National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 18, 2004

By Andrew M. Greeley
University of Chicago Press, 156 pages, $19
Debunking stereotypes about priestly life


American Catholics appear to be no better at taking prophets seriously than were the Israelites of the sixth century B.C. The Bible’s prophets complained that their divinely inspired warnings fell upon deaf ears. While the religious research of contemporary sociologists is not divinely inspired, it may fall into the category of “signs of the times.” In any case, despite the encouragement of Gaudium et Spes to take empirical research seriously, research findings generally fail to move bishops and church administrators into action.

In 1985 Dean Hoge accurately predicted that within 15 years the younger clergy would embrace a dominantly institution-centered ecclesiology while the growing corps of lay ministers would be more collaborative and innovative. By the late 1980s, Richard Schoenherr had clearly identified the steady increase in the Catholic population and the roughly 40 percent decline in priests between 1966 and 2005. In 1990, David Nygren and Miriam Ukeritis, in their comprehensive study of American religious, warned that there existed a 10-year window of opportunity for institutional transformation before religious orders and congregations risked paralysis and death unless they clarified their contribution to the life of the church. All three of these predictions, which initially met with widespread denial, have been realized almost exactly as predicted.

Andrew Greeley’s Priests: A Calling in Crisis is about the impact of the clerical sexual abuse crisis of 2002 and “how it fits the stereotypes that emerged at the time.” It is the prophetic outcry of a public intellectual who wants to weigh in on the significance of the scandal with empirically based interpretations of its impact for the future. He begins by debunking experts frequently cited by the national press for their interpretations of the sexual abuse scandals. With respect to claims that priests are less sexually mature than the general population (Eugene Kennedy), that the sexual revolution has dramatically changed the condition of celibacy for priests and that only about 2 percent of priests are “successfully celibate” (Richard Sipe), or that the Jesuits in the United States are in a serious and possibly terminal crisis (Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi), Greeley explains the methodological insufficiency of each of them: “The rules of the game say that you don’t make estimates unless you have representative samples.”

A chapter on “Sexual Orientation and Celibacy” draws on two important surveys done by the research division of the Los Angeles Times, sampling 2,064 priests in 1993 and 1,854 priests in 2002. The first question about sexuality asks priest respondents to identify their sexual orientation. A second question addresses the role that celibacy plays in the priest’s life. From this data, Greeley concludes that 72 percent of American priests are heterosexual celibates, 10 percent are homosexual celibates and 18 percent are not celibate (two-thirds of them being heterosexual, and one-third homosexual).

The heaviest concentration of homosexual priests is among those between 36 and 65 at the time of the study in 2002. Since many abuses made public since 2002 were committed by priests ordained long before homosexuality attained its current visibility, the argument of a link between child abuse and the increased presence of homosexuals in seminaries seems “inherently improbable.”

In a chapter titled “The Morale Question,” the author confronts a widespread opinion that celibacy creates “an intrinsically inferior way of life.” Searching through research data, Greeley points out that not only is celibacy not a barrier to happiness, but that priests score higher on measures of job satisfaction than doctors, lawyers, professors and Protestant clergy. They report that the priesthood has been better than they had expected it would be (92 percent responded better than expected or about as expected), that they’re satisfied with their lives and that they would choose to be a priest again (92 percent). Celibacy doesn’t drive men out of the priesthood, then, as Kennedy, Sipe and others have claimed. In Greeley’s analysis, only about one-sixth of those who leave priesthood do so primarily because of celibacy. Celibacy becomes a problem only when a priest is not satisfied with pastoral work. Although celibacy is not the main reason why priests leave, “It may be the main reason that men don’t become priests.”

In Chapter 5, the author shows with Los Angeles Times data the return among the most recently ordained to the attitudes of pre-Vatican II clergy on questions of sexual morality. Less than half of all the priests respond that birth control, masturbation or premarital sex are “always wrong.” However, 71 percent of priests 35 and under as well as 73 percent of priests 75 and older consider premarital sex “always wrong.” A similar U-shaped curve describes responses concerning married priests: More than 75 percent of those between 46 and 75 support married priests. However, only half of priests 35 and under and of those 75 and older share support for married priests. Similar patterns following age cohorts characterized responses to questions about ordination of women and selection of bishops. To cite the acid remark of the author, “It may be that, when the clergy shaped by the council have all died, the new kind of priest may restore the church that existed before 1962.”

