Conservative priests and liberal laity: Can the synod heal our divides?
The results of a national survey of Catholic priests released by The Catholic Project on Nov. 7 revealed an interesting dynamic in U.S. Catholic life. In the terminology used in the survey questions, young U.S. Catholic priests tend to be theologically traditional and politically conservative, particularly compared to older priests. Meanwhile, U.S. Catholics as a whole are becoming politically more liberal.
Amid fear in some corners of the church that the Second Vatican Council is being undone or glee in others that orthodoxy will always triumph, there is a strong temptation to view this dynamic as a contest in which one side is winning and another losing, to follow the “us versus them” logic that pervades American society. But a more sober view would recognize that we are divided and fractured in ways that hurt all of us. And this is precisely what the Synod on Synodality is calling us to address in the coming year.
All Catholics, but perhaps priests most of all, should see this data as a mandate to heal the scandal of division within our own church. Pope Francis’ call to synodality is an opportunity for U.S. Catholic priests to name divisions and seek reconciliation, and in the process draw synodality deeper into the mystery of Christ’s priesthood.
The results of a national survey showed that young U.S. Catholic priests tend to be theologically traditional and politically conservative, particularly compared to older priests.
The data, part of a survey released in October 2022 by The Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America, reveals striking trends about the U.S. church. The finding that is attracting the most attention is that a large majority of young priests ordained since 2005 consider themselves politically conservative and theologically orthodox.
The most surprising numbers? These young priests generally value the approval of Pope Francis. While they value being held accountable to the Holy Father slightly less than do priests ordained before 2000, the difference across generations is not great. Other data, however, as well as oceans of anecdotes, suggest that there are tensions between the U.S. church and the Holy Father.
The most disturbing revelation from the data? The lack of trust in bishops. As the initial analysis of this survey showed, many U.S. priests do not trust their bishops. This lack of trust is exacerbated in larger dioceses, where those priests might not feel known by their bishops. That lack of trust also arises in places where priests do not feel politically or theologically aligned with their ordinary. Each diocese has its own history and circumstances, but the big picture is that trust is down from surveys in 2001 and 1993.
The most disturbing revelation from the data? The lack of trust in bishops.
Battlefield or field hospital?
One interpretation of this data is alarm that theologically conservative priests are taking over and that Vatican II is being undone. Another is joy at the perception that orthodoxy and traditionalism will always win in the end, despite the best efforts of wily Jesuits or radical nuns. Both of these positions assume that the church is a battlefield with winners and losers.
But the full picture is much worse.
The actual data foreshadows not a world with winners and losers, but one where we all lose. To be sure, not all differences amount to divisions. We should both expect and respect diversity of all kinds in the church. The church, after all, is supposed to be universal. Yet the survey does indeed paint a picture of multiple levels of estrangement: younger priests from older priests, younger priests from congregations and a great many priests from their bishops. The mistrust and dysfunction are everywhere and in almost everyone.
Therein, however, lies an opportunity we have to seize.
Because such disunity is not the church. As Pope Francis reminded us in a speech during the synod, the church is “God's faithful people, saint and sinner, a people convoked and called with the force of the beatitudes and of Matthew 25.” Jesus was aware of the “political schemes of his time,” the pope said, but in fidelity to the Father, he chose to build something different: the “simple and humble people who walk in the presence of the Lord.”
The U.S. church, in other words, has a lot of work to do.
To be sure, not all differences amount to divisions. We should both expect and respect diversity of all kinds in the church. The church, after all, is supposed to be universal.
Synodality toward communion
Thankfully, the next stage of the synodal process gives us an opportunity to do just that. The data points to the kind of work that might be done between now and the second gathering of the synod in Rome in October 2024. Priests need to speak to each other within and across generations. Congregations and priests need to talk to each other. Bishops need to win back the trust of their priests. And all of this needs to take place with a serious concern for the pathologies of political polarization within the church, the crisis of authority across all aspects of social life in the United States and, above all, the clerical sex abuse crisis.
What if the U.S. church organized synodal conversations and activities around these tattered bonds that bind us? What if this became a focal activity for Catholic parishes, religious orders and universities? Many proposals in the synthesis report of the 2023 Rome meeting of the synod would be relevant to that undertaking.
If the reaction to the survey data has been unsettling, at least we are perhaps now in a space where we can begin to name our common reality. Reconciliation cannot happen without truth-telling. If Catholics could speak openly and honestly to each other, that would be an important step in uniting charity and truth.
