home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted July 25, 2006

How do older, younger priests differ?

By James D. Davison, Ph.D.

With increasing frequency, Catholics tell me that younger priests are more conservative than older priests. Some people are pleased and energized by this trend, believing that it will foster increased orthodoxy and renewal in the Church. Others are surprised (after all, aren't older people supposed to be more set in their ways?) and chagrined (believing that younger priests want to roll back the hands of time).

But is there really a generation gap among priests? Are younger priests really more conservative than older priests?

I consulted seven recent studies for answers to these questions. Here's what the studies tell us . . .

Four of the studies have focused on priests' theological, or ecclesial, orientations. Two of these studies (one in 1994, the other in 2002) have been conducted by the Los Angeles Times. Two others have been published by Dean Hoge and colleagues at Catholic University (a 1995 article in Sociology of Religion, and a 2003 book entitled Evolving Visions of the Priesthood).

Two other studies by Ted Jelen (one in 1993, the other in 2003) have paid more attention to priests' views on political issues.

The most recent study by Paul Levesque and Stephen Siptroth (in the Winter 2005 issue of Sociology of Religion) examines the relationship between priests' ecclesial and political ideologies.

Taken together, these studies convincingly show that, indeed, younger priests are more conservative than older priests, both theologically and politically.

Hoge and Wenger have shown that older priests (who became priests during the Vatican II era) tend toward a "servant-leader" model of the priesthood, which sees the priest as having the same status as the laity. The priest has a distinctive role to play as a spiritual and institutional leader, but he collaborates with laypeople in a shared ministry to all the faithful.

Younger priests (who were in seminary and ordained during the reign of Pope John Paul II) favor a "cultic" model of the priesthood, which sees the priest as a leader who is set apart from laity by the sacrament of holy orders. Because the priest is ordained, he is ontologically different from laypeople. He is a mediator between the laity and God. He also is to maintain a social distance between himself and the members of his parish.

Levesque and Siptroth find that priests who are now over the age of 75 tend to think of themselves as theological liberals (48 percent). Priests who are 50-75 years old also are inclined to see themselves as liberals (52 percent). On the other hand, only 32 percent of priests who are less than 50 years old describe themselves as liberal on ecclesial issues. Forty-eight percent say they are theological moderates, and 20 percent say they are conservative.

According to the 2002 LA Times study of 1,854 priests in 80 dioceses, the vast majority of all priests, regardless of their age, believe that younger priests "are more theologically conservative - that is, more religiously orthodox - than their older counterparts."

There also are generational differences regarding priests' political orientations.

For example, Levesque and Siptroth show that priests who are 75 years of age or older say they are Democrats (52 percent), but describe themselves as politically conservative (52 percent). Priests who are between 50 and 75 years of age also tend to be Democrats (52 percent), but are more likely to think of themselves as liberal (37 percent). Priests who are under the age of 50 are most likely to be Republicans (39 percent) and think of themselves as conservative (48 percent).

Finally, theological and political orientations are related. Jelen found that priests "who exhibit high levels of doctrinal orthodoxy are somewhat more likely to identify as Republicans." Levesque and Siptroth found a correlation .655 between ecclesial and political ideology.

In short, there clearly are theological and political differences between older and younger priests. As older priests with a servant-leader approach to the priesthood, a preference for the Democratic Party, and liberal views on both ecclesial and political issues are replaced by younger men with a more cultic view of priesthood, a tendency to be Republican, and more conservative ideologies, there are bound to be important changes in parish life.

It remains to be seen whether these changes will lead to a period of renewal or will cause serious problems in the years ahead. James D. Davidson is professor of sociology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. His latest book is Catholicism in Motion: The Church in American Society (Liguori/Triumph, 2005).