”

Pray Tell readers may wonder: what does such divergence mean for the celebration of the Liturgy in the coming years, not to mention the life and health of the Church?

Time and the Holy Spirit will tell.



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32 responses to “From the Wires: U.S. Catholic Priests Are Increasingly Conservative as Faithful Grow More Liberal”

  1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    Much depends on what denominator is being used for “the faithful”. If it includes a significant number of baptized Catholics who are longer participate in local parish life in ways that these younger priests can see, those priests may say this as a feature rather than a bug. On the flip side, when one ceases so to participate, one renders oneself invisible and inaudible – which is not the same thing as *feeling* invisible and inaudible.

  2. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    I don’t really know how to seriously to take this survey (I did not see it anywhere online, or at their website). I would like to know more about which priests were polled, how large was the sample, and whether there was selection bias. We increasingly have international priests serving in our parishes. Were they polled? Did the pool of respondents represent diocesan clergy only? Which dioceses participated and which didn’t? That sort of thing.

    1. Lee Bacchi Avatar
      Lee Bacchi

      I agree, Rita — see my comment below

    2. Lou Meiman Avatar
      Lou Meiman

      While I don’t have any info on the study cited by the WSJ, it doesn’t surprise me as it seems to be the fulfillment of a rather rigorous study of young adult Catholics conducted by Dean Hoge at Catholic University in the late 90s. It involved a representative sample of young adults (Gen X) who had been confirmed as Catholics tracked down from confirmation registers. It included clergy and laity, practicing and not. One thing I remember from his pre-publication presentation of the study at the Presbyterian Seminary in Louisville (it was a companion study to one of young adult mainstream Protestants) was that they had expected to find a conservative swing in practicing Gen X Catholics but didn’t find one, except in Gen X clergy. Hoge made the observation that if that trend continued the Church in the US would find itself with a clergy that was out of step with its own generation. I don’t recall that observation making its way into published reports, but it doesn’t surprise me that the WSJ’s reporting a generation later would echo Hoge’s insight.

  3. Alan Griffiths Avatar
    Alan Griffiths

    The restrictions on the celebration of the old Mass by recently ordained priests suggest that the Vatican sees a problem here as well.

    Rita is right to be cautious about such a survey, but in its favour one might suggest that increasing ‘conservatism’ (of course the word itself reflects a bias on the part of the speaker) bespeaks a more thoroughly grounded seminary formation these days, at least in the US.

    The fact that one seminary now has a chair in sacred music is a great sign. If only we had this in the UK …


    1. Michael Slusser Avatar
      Michael Slusser

      “more thoroughly grounded seminary formation”: Without, however, Latin and biblical Hebrew and Greek, in many cases. The thorough grounding must be elsewhere than Scriipture.

  4. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    When I was in the seminary in the 1970’s and one of the most liberal ones in the USA at that time, the majority of us were liberal, but we came from traditional/conservative/orthodox backgrounds, formed in the pre-Vatican II Church growing up. Many of us were still reacting to the pre-Vatican II “black and white” world. That is not the case today. Younger men who want to be priests are reacting to the excesses of liberal Catholicism they experienced and many have been homeschooled, which promotes orthodoxy, as well as in “island” communities that supports a more orthodox view of Catholicism. To be honest with you, I don’t know of any liberal dioceses or religious orders who have an abundance of vocations. What liberal young man wants to be a priest or a religious today? Some do, I suspect, but not too many, especially if their liberal parents and friends have something to say about it. Also, liberal seminaries of another era, like the 70’s tried to weed out what was then called “pre-Vatican II” seminarians and quite successfully. My first year of theology in 1976 had over 60 seminarians. By 1980, our class was about 22 and most of us liberal, the conservatives weeded out. But of that 22, I think there are 7 or 8 of us left.

    1. Felipe Gasper Avatar
      Felipe Gasper

      Fr. McDonald, I think, hits the nail on the head. Young adults seek purpose, mission, and identity. Latin, chant, smells-and-bells, cassocks/birettas, and homilies that address “difficult” doctrines all offer that. To be sure, SLJs, Haugen, and social-justice oriented preaching offer that, too, but it “stands out from the crowd” much less: I can go to an Episcopal church and hear the same things.