One of the most important sections of this book addresses the laity’s negative evaluation of clergy performance. Two studies commissioned by Greeley and dating from the year 2000 show that Catholics rate their clergy lower than Protestants in performance on preaching, counseling, youth work, worship leadership and pastoral care. Thirty-six percent of Protestants rate their clergy as excellent in preaching, as opposed to 18 percent of Catholics. Protestant clergy receive a 38 percent grade of excellence for worship services versus 28 percent excellence for priests. The research shows higher ratings for Protestant clergy performance on all the other important areas of pastoral behavior. Greeley couples this data with another question concerning the principal reasons laity are leaving the church. Twenty-six percent of priests recognized that poor pastoral performance or unfulfilled pastoral needs may be accountable. However, interestingly, only 16 percent of the youngest priests see themselves as responsible in any way for the departure of disaffected parishioners. If Greeley is right in his sampling of the laity’s evaluations of their clergy, then this diagnosis of pastoral malpractice will be more serious in the long run for the church’s future well-being than the crisis of sexual abuse. In his words, “Very few priests seemed to sense that the laity are massively dissatisfied with the quality of priestly ministry (which indeed they are).”

Further, although priests experienced discomfort and pressure because of the climate created by the sexual abuse crisis, they did not judge the crisis to be all that serious -- “a significant miscalculation.” In a concluding chapter, Greeley draws out “Policy Implications,” which, the author admits, arise from his own reflections rather than flowing logically from the data. Some of these recommendations will not find much sympathy in Rome but bear consideration.

Concerning vocations, the author is convinced that not enough effort is being given to recruit young men. In a study conducted by the author in the late 1970s, he and his colleagues “discovered that nine out of 10 of our male respondents who expressed some interest in the priesthood had never been approached by any priest on the subject. If only a small proportion of those young men had become priests, there would be no priest shortage today.” The author advocates establishing a “Priest Corps” -- a group of young men willing to commit themselves to a limited term of service in priesthood, say five or 10 years, renewable. Since the ordained obviously do feel free to leave when they are not happy, perhaps it would be better to experiment with this kind of program than to face the painful pastoral deficits that are growing.

Greeley is uniformly harsh in his judgment of the newest cohort of priests for what he sees as their inflexibility and smug resistance to theological ideas and pastoral experience. I find it regrettable that he cannot explore the characteristics of the more recently ordained with greater subtlety (taking cues from two recent books by Dean Hoge and his associate Jacqueline Wenger that spell out more sensitively the complexity of what Hoge calls “evolving visions” of priesthood). However, Greeley spells out a real challenge for the church in saying: “The church always needs new men with vigor and new ideas. But the church no more needs a subculture that demands lay submissiveness and seeks comfort and security from clerical status than it needs a subculture that is openly and flagrantly gay.”

Greeley’s summary is sobering. Seminaries are failing to turn out successful professional clergy. Seminary training in homiletics needs revamping. In both formation and ongoing education, the clergy need to profit from respectful but honest communication from the laity for a clearer understanding of their pastoral needs and a clear evaluation of their spiritual satisfactions. And finally, in terms not unlike Peter Steinfels in A People Adrift, Greeley urges that Vatican leadership must find “a process for the appointment of bishops who are in touch with their priests and lay people, who know what’s happening, and who can inspire confidence in the faithful.”

Priests dares to address the disappointing state of ministry in the church today. It disposes of some oft-repeated judgments on priests concerning celibacy, homosexuality and priests’ morale. Yet the chip on Greeley’s shoulder, familiar to readers of his previous work, gets in the way most annoyingly. His judgmental stance toward junior clergy frequently feels mean-spirited. His repeated dismissal of the work of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils is both unnecessary and unfair. But these are hard days, and his agenda of sorting out the social meaning of priesthood in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis may be the kind of rough talk that will wake up some readers and empower others.

After all his efforts to brainstorm possible solutions, the author concludes with words that sound much like an elegy. They are, I think, a good way for me to conclude as well: “In the short run I anticipate a reaction to 2002 like that to the birth-control encyclical -- a decline in church attendance and a decline in financial contributions but no mass exodus from Catholicism. Catholics, even very angry Catholics, still like being Catholic.”

That quintessentially Greeleyesque remark is a reminder of why it’s worth listening to what he has to say.

Dominican Fr. Paul Philibert is a visiting professor at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 2004

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