The National Catholic Review
Katarina M. Schuth

With clarity and candor, Dean Hoge, a professor in the department of sociology at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., and Jacqueline Wenger, a graduate student and licensed clinical social worker, communicate and interpret extensive data about generational changes in the priesthood and the impact of those changes on the church in the United States. Evolving Visions of the Priesthood presents the responses to their 2001 survey, which were drawn from almost 1,300 priests—diocesan and religious, young and old—and parallel surveys conducted in 1970, 1985 and 1993. This has enabled them to identify dramatic shifts and proffer rich comparisons.

The first chapter provides a brief description of the changing context of the Catholic community and American society from 1960 to the present. The religious and social upheaval of this period sets the stage for viewing changes in the priesthood. The next five chapters investigate the shifting characteristics of priests, their assessment of issues and needs regarding priestly life and their perceptions of emerging ministry. The authors’ judicious choice of cogent quotes from priests gives soul to the survey data. The book’s charts and graphs fill in the details that support previous theories and suppositions. (The major areas omitted from the research are differences among priests in race and ethnicity, as well as in their countries of origin.)

A lengthy chapter, “Understanding the Changes,” helps the reader comprehend the implications of a new ecclesiology, theology of priesthood, and approaches to the celebration of the liturgy emerging among today’s younger priests. The effects of the sometimes radically different styles of younger and older priests are felt especially in parishes. Since the survey was completed in 2001, there is an epilogue that examines briefly the effects of the sexual misconduct crisis of 2002. Of extraordinary value are the six concluding commentaries.

What do we learn from this new research? The findings confirm what most observant Catholics have known for some time: newer priests (45 and younger) hold a significantly different ecclesiology from that of their older counterparts (46 to 65), but somewhat similar to those over 65. The self-identity of newer priests correlates with “the cultic model of priest loyal to John Paul II, the doctrinal teaching of the Church, and a hierarchical model of governance.” The older servant-leader model priests are “more democratic, more supportive of lay ministry in the Church, and more conflicted concerning the pastoral application of church teaching, such as the prohibition of artificial birth control.” Further, younger priests view the Second Vatican Council as merely a part of a broad historical process. They express satisfaction with older liturgical forms and symbols—including, for some, the wearing of birettas and cassocks—and see priests as having a sacred position in the church that is clearly different from that of lay people. Older priests think in terms of the “priesthood of all believers” and thus support involvement of all Catholics in ministry. They also stress the importance of personal conscience in moral decision-making and emphasize servant leadership rather than clerical authority.

More disquieting than these differences are the judgments of each group about the other. “Younger priests called the older priests liberals, leftist fringe, secularized, anti-establishment, a ‘lost generation,’ and priests with a social work model.” “Older priests referred to the young men as inflexible, divisive, liturgically conservative, institutional, hierarchical, and believers in a cultic priesthood.” While not everyone uses or accepts these negative descriptions, these stereotypes come up again and again in respondents’ comments. For parishes experiencing the ministry of both types of priests or going through a transition from one pastor to another, the changeover is likely to be disruptive and problematic. For lay ministers caught between the two camps, the consequences may be even more distressing.

Hoge’s findings are by no means entirely bleak. Virtually all priests love their ministry and find great joy in administering the sacraments and presiding over the liturgy. They also express much satisfaction in preaching the word of God and in working with people in the Christian community. Across the board they are at least as content with their life and work as their peers in the secular world, and they experience greater overall happiness than was indicated by participants in the three previous surveys.

To what end can this research information be applied? The present disjunction between younger and older priests is persistent, destructive and unacceptable if parishes and other ministries are to thrive. Both the authors and commentators in Evolving Visions offer constructive suggestions for dealing with the divisions. Gerald Kicanas, for example, points out that dioceses have an obligation to bring together different generations of priests for dialogue, so that “larger than life” misconceptions about one another can be faced directly. Canice Connors, O.F.M.Conv., writes that “we may be dealing with the dynamics of ‘totalization,’ that tempting reduction of individuals and their histories to categories of alienation.” He advocates softening the tone of the rhetoric and revealing the person behind the category. John A. Coleman, S.J., states that seminaries have the responsibility to provide proper theological formation in order to prevent future priests from adopting a pre-Vatican II posture: rigid, clerical and close-minded.

Susan Wood asserts that even some of the questions in the survey reflect a mindset that perpetuates generational differences. She recommends that our ecclesial imaginations need to be stretched to incorporate a communion ecclesiology, where relationship rather than essential differences is highlighted. Nick Rice encourages clergy and laity to “mind the gaps” of division through prayer and dialogue and an increased sense of common mission. Zeni Fox is concerned about younger clergy who oppose not only the views of lay persons in their own cohort, but those older parishioners and clergy as well. Because of their contradictory views, younger priests may find working in the parish difficult in unexpected ways.

Hoge and Wenger’s first-rate research and reliable analysis create yet another enormous agenda for the Catholic Church in the United States. They make us aware not only of the conflicting views of various generations, but also of potential starting points for needed dialogue. Their book is essential reading for everyone involved in pastoral leadership and would be valuable for those with broad interest in the church’s future and their role in it. So much is at stake—in fact, the very survival and flourishing of the Christian community. As the number of priests dwindles, the issues among them become even more pronounced. Evolving Visions of Priesthood offers an invitation to work toward overcoming separation wherever it exists and replacing it with true communion.

 

Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., occupies the Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.