The National Catholic Review

In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, more than a few people, including priests, are convinced that the morale of priests is bad. In a letter dated Dec. 12, 2003, 69 priests of the Archdiocese of New York wrote to Cardinal Edward Egan, “We need to tell you again what you already know; the morale of the New York presbyterate is at an all-time low.” Such sentiments have surfaced in other dioceses as well. Given the pounding that priests have taken in the media over the last couple of years, low morale would not be surprising. In addition to reporting the sexual deviances of a few priests over the past 50 years, the media at times have intimated that the priesthood itself is dysfunctional and prone to sexual problems and that priests are poorly prepared, living in an unhealthy clerical environment, stunted by celibacy and generally in bad shape. No wonder people are saying priests’ morale is bad.

 

But is it really? To collect data on morale, I passed out a written survey at nine diocesan convocations of clergy between September 2003 and January 2004. Two more dioceses mailed the survey to their priests in February and March of 2004. The dioceses surveyed ranged from coast to coast and included some of those hardest hit by the crisis.

A total of 834 priests responded, 725 diocesan priests and 109 religious priests, the latter ministering in the dioceses. The total represented about 64 percent of all priests in the 11 dioceses. Since this study was conducted after the media crisis had waned in most areas, it should provide a good sampling of how priests are feeling in the wake of the crisis.

Satisfaction Is Strong and Consistent

In this survey, the priests were given a statement, “Overall, I am happy as a priest.” Of the 834 priests, 92 percent either agreed or strongly agreed. Only 6 percent were thinking of leaving the priesthood. When asked if they would do it all over again and join the priesthood, 83 percent said yes. These are very positive results.

Priestly satisfaction rates in previous surveys have also been high. A pre-crisis study of over 1,200 priests in 2001 was sponsored by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (Evolving Visions of the Priesthood, Liturgical Press, 2003). The results were similar: only 5 percent reported they were thinking of leaving the priesthood; 88 percent said they would choose priesthood again; and 94 percent said they were currently either very happy or pretty happy.

In the midst of the crisis, The Los Angeles Times conducted its own survey of 1,854 priests, which it published on Oct. 20 and 21, 2002. At that time, 91 percent of the priests were satisfied with the “way your life as a priest is going these days,” and 90 percent said they would do it all over again.

In the pre-crisis N.F.P.C. study, when asked more specifically about what they found of “great importance” as a source of priestly satisfaction, 90 percent endorsed “joy of administering the sacraments and presiding over liturgy,” 80 percent endorsed “satisfaction of preaching the word,” and 67 percent endorsed “opportunity to work with many people and be a part of their lives.” In my own post-crisis survey, 92 percent of the priests endorsed the statement, “Overall, I feel fulfilled ministering as a priest.”

In short, priests like doing what priests do and find great satisfaction in it. Their lives are filled with sacraments, preaching and being with the people; and they find it intensely rewarding. This was true before the crisis; it was true during the crisis; and it is true after the crisis.

Priests Assess Their Own Morale

Since morale is a subjective personal perspective, I asked the priests directly to rate their own morale. Given the statement, “My morale is good,” a strong 83 percent of the priests agreed. And despite the intense media scourging, 84 percent endorsed the statement, “I am proud to be a priest today.”

But when priests were asked about the morale of other priests, there was a precipitious drop. Given the statement, “Morale in the priesthood is good,” the endorsement rate dropped to 40 percent. Apparently priests believe that other priests are hurting and suffering because of the crisis.

The crisis has indeed taken some measurable toll on priests. When asked if they feel that “people now look at [you] with suspicion,” 29 percent of those surveyed said yes.

While the crisis has not caused a large majority of priests to say that their own morale is bad, it has been a source of pain for priests in general and for some in particular, and it has surfaced issues that negatively affect morale. What are some of these painful issues for today’s priests?

Relationship With Authority

Much of the recent criticism has focused on bishops. The priests surveyed were given the statement: “The church crisis has negatively affected my view of church leadership.” Fifty-three percent agreed. Clearly, the crisis has hurt priests’ perceptions of church leadership in general. But when speaking about their own bishops, the results were strongly positive. Three quarters said, “I have a good relationship with my bishop;” 66 percent “approve of the way my bishop is leading the diocese;” and 75 percent agree with the statement, “Overall, I am satisfied with my bishop.” In assessing approval rates for people in authority, such percentages are high. For example, in a recent CNN poll of 5,000 adult workers in the United States (3/24/03), only 43 percent said they were “happy with their current boss.”

On the other hand, only 26 percent of surveyed priests believed that “priests with allegations of abuse are being treated fairly by the church,” and only 43 percent believe that they will be dealt with fairly if they are accused of misconduct. As one priest said, “I am one phone call away from the rest of my life being over.” Whether this is an accurate perception or not, it is important, because it threatens the bond of trust between bishop and priest.

