Amid Questions, Priests, Nuns Back Key Doctrine

Times Religion Writer

At a time when Pope John Paul II is calling on wayward Roman Catholics to hew closely to church teaching, a significant number of priests and nuns in the United States are questioning many of the church's edicts.

Celibacy for priests, the Vatican's opposition to the ordination of women, and its prohibition against artificial birth control are as likely to be disputed by priests and nuns as supported, The Times Poll has found.

But despite dissent over certain issues--none of which go to the doctrinal core of Catholic faith--priests and nuns are highly selective in challenging moral teachings or traditions.

By overwhelming majorities, priests and nuns are in accord with their church in its opposition to abortion, assisting in euthanasia, sexual relations between unmarried couples, relations outside marriage, homosexual behavior and marriages between homosexual couples.

And unlike members of the laity, priests and nuns view moral and spiritual issues--not economic concerns--as the greatest problem facing the country and families today.

Loyalty to the church as an institution is high among both groups, and contrary to popular perceptions, so is their morale. When asked if they would take their vows again, 87% of priests and 88% of nuns said they would. Although 59% of priests say that the church should ordain married priests, only 15% said they would wed if permitted. The American media's coverage of the church was considered too negative by 84% of priests and 71% of nuns.

Although there was wider disagreement over whether the Pope is too conservative on moral issues, he earned high ratings for his overall job performance. A 74% majority of priests and 70% of nuns approve of the way John Paul is handling his duties as Pope. Local bishops or the superiors of orders earned similar marks.

"The good news is that the much-advertised morale crisis in the priesthood affects only a small number of priests. The bad news is that a large proportion of the Catholic clergy do not accept many of the sexual teachings on which the present papacy has placed great emphasis," Father Andrew Greeley, a Catholic sociologist and author at the University of Chicago, said after analyzing The Times' data.

The results are based on written responses from 2,087 Roman Catholic priests and 1,049 Roman Catholic nuns in dioceses across the United States, including Puerto Rico--a 42% return. The survey, which was self-administered and anonymous, was conducted by mail from September, 1993, through January. The margin of sampling error for the priests' survey is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for nuns it is plus or minus 4 points.

The poll sparked controversy even before it was completed. Shortly after the questionnaires were sent out, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, publicly accused the newspaper of preparing to engage in "the American media's favorite pastime--Catholic-bashing." Mahony said he was particularly offended by questions dealing with sexual issues.

Three independent experts, however, said the Times' data is credible and significant. Although they noted that the 42% return rate was lower than some previous samples and could result in some bias, they did not consider it a serious problem. Church sociologist Dean Hoge of Catholic University of America in Washington said: "If there is a bias, it's not a serious bias. . . . There is nothing in this poll which is so far off as to make me doubt the validity of the data."

The striking selectivity with which priests and nuns pick and choose among church teachings and traditions comes at a time when John Paul has issued a ringing denunciation of what has come to be called cafeteria Catholicism.

Calling it a genuine crisis, the pontiff underscored his alarm in August when he issued what was described as the most important encyclical of his pontificate, "Veritatis Splendor," or "Splendor of the Truth." In it, John Paul warned of "an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine."

But in the United States, the Times Poll indicates that Catholic bishops will not have an easy time carrying out the uncompromising directive embodied in "Veritatis Splendor": "To be vigilant that the word of God is faithfully taught" and that Jesus' commandments and teachings be "reverently preserved, faithfully expounded and correctly applied in different times and places."

More than other factors, the poll found that priests and nuns were divided in their views by their age and whether they classify themselves as religious liberals, moderates or conservatives.

One out of five priests--21%--say they frequently counsel Catholics to follow a course of action that contradicts official church teaching on morals, the poll found. Among priests age 35 and younger, 27% do so, as do 29% of priests between the ages of 36 and 50. The oldest priests are the most orthodox, with only 10% saying they frequently offer advice that conflicts with church teaching.

Despite the Pope's insistence that contraception is an "intrinsically evil" act that cannot be mitigated by circumstances, the Times Poll found that 44% of priests and nuns believe that artificial birth control for married couples is seldom or never a sin, while 49% of priests and 37% of nuns said it is always or often a sin.

