In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, more than a few people, including priests, are convinced that the morale of priests is bad. In a letter dated Dec. 12, 2003, 69 priests of the Archdiocese of New York wrote to Cardinal Edward Egan, “We need to tell you again what you already know; the morale of the New York presbyterate is at an all-time low.” Such sentiments have surfaced in other dioceses as well. Given the pounding that priests have taken in the media over the last couple of years, low morale would not be surprising. In addition to reporting the sexual deviances of a few priests over the past 50 years, the media at times have intimated that the priesthood itself is dysfunctional and prone to sexual problems and that priests are poorly prepared, living in an unhealthy clerical environment, stunted by celibacy and generally in bad shape. No wonder people are saying priests’ morale is bad.
But is it really? To collect data on morale, I passed out a written survey at nine diocesan convocations of clergy between September 2003 and January 2004. Two more dioceses mailed the survey to their priests in February and March of 2004. The dioceses surveyed ranged from coast to coast and included some of those hardest hit by the crisis.
A total of 834 priests responded, 725 diocesan priests and 109 religious priests, the latter ministering in the dioceses. The total represented about 64 percent of all priests in the 11 dioceses. Since this study was conducted after the media crisis had waned in most areas, it should provide a good sampling of how priests are feeling in the wake of the crisis.
Satisfaction Is Strong and Consistent
In this survey, the priests were given a statement, “Overall, I am happy as a priest.” Of the 834 priests, 92 percent either agreed or strongly agreed. Only 6 percent were thinking of leaving the priesthood. When asked if they would do it all over again and join the priesthood, 83 percent said yes. These are very positive results.
Priestly satisfaction rates in previous surveys have also been high. A pre-crisis study of over 1,200 priests in 2001 was sponsored by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (Evolving Visions of the Priesthood, Liturgical Press, 2003). The results were similar: only 5 percent reported they were thinking of leaving the priesthood; 88 percent said they would choose priesthood again; and 94 percent said they were currently either very happy or pretty happy.
In the midst of the crisis, The Los Angeles Times conducted its own survey of 1,854 priests, which it published on Oct. 20 and 21, 2002. At that time, 91 percent of the priests were satisfied with the “way your life as a priest is going these days,” and 90 percent said they would do it all over again.
In the pre-crisis N.F.P.C. study, when asked more specifically about what they found of “great importance” as a source of priestly satisfaction, 90 percent endorsed “joy of administering the sacraments and presiding over liturgy,” 80 percent endorsed “satisfaction of preaching the word,” and 67 percent endorsed “opportunity to work with many people and be a part of their lives.” In my own post-crisis survey, 92 percent of the priests endorsed the statement, “Overall, I feel fulfilled ministering as a priest.”
In short, priests like doing what priests do and find great satisfaction in it. Their lives are filled with sacraments, preaching and being with the people; and they find it intensely rewarding. This was true before the crisis; it was true during the crisis; and it is true after the crisis.
Priests Assess Their Own Morale
Since morale is a subjective personal perspective, I asked the priests directly to rate their own morale. Given the statement, “My morale is good,” a strong 83 percent of the priests agreed. And despite the intense media scourging, 84 percent endorsed the statement, “I am proud to be a priest today.”
But when priests were asked about the morale of other priests, there was a precipitious drop. Given the statement, “Morale in the priesthood is good,” the endorsement rate dropped to 40 percent. Apparently priests believe that other priests are hurting and suffering because of the crisis.
The crisis has indeed taken some measurable toll on priests. When asked if they feel that “people now look at [you] with suspicion,” 29 percent of those surveyed said yes.
While the crisis has not caused a large majority of priests to say that their own morale is bad, it has been a source of pain for priests in general and for some in particular, and it has surfaced issues that negatively affect morale. What are some of these painful issues for today’s priests?