      “Gather Us In”’s 4th verse comes to mind: Not in buildings, not in heaven, but here and now. That’s the ethos that I feel permeates a lot of “modern church”: how to address “modern (hu)man(ity)”. Thus we have Ash Wednesdays where people wouldn’t _dream_ of reminding people that they’re dust while imposing … dust … on their foreheads: that would be too “negative”, too dark. The mindset I see in action in, say, a pre-V2 Mass (or, heck, even a “traditional-looking” modern Mass) is the reverse: let’s subsume ourselves into something bigger and older. If we find it challenging, the task is to reform ourselves rather than to reform the tradition. If it shocks me to hear “you are dust, and to dust you will return”, then the problem is me, not the words.

      The latter, I daresay, offers much more to a young person than the former.

      As to millennials contemplating leaving the Church: how many of these people actually attend Mass? While separation from the Church is always bad, carrying an identity that conflicts with one’s actual beliefs is its own ill. The Church would hope for everyone to resolve those conflicts in our direction, but if that doesn’t happen, at least we see each other more clearly.

      1. Jonathan Day Avatar
        Jonathan Day

        I sometimes think we are living in different worlds, Felipe. I go to Masses in the USA, UK, continental Europe, Asia, Africa. I have somehow managed to miss the modernist Mass that you describe, a caricature that shows up on so many traddie websites: burlap banners, sentimental songs, nobody in the congregation but a few elderly people, women “swarming the sanctuary”, not a word about sin, people receiving without reverence.

        At 8 this morning, here in Boston, we had Latin chants, the Kyrie in Greek, the full confession of sin, a bracing homily. But it was nothing special, not a Tridentine liturgy, just the regular Mass. I’d put the average age of the congregants as mid-30s, though I didn’t look all that carefully. The priest and a deacon administered communion. Plenty of silence and reverence, before, after and during Mass. On Ash Wednesday, it was “remember that you are dust”.

        Hard not to think that the modernist picture is something of a fantasy.

      2. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        Jonathan in large metropolitan areas with many Catholic parishes, more than likely you will find chant and a more formal Mass as well as the TLM. This not the case where I am in south Georgia or South Carolina. I doubt anyone hears the proper chants of the Mass, meaning the Introit, Offertory and Communion chants in Latin or the vernacular that are in the Missal for particular Masses. They might know the parts of the Mass in the Jubilatio Deo version of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, usually used during Lent as penitential! Apart from the TLM, I doubt anyone hears the Credo or Gloria in Latin. Most Masses are a hodgepodge of contemporary and traditional vernacular hymnody and instrumentation, kind of schizophrenic. And then a mix of Spanish thrown in. It isn’t irreverent or liturgical abuse, just an eclectic mess. Then throw in the non-prescribed antics and babble of the priest celebrant. Ugh.

      3. Felipe Gasper Avatar
        Felipe Gasper

        Jonathan: If you’ve missed Masses with SLJs, Haugen, social-justice-heavy preaching, and aversions to “you are dust”, then I wonder if you’re selecting parishes like the one you describe in Boston—which does sound lovely—rather than “rank-and-file” suburban places. I didn’t myself mention burlap banners, the age of the congregants, etc.

        There’s a lot of caricature in play all around, I think mostly to the general detriment. People need to live and pray with “the others” before stereotyping, whether it’s “they’re all aging hippies” or “they all reject Vatican II”. Echo chambers do not become us.

      4. Jonathan Day Avatar
        Jonathan Day

        Felipe, I will certainly echo your wise statement: echo chambers do not become us.

        The previous Sunday, as it happens, I was at Mass in Amarillo, Texas. The musician was a pianist/composer, and the music was closer to the style you may be alluding to, with the congregation’s parts projected on the wall. I didn’t care for the musical style, but even there, the tradition was alive, and there was deep reverence, and a theme of repentance, and the Kyrie in Greek woven into an English song. The homily was about fasting, and not just as a matter of social justice.

        I chose the church because it happened to be a half mile’s walk from my hotel. I’m sure it wasn’t representative of the US, and I have encountered weirder liturgies out there. But I have seen equal or worse weirdness and self-absorption at some Tridentine Masses. It happens.

        Yes, let us pray together, including with “the others”, and for one another.