The use of condoms as protection against AIDS was seen as always or often a sin by 46% of priests and 33% of nuns, but 41% of priests and 42% of nuns held that it was seldom or never a sin. In contrast, 16% of Catholic laity believe that using condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS is wrong, according to a CNN/USA Today Gallup Poll conducted in August.

The Times also found that 84% of priests believe that premarital sex is always or often a sin. In the August Gallup poll, 48% of rank-and-file Catholics said sex outside marriage was always wrong.

There are many reasons there is dissent over moral teachings, among them the influence of the media and the general secularization of American Catholics by the larger culture. But another, in the Pope's view, has been wrong-thinking theologians.

Although the Pope sternly suggested in the encyclical that dissenting Catholic theologians should be barred from teaching in Catholic institutions, priests surveyed by The Times were almost evenly divided over whether U.S. bishops should issue a formal declaration of rights for dissenting American Catholic theologians. Forty-two percent of priests and 44% of nuns favored such a declaration.

"Poll after poll has documented this drift away from moral orthodoxy among American Catholics," Times Poll Director John Brennan said. "The current samples indicate on many moral issues, priests and nuns themselves are divided when it comes to loyalty to church teaching."

Last year, the Gallup poll found that 73% of all Catholics said a person could be a good Catholic without obeying the church's teachings on birth control.

The Times found that 58% of priests and 65% of nuns agree that Roman Catholics may disagree with some of the church's teachings and still be considered faithful. The fact that priests and nuns may sometimes dissent from what the church considers orthodox teaching does not necessarily make them rebels.

Although it is true that John Paul has placed great emphasis on the primacy of the church's moral teachings in deciding between good and evil, Catholic tradition has also taught the importance of an individual's conscience in making such choices.

The conscience factor may explain in part why 21% of priests say they frequently counsel Catholics to follow a course that contradicts church moral teaching, for example, on birth control.

"It's not a great transgression on the part of a priest to recognize that the conscience may be a moral voice, even in a situation that seems to conflict with church teachings," said Hoge of the Life Cycle Institute, a religious research group at Catholic University of America.

The key, Hoge said, is that the conscience be "well formed" so that it can be a truthful guide instead of seeking selfish ends. Conscience, John Paul warned in his encyclical, "is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes."

Father Robert M. Friday, a moral theologian at Catholic University of America, said:

"In (sexual) areas, very often people have formed a conscience, say on questions of contraception. They take seriously what the church has said but have also found at a deep level of their own experience and conscience that there are other conflicting values," Friday said. "They believe--not just feel--that in order to be faithful to God and to their commitments to a spouse or their children that they need to (use) contraceptives."

At that point, in that situation, Friday said, he would explain the church teaching, and ask if they understand the authority of the teaching. Ultimately, he said, he must tell them to follow their consciences.

"That's not saying it's OK to (use) contraceptives or it's OK to have an abortion," Friday said, "but you must follow your conscience."

But not all priestly advice or decisions by members of the laity that conflict with church moral teaching can be explained by an appeal to conscience. "One must note," Greeley said, "that on these issues the official church has little credibility, even among its priests, and the efforts in the present pontificate to restore that credibility do not seem to have been particularly successful."

On other sexual issues, priests and nuns are decidedly more doctrinaire than those to whom they minister. On abortion, a substantial majority--91% of priests and 79% of nuns--say it is always or often a sin.

By comparison, a Gallup poll survey published in October by the National Catholic Reporter said that 56% of Catholic women say a person can be a good Catholic without obeying the church's restrictive teachings on abortion, up from 34% in a 1987 poll by that newspaper.

By a decisive 80% to 14% margin, priests would oppose any church-sanctioned marriage between homosexuals. Nuns oppose such unions 72% to 14%.

The Pope is confronted by dissident priests and nuns on institutional as well as moral questions.

Despite John Paul's oft-stated insistence on an all-male priesthood, 57% of all nuns and 44% of all priests support the ordination of women.

This compares to 63% of Catholic laity who favor women as priests, the Gallup poll reported in August.

Despite their support for the idea of women's ordination, 89% of the nuns said they would not seek it for themselves.

Priests generally oppose female ordination, even though 69% said they would like to see sexism formally declared a sin by U.S. bishops.