Relationship With Authority
Much of the recent criticism has focused on bishops. The priests surveyed were given the statement: “The church crisis has negatively affected my view of church leadership.” Fifty-three percent agreed. Clearly, the crisis has hurt priests’ perceptions of church leadership in general. But when speaking about their own bishops, the results were strongly positive. Three quarters said, “I have a good relationship with my bishop;” 66 percent “approve of the way my bishop is leading the diocese;” and 75 percent agree with the statement, “Overall, I am satisfied with my bishop.” In assessing approval rates for people in authority, such percentages are high. For example, in a recent CNN poll of 5,000 adult workers in the United States (3/24/03), only 43 percent said they were “happy with their current boss.”
On the other hand, only 26 percent of surveyed priests believed that “priests with allegations of abuse are being treated fairly by the church,” and only 43 percent believe that they will be dealt with fairly if they are accused of misconduct. As one priest said, “I am one phone call away from the rest of my life being over.” Whether this is an accurate perception or not, it is important, because it threatens the bond of trust between bishop and priest.
Vocations, Workload and Morale
Any discussion of priestly morale today ought to take into account the concerns priests have about being overloaded with work. Ministry has always been a kind of “bottomless pit.” But this bottomless pit has become even more threatening with the recent declining numbers of priests and increasing numbers of Catholics. When given the statement, “I feel overwhelmed with the amount of work I have to do,” 45 percent of the priests agreed.
But priests are still strong supporters of vocations. When given the personal statement, “If I had a nephew, I would encourage him to become a priest,” 74 percent of the priest sample agreed. And 74 percent said they actively encourage prospects to become priests. This is another strong sign of positive morale. People who are negative about their vocations are unlikely to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. In surveys done by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 78 percent of the newly ordained report that before they entered the seminary, a priest had directly asked them to consider priesthood. This direct encouragement of vocations by priests is an important vocational tool.
Some in the public believe that priestly morale is bad and that the life of a priest is lonely and unfulfilling. This negative perception certainly has a detrimental influence on vocations. But surveys of morale suggest that this perception is not true. I suspect that priestly satisfaction rates are as high as in any profession, if not higher. For example, in the previously cited CNN poll of 5,000 Americans, only 63 percent said they were “happy with their current job,” as opposed to 90 percent of the priests in this survey, who said they were happy in their current ministry. Perhaps one of the most needed vocational tools is to get the word out about how satisfied our priests are.
When asked if they believe their lives and ministries as priests make a difference in the world, 90 percent said yes. When given the statement, “I am committed to the ministry of the Catholic Church,” the response was almost unanimous: 96 percent said yes. In the end, our priests believe that their lives are well spent and make a difference in other people’s lives. Many of our young people are looking for just such a life. They want their lives to matter, and they would be blessed to be introduced to a life of priestly service.
Celibacy and Morale
Mandatory celibacy has long been named as a sore spot in priestly morale. Only slightly more than half in this current survey, 55 percent, endorsed the statement, “I support the requirement that priests live a celibate life.” But only a small portion of the priest sample, 17 percent, indicated that they would marry if given the chance. And 70 percent said, “Celibacy has been a positive experience for me.” Thus, when assessing their own celibate lives, a clear majority remain appreciative and contented. Imagine giving the following statement to married couples throughout the United States: “Marriage has been a positive experience for me.” Would 70 percent say yes?
The overall morale of priests in this country is high. Priests themselves say that their own morale is good. And these high rates of satisfaction have been consistent over several years and different surveys. Priesthood is a rewarding life that offers much satisfaction. At the end of the day, priests know from their own experience that their lives and ministry make a difference in the world.
This is not to say that our priests are not facing serious challenges. Many feel overwhelmed with the amount of work. Also, in the wake of the crisis, some priests believe they are now being viewed with suspicion. Priests report having a good personal relationship with their own bishops, and a strong majority approve of their leadership. But most priests do not trust the current process for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.
Despite all that has happened, these men are resilient and are proud to be priests today.
There is one other factor that might help to account for the enduring satisfaction and happiness of our priests. In this survey, 95 percent professed to have a “personal relationship with God (or Jesus) that is nourishing to me.” We are blessed to have such strong men of faith serving the people of God.