Vocations, Workload and Morale

Any discussion of priestly morale today ought to take into account the concerns priests have about being overloaded with work. Ministry has always been a kind of “bottomless pit.” But this bottomless pit has become even more threatening with the recent declining numbers of priests and increasing numbers of Catholics. When given the statement, “I feel overwhelmed with the amount of work I have to do,” 45 percent of the priests agreed.

But priests are still strong supporters of vocations. When given the personal statement, “If I had a nephew, I would encourage him to become a priest,” 74 percent of the priest sample agreed. And 74 percent said they actively encourage prospects to become priests. This is another strong sign of positive morale. People who are negative about their vocations are unlikely to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. In surveys done by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 78 percent of the newly ordained report that before they entered the seminary, a priest had directly asked them to consider priesthood. This direct encouragement of vocations by priests is an important vocational tool.

Some in the public believe that priestly morale is bad and that the life of a priest is lonely and unfulfilling. This negative perception certainly has a detrimental influence on vocations. But surveys of morale suggest that this perception is not true. I suspect that priestly satisfaction rates are as high as in any profession, if not higher. For example, in the previously cited CNN poll of 5,000 Americans, only 63 percent said they were “happy with their current job,” as opposed to 90 percent of the priests in this survey, who said they were happy in their current ministry. Perhaps one of the most needed vocational tools is to get the word out about how satisfied our priests are.

When asked if they believe their lives and ministries as priests make a difference in the world, 90 percent said yes. When given the statement, “I am committed to the ministry of the Catholic Church,” the response was almost unanimous: 96 percent said yes. In the end, our priests believe that their lives are well spent and make a difference in other people’s lives. Many of our young people are looking for just such a life. They want their lives to matter, and they would be blessed to be introduced to a life of priestly service.

Celibacy and Morale

Mandatory celibacy has long been named as a sore spot in priestly morale. Only slightly more than half in this current survey, 55 percent, endorsed the statement, “I support the requirement that priests live a celibate life.” But only a small portion of the priest sample, 17 percent, indicated that they would marry if given the chance. And 70 percent said, “Celibacy has been a positive experience for me.” Thus, when assessing their own celibate lives, a clear majority remain appreciative and contented. Imagine giving the following statement to married couples throughout the United States: “Marriage has been a positive experience for me.” Would 70 percent say yes?

Summary

The overall morale of priests in this country is high. Priests themselves say that their own morale is good. And these high rates of satisfaction have been consistent over several years and different surveys. Priesthood is a rewarding life that offers much satisfaction. At the end of the day, priests know from their own experience that their lives and ministry make a difference in the world.

This is not to say that our priests are not facing serious challenges. Many feel overwhelmed with the amount of work. Also, in the wake of the crisis, some priests believe they are now being viewed with suspicion. Priests report having a good personal relationship with their own bishops, and a strong majority approve of their leadership. But most priests do not trust the current process for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.

Despite all that has happened, these men are resilient and are proud to be priests today.

There is one other factor that might help to account for the enduring satisfaction and happiness of our priests. In this survey, 95 percent professed to have a “personal relationship with God (or Jesus) that is nourishing to me.” We are blessed to have such strong men of faith serving the people of God.

The Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., is a psychologist and a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc committee on child sexual abuse.

Comments

Fred McGunagle | 9/14/2004 - 3:37pm
Steven J. Rossetti's article (8/2) is a welcome corrective to stereotypes about priests. But his headline --"Post-Crisis Morale Among Priests" -- is a disservice.

The crisis to which it alludes is far from "post." Thousands of survivors bear its scars every day, and the church which sent them their betrayers reaches out to few of them. Hundreds of accused priests are in limbo, neither dismissed nor exonerated. Millions of dollars in lawsuits hang over dioceses, with most bishops content to leave them to their successors and others filing dilatory motions to wear out the accusers.

In particular, the lack of openness and accountability that made possible the bishop coverup scandal continues, allowing who knows what other scandals to fester in the dark. Until the crisis is truly "post," how can morale of priests and parishioners alike recover? As long as bishops don't trust the people, how can they expect the people to trust them?