      5. Todd Flowerday Avatar
        Todd Flowerday

        I’m also less impressed with the caricature presented here. Not to mention the misrepresentation of music. The SLJ’s maintained the antiphon-verses format of the propers. Not the hymnody you can hear in any “non-Catholic” church. (Did I get the tone of that epithet, right?) And texts based on Scriptures, not devotional platitudes of the preconciliar Church.

        The selective reading of that one hymn verse is notable also: not buildings, but dark buildings, not heaven, but a faraway heaven.

        Sometimes I get the distinct impression many traditionalists are spoiling for a fight nobody really wants to give them. So they turn on the pope and synodality and others not defined as “their tribe,” and then fume in wonderment when they are called on the need to reform.

  5. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
    Jeff Armbruster

    I think folks sometimes miss the obvious. The Church disallows women from ANY positions of authority. It celebrates a kind of patriarchy that has vanished from every other aspect of society in the west and throughout most of the world. What ‘liberal’ minded person would look at that want to sign up? It’s oppressive and anachronistic. So, yeah, the Church may well select for men who long for the old days…which they’ve likely never known. Oh, and frankly the whole priest pedophile scandal is at least partly linked to this ban against women being allowed within the hierarchy. It would take too long to explain this view.
    Why are the ranks thinning out? Gee, must be that priests celebrate facing the congregation. Yeah, that’s it! Vatican 2 must be reformed! Too liberal!

    1. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

      In all of my parishes, clergy and men employees were in a minuscule minority both in paid and volunteer positions. I would say the same is true of our diocesan pastoral center. Woman are usually principals of our schools, teachers and catechists, Pastoral Assistants and those who bring Holy Communion to the sick and home bound. They are administrators and co-workers.
      As far as the pedophile scandal, that is not the exclusive domain of celibate priests who commit these acts or of male bishops who covered it up. There are women religious orders dealing with this and their cover-ups, think of the Irish situation and the situation at residential schools in Canada, and not all of these Catholic who are involved in the scandals. As well as Protestants with their married male and female ministers. The Church of England is a prime example of having scandals too, although the press isn’t as eager to report on that as they are on the clergy of the Catholic Church.

      1. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
        Fr. Jack Feehily

        Women fill lots of positions in the church. Many of the paid ones work for a pittance, and most of them are volunteers. A tiny number of them hold what might be described as decision making positions. This does not mean that they do unimportant work but it does mean they are absent from the rooms in which the most important decisions are made, including the ones in which what to do about abusive clergy was the topic of discussion.

      2. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        At least in the USA and for years now, we have a significant number of laity, men and woman, trained to be vigilant about suspected abuse and report it. I always told my parishioners to call law enforcement first and then notify the diocese.

  6. Charles Day Avatar
    Charles Day

    Couple of observations: it is definitely useful to get more data on this survey, but I will say that my personal experience is supported by the claims of the survey. What troubles me the most about it is not the holding of conservative thought by itself, but the excluding of anything but conservative thought. Not many things are that black and white, even in religious matters.

    I agree with Jeff Armbruster that excluding women from ANY positions of authority is particularly unhelpful. These new priests may get their way and have their club follow their rules, but the club itself will be smaller, and by a lot.

  7. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    And until recently, one might say that bishops are also increasingly conservative as the faithful grow more liberal. The gap here is widening daily, partly because no one is prepared to stand up and challenge the more fundamentalist members of the hierarchy.

    Many lay folk are better educated theologically than the priests and bishops who serve them, and yet the hierarchical structure struggles to maintain its status quo.

    Commenting on Alan Griffith’s observation, a chair in sacred music in a seminary is great, as long as the occupant is not intent on leading seminarians in a conservative direction. When this happens, seminarians are coccooned in a liturgico-musical ambience that has only a distant relationship with the real world outside the seminary that the ordinands will encounter when they emerge. This in turn sets up the potential for future conflict, and of course this is also true not just in the area of liturgical music but in church life generally.

    Where newly-ordained conservative clerics find themselves to be misfits in a parish situation, because they were not prepared for the real world in their training, three possible outcomes are normally found.

