The National Catholic Review

Three doctors enter a consulting room and take their places across from an anxious patient. “We have good news and bad news for you,” they announce. “We’ll begin,” they say with benign smiles meant to engender hope, “with the good news.”

The doctors, Mary L. Gautier, Paul M. Perl and Stephen J. Fichter, are not physicians; they are seasoned sociologists at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Last year they published the results of a study on the priesthood conducted in 2009 as Same Call, Different Men, commissioned by the National Association of Priests’ Councils. It continues the respected research of Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger, Evolving Visions of the Priesthood: Changes from Vatican II to the Turn of the New Century (2003). The patient, of course, is the Catholic priesthood.

Priests, the present study reports, in spite of the sexual abuse scandals, the heavy workload and the graying of the priesthood, are very happy men. A staggering 97 percent of those who responded to CARA’s 2009 survey (on which Same Call, Different Men is based) said they were “very happy” or “pretty happy.” Of that number, two thirds said they were “very happy.” Previous surveys from 1970 to 2001 found that on average only 38 percent of priests claimed to be very happy. Moreover, when asked in the 2009 survey if they “will definitely or probably not leave the priesthood,” 97 percent indicated their intention to remain in priestly ministry, compared with 88 percent who said that in a 1970 study. An impressive 95 percent report they would “definitely or probably choose priesthood again,” up from 79 percent in 1970.

Not surprisingly, most priests are ready and willing to encourage a likely candidate to consider the priesthood. This is an important finding that falls clearly in the good news category but, as we shall see, further complicates efforts to identify the causes of the present priest vocation crisis and the precipitous drop in the number of ordinations. Clearly priests love doing what priests do—celebrating the sacraments, preaching, building community and the pastoral grace of being present with their parishioners in the critical moments of their lives.

Now for the bad news. While seminary numbers have leveled off in recent years at roughly 3,500 men in graduate studies for the priesthood, annual ordinations constitute only 30 percent of the replacement ratio. In other words, for every 100 priests who retire, resign or die in a given year, only 30 are ordained. We Americans would not tolerate such a replacement ratio for medical doctors, but church authorities show no public alarm for the present situation other than urging prayers for priestly vocations, enhanced recruitment efforts and the recruiting of foreign born priests for service here in the United States.

At the same time, there is good news embedded in the bad news: overworked priests, stretched to their limits and often serving multiple parishes, still report they are very happy. Perhaps it is because priests have front row seats at the hidden dramas of grace unfolding all about them. Perhaps it is because older men generally are happier than younger men. Perhaps it is because priests, in spite of their all-too-public clay feet, remain men of faith and prayer.

To return to our litany of lament: priests are older, much older. The median age of all priests in the study was 64, with an average age of 63. In 1970, the average age of priests was a mere 45. Now, a few years after the 2009 study, the average of priests is likely to place most of our clergy in the Medicare camp. By way of comparison, the average age of lawyers and physicians today is in the mid-40s.

These general findings are differentiated by Gautier, Perl and Fichter according to various subcategories of priests—diocesan or religious, birthplace (American or foreign born), ordination cohort (pre-Vatican II, Vatican II, post-Vatican II, millennial) and theological leaning (progressive or traditional), among others. We find here factors contributing to the present clerical culture wars—overly simplified as the tension between the servant-leader model of the Vatican II priests in contrast with the cultic model of the millennials—dividing the minds and hearts of American priests.

Aware of this fissure in the priesthood, I took my copy of Same Call, Different Men to the first national conference of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests held at St. Leo University in Florida this past June, thinking I might do a little amateur social research. I used this gathering of some 250 priests to replicate informally some of the major questions of the 2009 CARA study. My “findings” matched the findings of Gautier, Perl and Fichter.

The energy, enthusiasm and realistic hope of the priests gathered at St. Leo were palpable. We were mostly men in our 60s who were facing, without denial or minimization, the many challenges weighing heavily on today’s church and priesthood. We were frustrated and discouraged with the overall leadership of our bishops, the new Roman Missal, the Vatican investigations and censures of our sisters and the second-class status of women. We talked about our concern for the large numbers of Catholics walking away from the church or just “leaving in place.” But we are not angry. We were too old for the anger and rage of the young.

But it was clear that we were men who loved being priests. Almost all I asked said they would do it all over again. Yes, the vast majority of us were Vatican II priests with Medicare cards in our wallets, but with all our frustrations, we were a happy lot and, I might say, a rather mature and healthy lot.

Research on priestly vocations indicates that happy, fulfilled priests are the major factor in leading men to think of a life as a priest. So, putting Same Call, Different Men down, I had to wrestle with the question: With so many happy priests, why are our seminaries half full? Chapter 8, “Looking to the Future: Who Is Encouraging the Next Generation of Priests?” might have addressed this question. Instead, it featured advice priests offered to seminary candidates—“pray...get a spiritual director…get to know many priests…understand and accept celibacy” and contrasted the warnings of “progressive” priests and “traditionalist” priests to men thinking of the priesthood. The authors approached the celibacy issue primarily from the perspective of loneliness in priestly ministry and the need for “interactions” among priests, suggesting to this reviewer that the issue of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests was off the table. Gautier, Perl and Fichter refused to connect the dots.

They conclude Chapter 8 and their book with these words, “Perhaps their [priests’] happiness will attract more men to consider priesthood, which, in time, will help prevent today’s priests from feeling so overworked.” Perhaps.

The strong suit of Same Call, Different Men is that Gautier, Perl and Fichter give us a data-driven research study with a human face. The narrative character of their reporting—with numerous personal accounts from selected priests on issues facing today’s priesthood—makes for an engaging and enlightening read.

Rev. Donald Cozzens is writer in residence at John Carroll University and author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood and Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church.