When we were in the seminary, our economics professor, Ed Roche (God be good to him!) told us one day that his classmates were getting old. “I say to them, when you start complaining about the young guys, it’s proof you’re getting old.” Ironically his classmates in those days were younger than the newly ordained priests in Dean Hoge’s study commissioned by the National Federation of Priests Councils, of the living and working conditions, the satisfactions and the frustrations of the early years in the priesthood.
On that spring day in the late 1940’s, I swore to myself that I would never complain about the “young guys” and thus never get old. Later on in life I also figured that we were on the whole no worse and no better than the young guys about whom everyone was complaining. I found as I was reading Professor Hoge’s report that the newly ordained are very much like we were in the middle years of the 1950’s, plus c’a change....
Like us, most of the 567 priests (half diocesan, half religious) who were surveyed for The First Five Years of the Priesthood enjoy their ministry, especially liturgy and teaching, and working with the laity. Like us, they lament that they don’t have enough time for spirituality, that there is too much work and that they do not receive much support from other priests. Like them (the diocesan sample, at any rate), we would not have supported voluntary celibacy or the ordination of women and would have agreed that the priest was essentially different from the laity and was a “man set apart.” Probably more than 36 percent of us would have agreed that “the Catholic laity need to be better educated to respect the authority of the priest’s word.” Many of us—perhaps most of us—would later change our minds on those last three subjects. Nonetheless, that 36 percent may well be the upper limit of the true reactionaries among the younger clergy.
They are better off in two ways than we were: they seem to have much more sympathetic pastors than we did (or maybe, like us, they are idealizing the “boss”); and four out of five said that they have enough freedom to do their work. I don’t think we felt that way. Some things do change for the better.
Yet the picture of these “young priests,” as incomplete as it is, is reassuring. They are hard-working men who are happy with their life and work. Only 5 percent of the diocesan priests and 14 percent of the religious priests are uncertain about staying in the priesthood or are actually thinking of resigning. Most of those want to marry and are dissatisfied with their work life. As Professor Hoge remarks, “During the research we heard numerous stories of priests who fell in love, and the ones who subsequently resigned usually had felt dissatisfaction with the priesthood before they entered into the love relationship. Happy and fulfilled priests rarely resign even if they are in love.”
The “crisis” in the priesthood is what it has always been: men who are not happy in the work will likely fall in love and leave. It is terribly unfair of some of them to say that if other priests were as honest as they are, they would leave too. It is also terribly unfair of various priest organizations, including the N.F.P.C., to seem to support that ideology.
Thus inactive priests with social degrees of one sort or another write widely read and oft-quoted books about the “psychosexual immaturity” of those of us who remain; and the N.F.P.C., so committed is it to the ideology of optional celibacy, never speaks up. Who the heck is “mature”? Is it really mature for those who have left the active ministry to write self-serving attacks on those who decline to follow them?
Hoge reports that “Whether a priest is heterosexual or homosexual in love or not, it will not drive him to resign unless at the same time he feels lonely or unappreciated. This is a basic finding of our research.” The research I have done for the last 35 years persuades me that Hoge is right. If men are miserable and unhappy because they feel lonely and unappreciated and cannot overcome this feeling, then they do well to resign. Such men, one must insist, are not typical.
Priests who like being priests are among the happiest men in the world. Unfortunately, the current conventional wisdom dismisses that proposition as patent nonsense. Yet it is the fault of priests that they/we have let those who were unhappy and the sexual abusers create our public image for us.
In addition to the 567 active priests (a response rate of over 70 percent of apparently valid samples), Hoge and his colleagues also received questionnaires from a “catch-as-catch-can” group of 72 resigned priests. I think it was a mistake to include their responses in the same tables that contain the responses of active diocesan and active religious priests, because such a strategy mixes the apples of good data with the oranges of poor data. However, nothing in the data set of inactive priests disconfirms Hoge’s basic findings.
There are eight responses to the study at the end of the book, of which the most remarkable, worth the cost of the whole book, is that of Bishop Thomas Curry of Los Angeles. Bishop Curry is not critical of Hoge for what he has done (nor am I), but he wonders why questions were not asked about vision, about the impact of the Second Vatican Council, about the massive immigration problem in this country. I suspect that the answer is that the N.F.P.C. was somehow not interested in these subjects. Through the whole history of the organization, it has been a “priests union” concerned about the working conditions of the priesthood and sympathy for those who have left the active ministry. It has yet to become a professional organization interested in the service of priests’ clients. It defends the rights of priests but not the rights of the laity. It has never been particularly worried, for example, about how priests prepare sermons, what books they read, how they administer the sacraments, what kind of liturgy they provide for their people. Moreover, while some bishops finally “get it” on the reassignment of sexual abusers, the N.F.P.C. remains clueless.
As for the Second Vatican Council, I wonder where the newly ordained would have learned about it. They were not alive or conscious when it happened; they have no memory of what the church was like before the council. No one has explained to them that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it launched the most dramatic transition in the history of the church, one that cannot be undone despite all the efforts of some church leaders to do so.
It would have been very helpful if this study of the newly ordained had probed their comprehension (if any) of the council and its impact.