The share of new U.S. Catholic priests identifying as theologically “progressive” has fallen so low that the phenomenon has “all but vanished,” according to a report published Tuesday.
The 18-page report, issued Nov. 7 by The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said that when priests were asked to describe their theological outlook on a spectrum from “very conservative/orthodox” to “very progressive,” none of those ordained after 2020 described themselves as “very progressive.”
The report included a graph showing that the proportion of priests who identified as “somewhat progressive” or “very progressive” fell from almost 70% among those ordained in 1965-1969 to less than 5% among those ordained in 2020 or later.
Researchers said there was a similar drift away from political liberalism and toward “moderate” and “conservative” positions.
“Simply put, the portion of new priests who see themselves as politically ‘liberal’ or theologically ‘progressive’ has been steadily declining since the Second Vatican Council and has now all but vanished,” the report said.
The report, entitled “Polarization, Generational Dynamics, & the Ongoing Impact of the Abuse Crisis,” presented further insights from the National Study of Catholic Priests, conducted by The Catholic Project.
The study, billed as the largest of its kind in more than 50 years, consisted of a census of bishops with 131 responses, a survey of 10,000 priests with more than 3,500 responses, and in-depth interviews with more than 100 priests.
The authors of the new report cautioned against a simplistic interpretation of priests’ responses to questions seeking to gauge their theological and political outlooks.
“While self-identification of this sort can give us an accurate view of how a respondent sees himself, it does not necessarily suggest an equivalence between like responses,” they wrote.
“For every response — ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ — there is always an unstated comparative element: ‘Progressive… compared to whom?’ ‘Very conservative… in what context?’”
“Our data tells us much about how priests perceive themselves relative to others, but tells us nothing about what makes one consider oneself ‘progressive,’ ‘moderate,’ ‘orthodox,’ etc.”
The report also highlighted a contrast between the responses regarding political and theological outlooks. While 52% of priests surveyed described themselves as politically “conservative” or “very conservative,” 44% said they were “moderate.”
But the authors said that “the ‘moderate’ middle” had collapsed when it came to theological views.
“A full 85% of the youngest cohort describes itself as ‘conservative/orthodox’ or ‘very conservative/orthodox’ theologically, with only 14% (the smallest percentage of any cohort) describing themselves as ‘middle-of-the-road,’” they said.
“Theologically ‘progressive’ and ‘very progressive’ priests once made up 68% of new ordinands. Today, that number has dwindled almost to zero.”
The report quoted a priest as saying that what looked like a generational divide among U.S. clergy was “really a theological, philosophical divide.”
It said that two events had helped to shape contrasting worldviews among priests: Vatican II, the ecumenical council held in 1962-1965, and the 2002 clerical abuse crisis.
The authors wrote: “We are witnessing a major shift in the way priests in the United States view themselves and their priesthood. Younger priests are much more likely than their older peers to describe themselves as politically conservative or moderate.”
“Younger priests are also much more likely to see themselves as theologically orthodox or conservative than do older priests. These shifts can be a source of friction and tension, especially between younger and older priests.”
“Self-described liberal or progressive priests, considered both politically and theologically, have been declining with every successive cohort for more than 50 years. Self-described liberal or progressive priests have all but disappeared from the youngest cohorts of priests.”
The report also looked for statistical evidence of tensions between “younger, more conservative priests” and Pope Francis, who it described as being “seen as more liberal or progressive than his immediate predecessors.”
It found that older priests were more likely to say they valued “being accountable to Pope Francis” than younger ones. More than 80% of priests ordained before 1980 agreed with the statement, compared to 67% of those ordained since 2000.
But the report’s authors said the “most telling finding” was that, “despite younger age and ordination cohorts trending more conservative/orthodox both politically and theologically, the overwhelming majority of these youngest priests do value accountability to Pope Francis.”
The authors also returned to the topic of trust between priests and bishops highlighted in the earlier publication.
They observed that trust levels varied widely across U.S. dioceses, “with some dioceses doing well (100% trust) and others demonstrating trust levels as low as 9%.”
They did not identify individual dioceses, but suggested that a diocese’s size could affect trust levels. They noted that 55% of those surveyed expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in their bishop in dioceses with fewer than 100 priests, but that proportion dropped to 38% for dioceses with more than 500 priests.
Other factors affecting trust included age, if the priest was ordained in the U.S., and whether the priest’s theological and political views aligned with those of his bishop.
“If a priest describes himself as theologically conservative, for example, and he believes that his bishop is also theologically conservative, it is likely that he would report a high degree of trust in his bishop,” the report said.
“In contrast, if a priest reported that he did not align with his bishop on theological matters, he would predictably report low trust in his bishop’s leadership.”
The report also examined priests’ experience of abuse, with 9% saying that they had “personally experienced sexual harassment or abuse or suffered sexual misconduct” during their formation or in seminary.
More than 70% said they knew at least one clerical abuse survivor and more than two-thirds said they felt reasonably well prepared to support victims.
Researchers also found that 4% of those surveyed were thinking of leaving the priesthood, for reasons including a lack of confidence in episcopal leadership and “perceived or actual lack of support.”
“Many of these trends have been decades in the making and show little sign of reversal any time soon,” the report concluded.
“Building trust and restoring confidence begins with mutual understanding. It is our hope that the data presented here can strengthen that understanding among all Catholics, but particularly for our bishops and priests upon whom so much depends.”