    (a) the new assistant priest will ride roughshod over the prevailing culture of the parishioners, and the people will suffer, perhaps even choosing to move elsewhere; or
    (b) the new assistant priest will have the corners rubbed off him and become a halfway useful pastoral minister through pastoral experience; or
    (c) the new assistant priest will simply find that he cannot take the pressure of the conflict that he has created, and will leave — and I mean leave the priesthood — because he cannot cope with discovering that there may be another valid point of view that is different from his own.

    I have seen all three happen, and continue to happen, including in the area of liturgical music.

    Now apply those outcomes to what happens when a man becomes a misfit bishop and tries to enforce his authority over his flock. (a) and (b) are both quite possible, (c) not so much. We have all seen authoritarian bishops whose attitude is at variance with those they “serve” but who remain unbending and rigid, and on the other hand we all know of bishops who have learned to listen well in their episcopal ministry. The fact that a bishop is to a certain extent cushioned from the people of the diocese means that only a few leave because they cannot cope with being disagreed with. More often, they will be removed.

    I take heart in those many priests and bishops who are true servants of their communities, and are happy to walk alongside them on the pilgrimage through life. That breed may be in the minority in recent years, but there is still much cause for hope.

    1. Tom Hovel Avatar
      Tom Hovel

      Many parishes in my diocese which are now led by the young conservative priests find the parish culture, not to mention the mass, significantly altered to reflect the views of the priest rather than the congregation. Hence, many have left and others are leaving those parishes. Some seem to take a perverse sort of pride in weeding out the “liberal” really more mainstream Catholics, to get to the doctrinaire church they desire. In my view, they are disjointed from reality.
      At the same time supporting and encouraging the conservative doctrinaire approach the Bishop wonders why mass attendance is down, so few young attend mass, so few receive the sacraments. In a true aspect of clericalism he blames the secular culture, rather than looking inward. He is taking the diocese from 102 to 29 or 30 parishes with church closures to follow.

      I fully agree that many of these men will become members of the hierarchy and lead the church to further disintegration, if further disintegration will be possible.

      The church, however, continues to do this to itself, by beholding itself to a discipline of a single all-male priesthood. I look at it this way, the church is so good at emptying the pews in the west, and even in South America, there is no need to discuss the possibility of female deacons and married priests. The conservative priests, with their litmus tests, will find a world not adapted to their traditional conservative viewpoints.

  8. Alex Sheffield Avatar
    Alex Sheffield

    I think that this was a good topic to examine in the early 2000s when journalists first started to write about the generation gap between “Vatican II priests” and “JPII priests.” Now though, I think that this has become a quaint topic of conversation. The real issue is that the never ending abuse scandals have made it difficult to think of people formally associated with the church as being to some degree complicit in these abuses., even if only as enablers.

    I actually do think that someone wishing to distance themselves from the church is often a sign of well-formed conscience, since it seems pretty clear that their is no real desire to change by those in power.

    For example, I’m an older millennial and most of my friends (many of whom were raised Catholic) think that I’m a hypocrite for going to Mass. I still have a vague memory when the church wasn’t seen as an ecosystem in which sexual predators thrive, but for younger millennials and Gen Z, this association has been solidified.

    1. Alex Sheffield Avatar
      Alex Sheffield

      The end of the first paragraph of my post should read “…. have made it difficult to not think of people formally associated with the church as complicit in these abuses, even if only as enablers.”

    2. Sean Peters Avatar
      Sean Peters

      Yep. I was born in 1982 and remember a time when the clergy (at least in my Franciscan parish) were revered. The first time I heard about “bad priests” was in the early 90s. The bad ones were around but they were far away, so we thought.
      In 1992 I wrote a short essay on how much I admired one of the Franciscan assistants at our parish. Now he’s on the list of abusers. So is the Franciscan who was pastor at the time I was born.

  9. Lee Bacchi Avatar
    Lee Bacchi

    After that survey done on the Real Presence a few years ago, I do not bother much with polls or surveys.

  10. Todd Flowerday Avatar
    Todd Flowerday

    The challenge ahead is less along the lines of liberal/conservative and more the spectrum of rigid/open. I’m not referencing doctrine or liturgical law or morality. Not at all.

    My personal experiences with pastors more conservative than I (and there have been all but three) have been positive, not because we are in ideological alignment. But because we have developed a mutual respect and trust. The three more liberal pastors were actually more rigid in many things and difficult to work with.

