A new poll is revealing that Catholic priests in the U.S. are trending more and more theologically conservative. Published last week by the Catholic University of America, the study examined differences between various generations of priests, the ongoing impact of the clerical sex abuse crisis on the clergy, and how the polarization of American society affects priests. One of the study’s major findings was that priests ordained after 2009 overwhelmingly identified as theologically conservative or orthodox, rising from about 55 percent by the end of 2009 to about 85 percent in 2020.
Additionally, younger priests tended to identify as more politically conservative than their predecessors — from 1960 to 1979, no more than 25 percent identified as politically conservative, compared to almost 60 percent ordained between 2015 and 2019 and 52 percent ordained past 2020. The study concluded:
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.
Of note, priests identifying as “progressive” or “very progressive” have, as the study’s authors put it, “dwindled almost to zero.” Through individual interviews with over 100 priests, the study also discovered that the Second Vatican Council and the 2002 exposure of the clerical sex abuse crisis were “watershed” moments, effectively defining different generations of priests from each other. For example, in the years immediately succeeding the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council (1970-1974), almost no priests identified as “very conservative” or “very orthodox” theologically, though the number of those identifying as theologically progressive dropped steeply and has never recovered.
As more and more priests in the U.S. align themselves with orthodox theology … tragic instances of abuse will decrease.
A key factor in the formation of priests following the Second Vatican Council appears to have been who was Pope at the time. During the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II (1978-2005), the number of U.S. priests identifying as theologically progressive dropped off steeply, with those describing themselves theologically as “middle of the road” increasing drastically, and those describing themselves as theologically conservative or orthodox climbing slowly but steadily. The pontificate of the late Pope Benedict XVI, which included the widespread return of the pre-conciliar Tridentine Mass, saw the share of progressive priests drop even lower, and the share of conservative or orthodox priests increase by about 10 percent, swallowing up a fair bit of the “middle of the road” crowd. In short, the reigning pontiff has, to some extent, shaped the theological mindset of the priests of that time. (READ MORE from S.A. McCarthy: Pro-Abortionists Vandalize Catholic Churches in Ohio)
But then we come to the pontificate of Pope Francis. Though not as progressive as sedevacantist cheerleaders and arrogant, terminally-online Catholic-sphere grifters proclaim, Pope Francis is far from theologically conservative, and his tenure as pontiff has been marked by widespread confusion, ambiguity, doubt, and increasing polarization. While the numbers indicate that U.S. priests have largely adopted the ideology of the reigning pontiff since the 1960s, they seem to have bucked that trend under Francis’s reign, rejecting theological progressivism and becoming even more conservative than they were when Benedict XVI was pontiff.
The other “watershed moment” was the exposure of the clerical sex abuse crisis in 2002. One priest ordained before 2002 and quoted in the study said, “I didn’t have any idea as a seminarian [or] as a priest that there was such a thing as abuse.” Another commented, “I think my training in the seminary was incredibly inadequate.” Whether this priest was referring to theological training or training in child safety is unclear, but yet another said of the seminary admittance process, “The screening was not done properly.”
One of those ordained after the abuse crisis was initially exposed stated, “This was a time that the Church needed good men.” Another recounted, “Our rector said, ‘You guys will spend your entire priesthood restoring trust.’”
Statistically, a staggering 70 percent of priests told surveyors that they personally know at least one victim of clerical sex abuse, including 11 percent who said they know five or more victims. Perhaps even more surprisingly, almost 10 percent of priests report that they were themselves victims of sex abuse while in seminary. One of the priests said, “Personally, I am a victim. I was sexually abused while I was in seminary.” Another priest said that he’s friends with “people who are actually serving in the Church as priests who themselves were abused.”
Seminaries have become a sort of hunting ground for predator-priests. In 2021, then-rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome Fr. Peter Harman was forced to resign after a lawsuit alleged that he not only allowed his vice-rector, Fr. Adam Park, to sexually prey on seminarians, but bullied and persecuted straight seminarians and would-be whistleblowers. The archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, has been accused of sexually harassing his seminarians. Liam and Flannery Gallagher are currently suing the archdiocese of Baltimore for allegedly covering up the sexual abuse of their father while working as a receptionist at St. Mary’s Seminary, which was once referred to as the “pink palace” so rife were the halls with homosexual activity. (READ MORE: Notre Dame President Defends Drag Shows on ‘Catholic’ Campus)
In his book “Confessions of a Gay Priest,” clerical sex abuse victim and ex-priest Tom Rastrelli described his seminary as “a closeted underworld in which elder priests preyed upon young recruits,” detailing his disgust with bishops and priests who would sodomize each other and seminarians by night and preach against homosexuality on Sunday morning.
Perhaps the most notorious example of seminary abuse is that of disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick. In one of the 2018 articles that finally brought down the powerful, perverted prelate, McCarrick was exposed for serially preying on seminarians and younger priests, often raping them by force and even more frequently raping them by a combination of flattery, coercion, and threats.
As more and more priests in the U.S. align themselves with orthodox theology, which prizes the virtue of chastity, defines homosexual acts as sins of the gravest degree, and champions the truth, it is likely that such tragic instances of abuse will decrease as virtue grows, no matter what the mouthpieces of the Vatican say about homosexuality, new theologies, or the Synodal spirit.