Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood Since Vatican II. By Mary L Gautier, Paul M. Perl, and Stephen J. Fichter. Liturgical Press, Collegeville Minnesota, 2012.

Reviewed by Jack Rakosky.

The new data for this study was collected in 2009. It is part of a series of studies beginning with Andrew Greeley in 1970, and continued in studies by Dean Hoge in 1985, 1993, and 2001. The National Federation of Priests’ Councils, also involved with previous studies, received funding for this study. Because of Hoge’s death the study was done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Many questions used in the preceding studies were replicated to provide comparisons across time.

CARA drew a sample of 2,400 diocesan priests and 800 religious priests from its mailing list of 24,000 diocesan priests and 13,000 religious priests. There were 960 respondents (678 diocesan, 282 religious order priests), a thirty percent response rate. The written surveys are supplemented by anecdotal data from three focus groups and fifty phone interviews to help flesh out the numbers. They make the reading much more interesting.

Since Vatican II there has been concern about the morale of priests. Initially many priests were leaving; more recently there is evidence of a heavy work load on dwindling numbers of aging priests. Those arguing for a married clergy and democracy in the church have helped keep the morale issue in the foreground. Nevertheless, all the studies of the series have demonstrated that priests are very satisfied with their ministry, that they intend to remain priests, and that they would choose to become priests again.

Why the very high level of morale among priests? The General Social Surveys from 1986 through 2006 have shown that clergy have the highest level of satisfaction of any occupation. Other helping professions such as teachers and psychologists are also at the top of the list.

Priests are at the top of the list even in comparison to clergy of other denominations, and these studies show their satisfaction has been increasing over time. Some increased satisfaction is because unhappy priests have left. Some is likely due to greater satisfaction experienced by the many people late in their careers. Some is due to the greater satisfaction of “younger” priests. They are being promoted early and have a stronger sense of support from the Vatican and their own bishop.

Andrew Greeley wondered if priests might be the happiest men in the world. Greeley also expressed concern that priests “seem curiously out of touch with the laity, the world in which the laity live, and the religious problems the laity have (Priests, 2004, p.57).” This study shows that priests find their greatest satisfaction presiding at liturgy, preaching, and being a part of a community. However, Greeley and others have shown that Catholics are less satisfied with liturgy, sermons, and parish community than Protestants. Priests seem oblivious of the dissatisfaction that laity experience in the very things that priests report as being most satisfying. Greeley tended to blame this situation on “the walls of clerical culture, which inure them against the sentiments of the laity (p.98),” The cure that Greeley recommended: “Clergy at all levels from the pope down to the lowliest parish curate must be quiet and listen. And listen. And listen (p.131).”

A different framework has guided my understanding and interpretation of this book and its data. For a couple of decades, I regularly analyzed extensive data collected by mental health clinicians in their daily work. Was my analysis able to tell them anything new about their practice? The short answer is that they could not see the forest for the trees. About half the findings were not even on their radar screens. Let me give a dramatic example.

One therapist had a great reputation as a group therapist. People liked her groups so much that one group talked about buying a house and living together! However a client has to be in individual therapy before joining group therapy. Ninety percent of the people assigned to her dropped out with less than four sessions; however the ten percent who entered group therapy wanted to stay forever. She and the agency lived with blinders focused upon her very successful groups. Everyone was surprised by the data. She had failed to help ninety percent of the people; studies have shown that three or less therapy sessions rarely help anyone.

Decades of processing mental health data led me to the conclusion that we all go about with blinders. They focus our attention, helping us to be productive and happy people. At the heart of the blinders are people who are doing good and being successful. They are not deceiving themselves about that. They simply do not focus upon the problems that surround their success.

Priests, like therapists, have abundant opportunities for doing good things that affect the lives of people. Sunday worship and the sacraments are important to many people. Many in the parish and the community are in need of help. Priests can be very successful with ten percent even if they fail ninety percent of the parish. The homily might have been boring to 99.99% but if one person thanks the priest for being inspirational, he experiences success.

These studies have found that although priests experience much satisfaction, many problems exist which are close to the surface. The survey asked priests about twenty one potential problems. True to the blinders notion, few priests described any area as a “great” problem but half or more of the priests saw many areas were at least “somewhat” of a problem.

Wearing rose-colored glasses helps avoid depression. Priests have found happiness and much satisfaction in their ministry. However, blinders are a better metaphor than rose-colored glasses. The yoke is easy and the burden is light, especially when the blinders are in place.

Authority and workload are the major problem areas. Across the series of studies, The Way Authority Is Exercised in the Church received the highest percentage of “great” problem responses from 26% in 1970 to 30% in 2009. A combined total of sixty-four percent of priests say it is either “somewhat” or a “great” problem. “I felt I had a lot to share and give to the authorities in my life but they didn’t seem to care.” Being Able to Represent Church Teaching that I Disagree With received a combined problem score of 65%. “There are just some topics I won’t talk about.” The Relationship With the Bishop of the Diocese receive a 35% combined problem score. “We had years in my diocese of an administrative bishop concerned with money.”

Workload-related items are now approaching authority as a major problem area. Shortage of Available Priests received a 66% combined problem score: “I often feel outnumbered.” Too Much Work receive a 50% combined problem score: “I had to give up my days off” and Parish Restructuring in the Diocese receive a 43% combined problem total. Priests who are pastors have the greatest workload problems as well as any priest who ministers in a clustered or multiple site parish.

Two chapters in the book deal with the sexual abuse scandal. The first chapter on sexual abuse documents what happened when the blinders that prevented recognizing the sex abuse problem were removed: “It went all year. It preoccupied each day.” “It was in the newspaper and the more that came out, the more angry we all got.” “What I was unaware of, however, was that it was such a problem in my diocese.” “I had a sense as a newly ordained priest [in the 1970s] that there were probably priests acting in a homosexual manner toward young men, high school kids…I had no firsthand knowledge of it.” “I had no idea. I learned about it when I opened my newspaper one morning in 2002 and found that a seminary classmate of mine was one of the primary abusers.”