Eight in 10 priests who are religious liberals favor ordaining women, but majorities of moderates and conservatives oppose it. Priests ages 36 to 50 favor the idea by 60% to 35% but priests 35 and younger are divided 46% to 48%.

"Clearly many priests are unhappy with the status of women in the church and desirous of a more aggressive posture against societal sexism. But those feelings do not necessarily translate into support for women clergy," Brennan said. Only 47% of priests rate the status of nuns in the church as good.

Sister Jeannine Gramick of Baltimore, a board member of the unofficial Women's Ordination Conference, said that strong support among women for ending an all-male priesthood is a plea for equality.

"Women really are taking very seriously the whole idea of equality of women in the church," Gramick said. "They see ordination as a prime example of how women are treated as second-class citizens in the church."

When it comes to celibacy, the Pope has steadfastly opposed allowing priests to marry. But 59% of priests and 66% of nuns say that priests should be allowed to marry. The idea is particularly popular with religious liberals, moderates and middle-age clergy.

The majorities of priests and nuns favoring married priests are not as large as the 75% of Catholic laity who favor the change, according to Gallup's August survey.

Although a majority of priests support the idea of married priests, only 15% said they would wed if the church allowed it--an indication that at least for most current priests, celibacy is not that big an issue for them personally.

The poll suggests that marriage could be instrumental in holding a few disaffected priests in the church, but the numbers would be relatively small. Three in five priests who are dissatisfied with their lives would still not marry if given the chance, while 35% would contemplate marriage.

Among priests who would marry if they could, 58% still say it is unlikely they will ever leave the priesthood. Just 19% of those desiring marriage are contemplating abandoning their vocation.

There was additional evidence of the relative lack of importance of celibacy to priests. When asked to identify their top personal challenge, 3% listed celibacy as the top problem for them. Of those generally dissatisfied with their lives, 6% said celibacy was a big problem. That put the issue way down the list of personal challenges--below maintaining their spiritual life, dealing with the influence of materialism and secular culture on the laity, and finding the time to meet all the demands made of them.

Greeley said the high morale factor calls into question not only the public's image of an unhappy priesthood, but a widely held assumption among priests that many of their colleagues are disgruntled.

"The much-heralded morale crisis seems almost nonexistent," Greeley said.

Why then are not more men becoming priests? "It's a puzzling thing, isn't, it," Hoge of Catholic University said. "I was told years ago that happy priests beget priests. . . . I don't know what the problem is."

Two priests who volunteered to be interviewed--one who said he would marry and another who said he would not even if the church allowed it--agreed that optional celibacy would aid in recruiting men to the priesthood.

Father Victor Lynch, 28, was ordained two years ago and serves at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Bloomfield, N.J. He said he would probably get married if the church allowed it. Married priests, he said, would be a blessing to the church.

Father Maurice Larochelle, 34, pastor of All Saints Parish in Lancaster, N.H., said he would not marry. "I love being a priest and love being celibate," he said. "I had a healthy dating experience before becoming a priest, but I made a choice and I honor that choice. To tell you the truth, with the life I lead now, I don't know if I could divide my time between a wife and kids and the church." But I think some people could do it. That would be wonderful and that would be a good addition to the priesthood in general."

How the Poll Was Conducted

This Times Poll is based on interviews with 2,087 Roman Catholic priests and 1,049 Roman Catholic nuns in dioceses across the United States, including Puerto Rico. The survey was conducted by mail from September 1993 through January 1994. It represents the response to a mailing of 5,000 questionnaires to priests in 80 dioceses and 2,500 to women religious in 45 dioceses. The samples of dioceses were chosen from a list which gives the total number of priests and nuns in all dioceses nationwide. Respondents within targeted dioceses were then chosen randomly from available lists. The questionnaires were self-administered and anonymous, though some respondents volunteered to be interviewed and quoted by name. Both samples were weighted slightly to account for variations in the number of responses received from each diocese.

The demographics of both surveys have been examined by academic experts in the field of priests and nuns sociology and have been found comparable to previous research in this area. The margin of sampling error for the survey of priests is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for the survey of nuns it is plus or minus 4 points. In both polls, results based on subgroups may have a somewhat higher sampling error. Results to polls can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the reluctance of some respondents to participate in surveys.

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