    I think the problem with the so-called conservative clergy of today is not their politics or ideology, but their immaturity and lack of real world experience. While I know there are exceptions to the rule, few people under 35 to 40 are ready for ordination as pastors in parishes. Especially the ones in the seminary-from-high-school set. That’s just a fact.

    1. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

      Wow Todd, a miracle has occurred, I agree with everything you wrote. I do think priests are being made pastors way too soon and young. I was ordained 11 years before I was named a pastor. That was good. I don’t know too many young priests who went to a high school or college seminary, though. Most come to us out of college. But once ordained, I am not sure many are being properly mentored by seasoned pastors, be they “liberal or conservative”. And rectories that once had full time housekeepers and cooks and provided community meals for breakfast, lunch and supper are very rare today and there isn’t much of a common life in rectories, just bachelors/independent agents/in private practice, living independently. No common prayer together either. I was blessed as a young priest to have a pastor, quite progressive, who insisted that the entire staff pray morning prayer together, the Liturgy of the Hours and afterward shoot the breeze with each other before we began the work day. I kept that practice as a pastor.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        As Todd knows, I believe that many non-rural parish rectories (those with only one or two priests) should be consolidated into something more like a deanery/vicariate-level house of religion, as it were. If there’s a need to have staff close to the church itself, perhaps make the vacated rectories available to deacons/pastoral associates with families?

      2. Matthew Roth Avatar
        Matthew Roth

        The problem is that their seminary formation is too academic, and we are going to eventually face the music when it comes to the way that our seminaries are tied in to the accreditation system and to the college and university system. They need more non-academic, and non-pastoral, work, in the seminary community, they need more practical experience in their apostolic or pastoral work during the summers and for a full academic year, and the seminaries need to be unhooked from the American academic model. But that will take time, since actually offering the STB requires certain faculty with certain degrees, but currently, those people, especially in canon law, are unavailable. They work for diocesan tribunals.

        Also, the reality is that there are more parishes who need pastors and very few dioceses where you can spend a long time as an assistant or as a chaplain without becoming administrator, then pastor, of your “own” parish.

        I agree, however, that we also need a better model of common life: weekly recreation such as a movie, common meals (a certain number of lunches or dinners per week), prayer (the office should be prayed together and ideally in public), coordinated Masses and confessions (especially when the priests live and work in an urban or relatively compact suburban area where the buildings of which they have the care are not so far apart (or even if they’re not… sometimes the faithful have to make sacrifices!).

      3. Todd Flowerday Avatar
        Todd Flowerday

        We could do worse than these steps:
        – abolish seminaries
        – find candidates from those who have spent 2-3 years in full time lay ecclesial ministry
        – I’m fine with candidates working toward an MDiv while serving in parishes. Ministry in schools or prisons or as a missionary overseas or on a college campus.
        – dispensation for ordaining someone younger than 35

    2. Sam Steinmann Avatar
      Sam Steinmann

      As a mid-life convert to Catholicism, I would tend to identify another challenge: that challenge is the combination of routine movement of pastors, and the very centralized decision-making at all levels. The centralized decision-making is relatively new (it is a mostly post-Vatican 1 phenomenon) and the non-permanence of pastoral appointments is very new. But the combination means that nothing stable can be developed at a parish if it requires investment now for long-term benefit: whether it is a new ministry (preschool, soup kitchen, etc), a better music program, purchasing a hymnal rather than relying on missalettes, any change in the Mass style–it can change next year, and will almost certainly change within 5 years. (My home parish may be exceptional, but I don’t think it is: since I began RCIA in 2014, it has had 4 pastors, and one administrator who was not named pastor; each of them started/discontinued something.)

      The priest being more conservative than the parishioners may contribute, but the lack of any system of mutual assessment by parishes and priests, and the lack of pastoral stability, dramatically increases the challenges.

      1. Edward Hamer Avatar
        Edward Hamer

        Agreed! I entered the Church in 2014 and since then the two parishes that make up my home town have been merged, both previous priests have left, the new merged parish has been given to an African missionary order to run, and though the missionaries are good chaps they have changed our parish priest three times (and the assistant priests more often than that). It’s very unsettling.

  11. Dr.Cajetan Coelho Avatar
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho

    Conversion is an ongoing and a never ending opportunity. The Good News is constantly knocking at every door.

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