Such truth-telling would be the beginning of rebuilding trust, of turning down the temperature on our conflicts as we re-humanize each other as persons with gifts. It would help us remember what we often know about our friends but not of our enemies: that we are so much more than our politics, that we are made for love, not division.
If Catholics could speak openly and honestly to each other, that would be an important step in uniting charity and truth.
Where are the priests?
There are many obstacles to this proposal. First, our divisions often become self-reinforcing, to the extent that American Catholics, whether they identify as progressive or conservative, fear leaving their battle trenches and exposing themselves to their “enemies,” even if they happen to be fellow Catholics.
Second, many self-identified progressive Catholics worry that Vatican II and Pope Francis’ agenda are being subverted. If the revelations from the survey data disturb such Catholics, it should nonetheless be an opportunity to practice synodality, and indeed a reminder that communion should be sought with all members of the church. It does not help to paint other Catholics as enemies.
For most self-identified conservative Catholics, the greatest obstacle will be a continuing opposition to synodality, which for many seems like a stalking horse for heresy. Why should they change their minds about synodality because of a survey?
Here is a reason: The U.S. church has fallen into scandalously deep division, and we need to do something about it. For the sake of rebuilding, we also need to commit in credible ways to showing each other that we want to do something about it.
If the U.S. church is divided and acknowledges it is divided, how can it opt out of the church’s biggest attempt at healing those divisions? Let’s engage the synodal process.
The following call is drawn from the synthesis report:
There is a need to find ways to involve the clergy (deacons, priests, bishops) more actively in the synodal process during the course of the next year. A synodal Church cannot do without their voices, experiences or contributions. We need to understand better the reasons why some have felt resistant to the synodal process.
This should stop priests in their tracks. Yes, the October 2023 synod meeting voiced many concerns about clericalism and problems with the priesthood. Yet even amid that critical appraisal of the priesthood today, synod members also felt with sorrow the absence of priests at the assembly and in the preparation going into it.
As America executive editor Ashley McKinless reported from the synod, very few parish priests were represented at the synod, and their involvement going forward is key: “If synodality is to take root throughout the entire church, it must begin at the parish level. If you don’t have the buy-in of your parish priest, the soil for synodality will be rocky.”
It is not clericalism but rather good ecclesiology to say that the church needs priests invested in the synodal process for synodality to succeed. A synodal process with more priests involved would be one even more grounded in the reality of the parish, of the priestly ministry of the church and of a new generation of ordained ministers.
It is not clericalism but rather good ecclesiology to say that the church needs priests invested in the synodal process for synodality to succeed.
A better conversation
The dialogue and conversion need not be one way. Many young priests might agree with the criticisms of observers like the Rev. Robert Imbelli that the conversation around synodality is insufficiently grounded in traditional magisterial documents and practices. Yet during the synod process, their voices have too often been absent or confined to the sacristy. The coming year is an opportunity for priests to jump in and have those conversations. Indeed, priests would be doing a favor for the church that many in the synodal process admit we need.
Again, this is a place where many priests with a deep love for the magisterium and theological orthodoxy could help the whole church. To invoke Pope Benedict XVI, they could help take up synodality into the mutually purifying dialogue between faith and reason that is the genius of Catholic culture.
But greater priestly participation in the U.S. synodal conversation would not just be an intellectual exercise. It could not fail to help rebuild badly needed trust and communication within the church, communication that would in turn help to restore communion within it. It would show that priests are willing to listen to their parishioners, to other priests and their bishops, and to many Catholics who feel excluded. For the sake of their flocks, pastors should be willing to do this, to listen and learn from those who suffer, in Austen Ivereigh’s words, from “the contempt, mistreatment, marginalization of institutionalized clericalism.”
The United States has many wonderful priests. At stake is whether they are willing to be witnesses to hope in this way at a particularly difficult, but also potentially fruitful, time for the church in the United States. As Stephen White of the Catholic University of America, who has been one of the most constructive critics of the recent synod, wrote:
Catholics should avoid naive optimism about the Synod and resist calls to the sort of reckless innovation that did so much damage to the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. But we should also be wary of the sort of thoroughgoing cynicism which, in attempting to fend off disaster, also precludes a genuine openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
In the U.S. context, this plea especially applies to priests. The more we are open to the Spirit, the more the divisions that haunt us can become the different gifts that animate the body of Christ.
Bill McCormick, S.J., is a contributing editor at America and a visiting assistant professor at Saint Louis University in the departments of political science and philosophy.