Report: Liberal Priests Going Extinct

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CV NEWS FEED // A recent report shows that in the years since the Second Vatican Council the percentage of Catholic priests who consider themselves “liberal” has precipitously decreased, while the proportion of more “conservative” priests is on the rise.

The study on which the report was based shows that the shift is especially pronounced among today’s youngest priests. 

“In the United States, the proportion of new priests who see themselves as politically ‘liberal’ or theologically ‘progressive’ has been steadily declining since Vatican II,” wrote Catholic Project Executive Director Stephen White on X (formerly Twitter) Tuesday. “Today, it has all but vanished.”

The report uses data from a Catholic Project study conducted in October 2022.

In the study, ten thousand priests across the country were surveyed in “the largest survey of American Catholic priests in over fifty years.”

The study included “In-depth qualitative interviews with more than 100 priests selected from

survey respondents” and “A census survey of U.S. bishops, receiving 131 responses.”

In their new report, the Catholic Project wrote that their study showed “a significant divide between the political and theological self-identification of older priests and younger priests.”

From the November 2023 report:

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Asked to describe “their views on most matters having to do with theology and doctrines” on a scale from “very progressive” to “very conservative/orthodox,” there are significant cohort differences. 

More than half of the priests who were ordained since 2010 see themselves on the conservative side of the scale. No surveyed priests who were ordained after 2020 described themselves as “very progressive.”

“Similarly, when priests were asked to describe ‘their views on most matters having to do with political issues,’ the trend away from liberalism and toward moderate and conservative views is unmistakable,” continued the Catholic Project.

The report made a distinction between the theological and political leanings of priests. It concluded that today, more priests self-identify as theologically conservative or orthodox than as politically conservative. 

Again from the Catholic Project:

The trend in political views seems to have stabilized to include a large proportion of “moderates.” While roughly half (52%) of the recently-ordained cohort described themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative,” a full 44% (the highest percentage of any cohort) self-described as “moderate.”

Contrast this to theological self-identification, where the “moderate” middle has not held. 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.” 

The study shows that while in the 1960s 68% of newly-ordained priests considered themselves to be “progressive” or “very progressive,” few to none of today’s newly ordained priests feel the same.

“The super-progressive wing really didn’t replicate themselves,” said one priest interviewed by the researchers.

“While it can look like a generational divide, it’s really a theological, philosophical divide,” said another.

An older priest speculated that younger priests tend to be significantly more conservative than his generation due to living their entire lives in the aftermath of Vatican II.

“People who are around my age… we lived through the pre-Vatican II world,” he said. “They want to go back to that. These kids have never experienced that. I think they think that there has to be this kind of mystery.”

The Catholic Project is an initiative of the Catholic University of America and describes itself as seeking “to assist effective collaboration between the clergy and the laity.”

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