The first ratings of clerical performance by the laity occurred almost a half century ago in a study by Catholic Digest, which was in fact the first sample survey ever of American religion. At that time 40 percent of Americans, whether Protestant or Catholic, rated their clergy as “excellent” in their preaching. Some 40 years ago, in the National Opinion Research Center’s parochial school studies, the situation had changed drastically: 40 percent of Protestants still gave an “excellent” rating to their clergy while the Catholic proportion who thought their priests were “excellent” had fallen to 20 percent. Subsequent research in the 1970’s and 80’s reported essentially the same finding—though the NORC study of young Catholic adults disclosed only a 10 percent “excellent” rating among Catholics under 30.
Catholic reactions to these findings were underwhelming. Protestants have to be better preachers, it was said, because they don’t have the sacraments like we do. Preaching is all the Protestant clergy have to give, so ministers had better be good at it. We have the Eucharist.
Two studies from the year 2000, however, indicate that Catholics give lower ratings to their clergy’s ministerial activities across the board than do Protestants. The first study was carried out by Knowledge Network (which uses a representative sample of television sets in the United States); the second was part of NORC’s annual General Social Survey (face-to-face interviews of a representative sample). Each sample had approximately 800 respondents. The results of both surveys were similar, which increases confidence in the findings.
Respondents were asked to rate their clergy on a four-point scale (running from “excellent” to “poor”) on basic elements of clergy performance—preaching, respect for women, sympathetic counseling, working with young people, worship services and (in the Knowledge Network project) personal warmth and personal joy.
The accompanying table shows that Protestants continue to be twice as likely to report that the sermons they hear are “excellent.” They are also significantly more likely to rate their clergy higher on the other items than are Catholics. Priests do not fare well in the evaluations by their laity as compared to Protestant clergy.
Rating of Clergy Performance by Religion
Preaching 36 18
Respect for Women 37 27
Sympathetic Counseling 34 25
Work with Youth 40 28
Worship Services 38 28
Personal Warmth* 45 30
Personal Joy* 47 31
*Knowledge Network survey only
Thirty-seven percent of Protestants rate their clergy as “excellent” in their respect for women, as opposed to 27 percent of Catholics. The comparison for sympathetic counseling is 34 percent versus 25 percent, for working with young people 40 percent versus 28 percent, for worship services 38 percent versus 28 percent, for personal warmth 45 percent versus 30 percent, and for personal joy 47 percent versus 31 percent.
Nor is this evaluation unimportant. Dissatisfaction with church organizations correlates significantly with low rates of church attendance. But when positive attitudes toward the local clergy are taken into account, that correlation disappears. It is not the Vatican or the chancery that is important to the laity. It is the performance of the local clergy. To paraphrase Tip O’Neill, all religion is local.
Twenty-seven percent of the Protestants rate their clergy as “excellent” on at least four items (of the five asked by the General Social Survey) as opposed to 17 percent of the Catholics. Similarly, 24 percent of the Catholics rate their clergy as fair or poor on at least four items as opposed to 17 percent of the Protestants. A quarter of the Catholic people think that their priests do a miserable job on almost all of their pastoral activities, and a sixth tell us that their priests are doing a fine job. There is little room for complacency in those findings. Some of our people have high respect for our performance. Most do not. Would it be too harsh to say that a quarter of the Catholic population think we’re slobs?
In the days long ago when I was in the seminary, we were told that we would be respected by our people, and we took it for granted that we would be. I am not so sure that this expectation is absent from the seminaries today. Indeed, if one is to believe those close to the seminary situation, the expectation of respect is at least as strong today as it was a half century ago.
I learned very quickly in my first assignment that respect was no longer given, save in a superficial way. It had to be earned by the display of professional competence. That is all the more true today.
Yet there is good news in the data: the strongest support for priests is to be found among the younger generation (just as it was in the Irish study on which I reported recently in this journal). There is a U curve relationship between age and positive rating of priests. The older and the younger are more likely to think of them as “excellent” than those in the middle years and are less likely to think of them as “fair or poor.” The strongest negative reactions and the weakest positive reactions are among those in their 40’s and 50’s (and, in the case of “excellence,” in their 60’s). Perhaps the young people still hope to find a good priest or have already found one, while the older people have given up in disgust, and the very oldest are the same people who voted for the quality of priestly preaching in the Catholic Digest study.
Perhaps the young people are still hopeful of finding a parish with a good priest. Or maybe they are involved with a college chaplain or someone who is in youth ministry. Whether they will grow more cynical about their priests with advancing years remains to be seen.
What is to be done?
• The seminaries must face the fact that they are not turning out well-trained professional clergy. They must realize that preaching is creative work and that some element of creativity should be required as a condition for ordination.
• Bishops must realize that it is idle to talk about evangelization when those in the neighborhoods who are supposed to evangelize do not, on average and with some happy exceptions, do a very good job of it.
• Priest organizations around the country, both local and national, should realize that their membership has a serious image problem and undertake programs to improve it.
• Individual priests, especially those who are reaching for a computer to write a letter of protest to this journal, should consider mailing the NORC questionnaire to their parish list. They might also think about reading a little more too.
It is possible to do research on the qualities that make for good preaching and good ministerial service, possible but complicated and expensive. Long ago I proposed such a study. Indeed, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin supported the idea in a letter to the American Board of Catholic Missions. It was never brought to a vote. Catholic foundations should ponder supporting such research. The Lilly Endowment might devote some of its funds to studying what makes a good preacher and a good minister.
One cannot escape the harsh fact that as a ministerial profession, the priesthood has very serious problems. They are not new. They did not develop yesterday or last year or even with the council (which gets blamed for everything these days). They will not go away tomorrow or the next day. The laity, who pay the bills, have a right to high quality priestly service, in strict commutative justice with the obligation of restitution. So too does the Lord Jesus, whom we purport to represent.
The clergy as a collectivity and priests as individuals may pretend that the problems are not there, but the ocean is washing over the beaches in whose sands we have buried our heads.