Despite efforts to adjust to the theological rollercoaster of the Francis papacy, the American clergy finds itself the frequent target of his offensive remarks. A new study on priests and seminarians in America gives some insight into the reasons behind the attacks.
The liberal Pope Francis has called upon Catholics to embrace controversial positions on moral, ecological and political issues often identified with the left. American Catholics have voiced concerns about many of these progressive positions.
Pope Francis has responded by calling these American Catholics backward and ideological. He has criticized them for not following the synodal way of the avant-garde sectors that supposedly represent the Church’s future. He seems impatient with a clergy that is unwilling to embrace progressive ideas.
A Matter of Waiting
People might naturally suspect that the problem lies with older priests and faithful attached to traditional ways. The solution would seem to be a matter of waiting for these traditional-minded to die out to make room for the young progressive ranks to advance to leadership.
However, the real reason for the disconnect is the contrary. The 18-page November report, issued by The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., finds that the younger, not the older, American priests are drifting away from the progressive ideal.
Who Is Dying Out?
Younger American priests are embracing the past in ever-larger numbers. The older progressive attitudes are headed to extinction. Indeed, new U.S. Catholic priests identifying as theologically “progressive” have fallen so low that they are disappearing from the radar screen. Tradition and orthodoxy are the future of the Catholic Church in America.
“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 figures are impressive. The results reflect one of the most extensive surveys of Catholic clergy in over 50 years. It counted on the responses of 131 bishops and 3,500 priests and extensive interviews with over one hundred priests.
A Steady Decline
The American clergy was not always conservative, as shown by the generational differences in attitudes. 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. Moreover, no priest ordained after 2020 described themselves as “very progressive.”
The study’s authors are careful to note that the labels are based on the self-perceptions of those surveyed. They do not represent any specific issues. However, the survey does indicate the general direction of the clergy and the Church in America.
No More Middle Ground
One important conclusion is the emptying of the theological left and middle among the American clergy.
Some 85% of the youngest respondents describe themselves as “conservative/orthodox” or “very conservative/orthodox” theologically. This number clashed with those of the past.
“Theologically ‘progressive’ and ‘very progressive’ priests once made up 68% of new ordinands,” the report states. “Today, that number has dwindled almost to zero.”
This conclusion means the decline is a set course, not a seminary formation trend. The overwhelming character of these views indicates that there are no mechanisms in place to change course. Any such effort would take years to reverse.
Reverence for the Papacy
Thus, the survey reveals the future of the Church in America is heading toward a more orthodox and conservative position. Progressivism is dying.
However, the disagreement of the clergy with the progressive issues favored by Pope Francis does not seem to affect the veneration these priests have for his office. Catholics in America are not in revolt against Pope Francis.
The poll showed 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.”
This overwhelming respect for the Pope’s office reveals a balanced position of resistance that does not destroy love for the Church hierarchy.
Why America Is Targeted
However, the American clergy’s adherence to orthodoxy helps explain Pope Francis’s attitude toward them.
Everything about the American reaction contradicts the progressive narrative about how these Catholics should be acting.
All the myths are smashed. Progressive ideas that should be attractive fail to appeal to America, which has long been promoted as a progressive nation. Youth, which should be the most progressive age group, is now proving to be the most theologically orthodox. According to the progressive narrative, Americans should not yearn for tradition but for ecological and synodal “conversion.”
All these things explain why Catholics in America are a target. It is not because some small, vocal conservative groups have created controversy. The trend toward tradition has gone mainstream. The strong progressivist position of Pope Francis has no future in America.