Mrs. Anne Kerrigan | 9/3/2004 - 11:19am
Why doesn't Fr.Rossetti write an article on "Post Crisis Morale Among the Laity?" After all, it has been our children who have been abused due, in large part, to some priests who ignored such activity and the Bishops who knowingly transferred abusers. What about our perspective on this scandal? The Spirit speaks through the laity also and so we should be heard. But,one can only be heard when someone else is listening. Otherwise, the speaker whistles in the wind. Hopefully, some of you out there have Bishops who listen and who act as servant leaders, actively working at healing the wounds inflicted as a result of this sex abuse crisis. The ones who were abused are not the only victims. Mrs. Anne Kerrigan Diocese of Rockville Centre, NY

Msgr. Harry J. Byrne | 9/17/2004 - 10:43pm
"Post-Crisis Morale Among Priests” (AMERICA 9-13-04) assumes that if a priest is happy in his work, his overall morale is good. Not so! A good golfer enjoys his or her well-played rounds on the links while, at the same time, being dismayed at the policy-making process of the USGA and an autocratic board of governors at his local club.

As an octogenarian priest, I have been happy in my fifty-nine years of priestly ministry, the last eight as retired Weekend Associate in a wide-awake parish. But I and countless others are dismayed at overall church governance with its ever-increasing centralization of authority and a “creeping infallibilism” and, on the other hand, local governance isolated from effective participation of the presbyterite in agenda and policy formation.

On the ministry level, a priest can be happy; on the organizational level, the morale of the club may be poor.

Rev. Joseph N. Sestito | 9/17/2004 - 10:18am
Father Rossetti's questioning of priests' relationships with their bishops bears further investigation. With the divide that has occurred since Vatican II between the hierarchy and the lower clergy -who have become much closer to the laity - and especially since the "selling out" that many priests feel since the Dallas Charter, many of the "lower clergy" interpret a "good relationship with the bishop" to mean "He's really not too relevant to my ministry and life. He's there in the chancery, and so long as I keep him off my back and happy we get along".
Fr. Larry N. Lorenzoni, S.D.B. | 9/4/2004 - 4:36pm
I am an admirer of Fr. Stephen J. Rossetti and of his work: we still remember with gratitude his valued contributions to the Salesian Communities of our own San Francisco Province.

His recent research and the generally positive results of his study "Post-crisis Morale Among Priests" (9/13)is a welcome needed feather on our Catholic cap.

Yet, I'm struggling with a lingering doubt about the unquestioned validity of the published answers. I'm referring to the subliminal desire on the part of some of us priests, especially today, to make our Church look good, also through the published results of surveys we are asked to respond to.

I fear that this subconscious desire might have colored some of the priests' replies, a forgivable effort to contribute in some small personal way to the survey's overall positive tone. I am thinking of the old San Quentin prisoners' survey. From their answers, most of the men were innocent.

David E. Pasinski | 2/19/2007 - 5:12pm
The Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti’s optimistic opinion of priestly morale issues seems to be based on a questionable methodology and a bias toward a desired outcome (9/13). From what I know of sampling, he has taken a survey of willing participants, which may or may not reflect the presbyterate in those dioceses, let alone the nation. Perhaps he had professional assistance in the development of the survey and in interpretation that he does not cite, but as it appears, a 64 percent return rate—while possibly quite high—is a self-selection that leaves out a third, who may be quite disenfranchised from the whole process!

He betrays a certain bias throughout from his remarks minimizing “sexual deviances of a few priests over the past 50 years” (4 to 6 percent acknowledged is not a minimal number) to his contrast of “70 percent said that celibacy has been positive” with married couples’ rates of satisfaction, which he rather derisively speculates is less. The latter remark seems particularly gratuitous and is simply not a good comparison without many qualifiers.

Finally, even in this sample, if one in six say that their own morale is not good, one in six likewise say they would marry if they could, one in three who do not think of celibacy as positive, and one of three do not have a good relationship with their bishops, there are far more issues at play than this interpretation admits. This is not a one-third empty, two-thirds full type of issue, considering the nature of the priesthood and the needs of the church.

Kristeen A. Bruun | 2/19/2007 - 5:10pm
First, let me say to Valerie Schultz, “I feel your pain” (9/13). I raised a fine young man in a lifestyle that centered around the church, but he no longer practices or claims the faith. I was a parish professional, with various titles, for 20 years. Sometimes I think that was precisely the problem. Because of my work, he got too close and saw too much. Every unjust occurrence became part of our living room conversation. Once when we were discussing vocations, he shot back at me, “Mom, are you crazy? Don’t you think I know how they treat you? Don’t you think I know who makes you cry? Why would I want to become one of them?”

“Post-Crisis Morale Among Priests,” by the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, (9/13) was interesting. Because of my aforementioned 20 years in parish ministry, some of my best friends (as the cliché goes) are priests. I do not know of one who has not been negatively affected by the scandal. The fact that they feel confirmed in their vocations does not mean they haven’t struggled and suffered. The support of the people is supposed to be one of the greatest strengths of priests, especially of the diocesan clergy, so one of the most difficult aspects of the past several years is the distance and uneasiness that the scandal has created between priests and people. Not that priests as priests are necessarily held in suspicion. But out of self-protection, priests have created new boundaries.Their sense of isolation is profound.

