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Philippa Martyr: Priests’ perceptions an issue

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An extensive US survey on the wellbeing of priests has confirmed significant issues they would like addressed around their relations with their bishops. Photo: Nazim Coskun, Unsplash
An extensive US survey on the wellbeing of priests has confirmed significant issues they would like addressed around their relations with their bishops. Photo: Nazim Coskun, Unsplash

One of the reasons I love doing research is that you find things out, and you can measure them. Sometimes you find things out that you and other people didn’t expect.

If you find out that there’s nothing wrong, that’s great. But if you find that something’s wrong, then it’s a really good idea to face it, and start finding ways to fix it.

This is a healthy and useful reason for doing research. The idea is to find out what’s actually going on, so that (hopefully) you can do something about the real issues.

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An important new study of priestly wellbeing has just been published in the US. It’s the second study in recent years looking at how priests are coping in a changing Church and culture.

Back in May this year, I wrote about the Survey of American Catholic Priests from 2021. It included just over a thousand priests.

It found that in general, younger priests were more conservative than older priests. But it also described their low morale and poor relationships with their local bishops.

“Around half said that they had confidence and trust in their own bishop. But only a quarter expressed trust in the US bishops as a group.”

The new study this year comes out of the Catholic University of America, and is called Well-being, Trust, and Policy in a Time of Crisis. It collected data from 3500 priests, and also surveyed US bishops.

The findings are pretty consistent with the 2021 survey. Younger priests love being priests.

They love their pastoral ministry, and around three-quarters of them described themselves as ‘flourishing’.

Only 4 per cent are thinking of leaving the active ministry – but nearly half of all priests in the study are showing signs of burnout. Another concerning sign is that – like the priests surveyed in 2021 – they don’t have good relationships with their bishops.

Around half said that they had confidence and trust in their own bishop. But only a quarter expressed trust in the US bishops as a group. This new study also conducted in-depth interviews with more than 100 priests and found that they often felt “expendable” in their dioceses. Also, the less confidence a priest had in his bishop, the less likely he was to be ‘flourishing’.

There was a gap between how the US bishops saw themselves, and how their priests saw them. Bishops rated themselves highly as brothers, fathers, and co-workers with their clergy – but less than a third of the priests agreed with this.

Pope Francis concelebrates the Mass with fellow bishops in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on 23 September 2021. Photo: CNS, Cristian Gennari, pool

Bishops also rated themselves as to how they’d respond to a priest who came to them with personal struggles – 92 per cent said they’d respond “very well”. But only 36 per cent of priests agreed with this.

It’s good that almost all the bishops surveyed said that they “take great efforts to know each of their priests personally”. However, more than half also said that they were “too busy to personally counsel and pastor” all their priests.

Priests, on the other hand, were far more likely to use the word “administrator” to describe diocesan bishops.

They also said that they turned to friends, family, and other priests when they needed strong or social support, rather than their bishop.

The results of this study aren’t very flattering, or perhaps what people expected. But they are an important wake-up call.

The US Catholic periodical The Pillar spoke to Bishop Andrew Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, who was “deeply pained as a bishop to see the results of the study.”

“A startling 82 per cent of all priests said that they “regularly fear” being falsely accused.”

Bishop Cozzens said: “It’s so easy for us to relate to the Church as a business or to see legal liability as a main concern in difficult situations rather than to see the Church as a family.”

Another interesting factor was the US priests’ response to sexual abuse reforms in the Church. More than 60 per cent agreed that a zero-tolerance approach was helping to rebuild trust.

But they also said that zero tolerance had now swung in the direction of priests being assumed to be automatically guilty and being seen as liabilities by their diocese. A startling 82 per cent of all priests said that they “regularly fear” being falsely accused.

There’s some good lessons here for Australia as well, because our priests are facing many of the same issues. Anyone who knows any ‘younger’ clergy (those ordained less than 10 years) will be familiar with the types of pressures they’re under.

Prayer for priests (and bishops) is the first thing any of us can do, and sometimes also the last thing. But it’s the thing that will make the biggest difference.

The thing that will make the next-biggest difference is confronting these issues openly and honestly. This will also help to rebuild trust in the Church today.

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