The Dallas Charter and its zero tolerance policy now give priests strong reasons for focusing upon their work rather than its potential problems. The authors remarked about how nervous and concerned priests were about their anonymity on this topic. “There is no longer any degree of abuse. I know of a case where a priest propositioned a seventeen year old but nothing happened.” “Zero tolerance is irrational…we are not going to treat the guy who was in an alcohol stupor and had an event with a seventeen year old the same as somebody who has abused twenty people.” “In the Dallas Charter, all consequences fall on priests. Nothing is in there for bishops.”

A second chapter views the sexual abuse scandal from the perspective of nine priests with varying relationships to it (e.g. member of Review Board, chancery official, priest and victim, etc.). The perspective of a priest exonerated after being accused gives a good idea why priests are nervous about the Charter. The accusation came out of the past. The priest had no recollection of his accuser or any incident. He was promptly taken out of the parish, and had only very formal contact with anyone in the diocese and no support from fellow priests until he was cleared. “What kept me going was the fact that the parishioners banded together. They circled the wagons around me. If I didn’t have their support I probably would have left the priesthood. All the way through those months they did not waver as to my innocence.” We should not be surprised by the parish support. A priest in our diocese was busted for growing marijuana. Many in his parish supported him. Priests have many opportunities for doing good in the parish. Whether guilty or innocent of a crime, they are likely to have devoted followers.

Two different situations have arisen more recently, involving collaboration and multiculturalism. If we look closely at data we can sometimes see the blinders of consensus that aid ministry as well as the problems that lurk around the corner. In the chapter on collaboration in ministry we see the consensus that parish life would be aided by an increase in full-time professional lay ecclesial ministers. Eighty-one percent of priests agree; an increase from seventy-two percent in 2001. However the data also provide a glimpse beyond that consensus. Millennial priests agree with this statement (65%) but less than the cohort of Vatican II priests (90%). More Millennial priests say that it is essential to uphold the distinction between priests and laity (79%) than do Vatican II cohort priests (58%). A pastor in his 30s reported: “When I came here Sister was doing all of my job. Sister was trying to play priest and that’s a huge frustration to me. I wanted to do priestly things. I want to meet the families I’m preparing for baptism. I’m not just going to come in and pour water over their heads. I want to meet them and prepare them and that is not Sister’s job. I don’t need to print programs, put ashes and palms out, order daily meditation books.”

The chapter on the multicultural reality of priestly ministry takes us beyond the stereotype of the recent past in which cohorts of local seminary graduates went out to staff the growing suburban parishes. An older priest marvels at the non-Anglos of his parish: “It seems that church is a big part of their life, like when they come to church it is not just from nine to ten o’clock, and then I’m gone. They make of morning of it, a day of it.” But there are also the problems of integration in multicultural parishes: “A lot of the Hispanics won’t come because some of the Mass will be in English and the white people will go across town to the other church because it will be partly in Spanish here.” The arrival of foreign priests has disrupted the neat procession out of the seminary into the parishes. A young US-born priest is told by a foreign born priest that he does not know half the priests at the Chrism Mass: “I didn’t have the heart to tell him that neither did I.” Another priest said that he no longer feels the priests in his diocese are his conferes: “We are just employees of the same company. That’s the relationship I see now.”

There is value to this study, but it has its limitations. A much better title for this book would have been “Same Call, Different Men, Different Situations: the Priesthood Since Vatican II.” Same Call captures the sacramental and service dimensions that are the constant basis of priestly satisfaction. Different Men captures Dean Hoge’s model of generational differences in priestly spirituality: the servant leader model of Vatican II in contrast to the cultic model before and after. This book has gone beyond these to present us with some of the changing and challenging situations that have arisen in recent decades, e.g.: the sexual abuse scandal, lay ministry, and multicultural parishes.

If I were using this book to recruit for the priesthood, I would emphasize the basic satisfactions of priestly life, both the sacraments and helping people. Satisfaction in these basic elements can be found with either a cultic spirituality or a servant leader spirituality. Today people, especially young people, value diversity, so we should emphasize not only a diversity of spirituality in the priesthood but also the diversity of challenges in priestly life.

This series of studies views the priesthood from a personnel and human resources corporate perspective. When the series began, that was relatively new and innovative. Some probably thought job satisfaction was not an appropriate way to look at the priesthood. But these studies have shown that the priesthood stacks up very well when measured by corporate standards. However, religion in America is moving beyond corporate and denominational models. People are moving freely among congregations, denominations, and spiritualities. Sociological models and data can take us outside the blinders of our institutional ways of thinking and acting which focus us upon what we do well rather than on what we neglect.

We have new sociological tools that could be exploited to research new models. I particularly like Mark Chaves tool of using a random sample study of Catholics to locate parishes which are then studied in depth. We need a social movement model of Catholicism and Christianity in which people move back and forth from greater to lesser involvement in parishes, congregations, and denominations. The model should help understand how parishes, organizations, and social networks can serve people as they move about in a increasingly complex religious world, and how various people (priests, deacons, religious, laity) can serve people, networks and organizations well in that changing world.

Jack Rakosky, a regular Pray Tell reader, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology. He spent twenty years in applied research and administration in the public mental health system, where his main interests were empowerment of consumers of mental health services, and evaluation of mental health outcomes. Now in retirement, he has earned a theology masters degree at Notre Dame specializing in spirituality. He is particularly interested in spiritualities such as those of religious orders that might encourage and support religiously motivated voluntarism in church and society.