Last year, one of my friends traveled to Mexico to visit the home village of some of his parishioners. Upon returning, he remarked on the warmth and affection expressed toward him by the villagers. “There was no way to explain to them how different things are up here,” he said. “So I decided to just relax and enjoy it.” That he even had to think about the issue illustrates the profound difference created by the scandal, along with our response to it.

Even for layfolk, things are different. New regulations abound, like “No adult should ever be alone with a group of children. All formation groups, no matter how small, require two teachers or a teacher and an aide.” The regulations are prudent (I’m not arguing against them; if they protect one child from harm, they are worth it), but they create a sense of caution and distance that was not there before.

Something is seriously wrong with the sampling techniques or the questions, or both, if surveys do not reflect the sadness and loss within the hearts and souls of many, if not most priests, and lay church workers as well. Most of us have experienced a seismic shift in our pastoral relationships, and things for us will never be the same. Before we can embrace the new reality, perhaps we need to grieve for the innocence of our past, gone now forever.

Fred McGunagle | 9/14/2004 - 3:37pm
Steven J. Rossetti's article (8/2) is a welcome corrective to stereotypes about priests. But his headline --"Post-Crisis Morale Among Priests" -- is a disservice.

The crisis to which it alludes is far from "post." Thousands of survivors bear its scars every day, and the church which sent them their betrayers reaches out to few of them. Hundreds of accused priests are in limbo, neither dismissed nor exonerated. Millions of dollars in lawsuits hang over dioceses, with most bishops content to leave them to their successors and others filing dilatory motions to wear out the accusers.

In particular, the lack of openness and accountability that made possible the bishop coverup scandal continues, allowing who knows what other scandals to fester in the dark. Until the crisis is truly "post," how can morale of priests and parishioners alike recover? As long as bishops don't trust the people, how can they expect the people to trust them?

Mrs. Anne Kerrigan | 9/3/2004 - 11:19am
Why doesn't Fr.Rossetti write an article on "Post Crisis Morale Among the Laity?" After all, it has been our children who have been abused due, in large part, to some priests who ignored such activity and the Bishops who knowingly transferred abusers. What about our perspective on this scandal? The Spirit speaks through the laity also and so we should be heard. But,one can only be heard when someone else is listening. Otherwise, the speaker whistles in the wind. Hopefully, some of you out there have Bishops who listen and who act as servant leaders, actively working at healing the wounds inflicted as a result of this sex abuse crisis. The ones who were abused are not the only victims. Mrs. Anne Kerrigan Diocese of Rockville Centre, NY

Msgr. Harry J. Byrne | 9/17/2004 - 10:43pm
"Post-Crisis Morale Among Priests” (AMERICA 9-13-04) assumes that if a priest is happy in his work, his overall morale is good. Not so! A good golfer enjoys his or her well-played rounds on the links while, at the same time, being dismayed at the policy-making process of the USGA and an autocratic board of governors at his local club.

As an octogenarian priest, I have been happy in my fifty-nine years of priestly ministry, the last eight as retired Weekend Associate in a wide-awake parish. But I and countless others are dismayed at overall church governance with its ever-increasing centralization of authority and a “creeping infallibilism” and, on the other hand, local governance isolated from effective participation of the presbyterite in agenda and policy formation.

On the ministry level, a priest can be happy; on the organizational level, the morale of the club may be poor.

Rev. Joseph N. Sestito | 9/17/2004 - 10:18am
Father Rossetti's questioning of priests' relationships with their bishops bears further investigation. With the divide that has occurred since Vatican II between the hierarchy and the lower clergy -who have become much closer to the laity - and especially since the "selling out" that many priests feel since the Dallas Charter, many of the "lower clergy" interpret a "good relationship with the bishop" to mean "He's really not too relevant to my ministry and life. He's there in the chancery, and so long as I keep him off my back and happy we get along".
Fr. Larry N. Lorenzoni, S.D.B. | 9/4/2004 - 4:36pm
I am an admirer of Fr. Stephen J. Rossetti and of his work: we still remember with gratitude his valued contributions to the Salesian Communities of our own San Francisco Province.

His recent research and the generally positive results of his study "Post-crisis Morale Among Priests" (9/13)is a welcome needed feather on our Catholic cap.

Yet, I'm struggling with a lingering doubt about the unquestioned validity of the published answers. I'm referring to the subliminal desire on the part of some of us priests, especially today, to make our Church look good, also through the published results of surveys we are asked to respond to.

I fear that this subconscious desire might have colored some of the priests' replies, a forgivable effort to contribute in some small personal way to the survey's overall positive tone. I am thinking of the old San Quentin prisoners' survey. From their answers, most of the men were innocent.