Pope John Paul II, whose 15-year reign over the Roman Catholic Church has been marked by repeated efforts to restore orthodoxy, may now be succeeding in attracting a new crop of more conservative priests to carry the church into the next millennium.

Although it is too early to say whether there is a sustained drift toward orthodoxy, younger priests are clearly more religiously orthodox and politically conservative than middle-aged priests, according to a nationwide poll of priests by The Times.

Ordained during the pontificate of John Paul, they are less supportive of ordaining women and allowing priests to marry than are middle-aged priests, and they are less tolerant of married couples using artificial birth control or surrogate birth mothers to bring a child to term.

On other moral issues, such as euthanasia, abortion or sexual relations outside of marriage, both younger and middle-aged priests tend to be orthodox in their thinking. Only the oldest priests are more conservative.

In the political arena, nearly 40% of priests 35 and younger consider themselves conservative--almost double the percentage between the ages of 36 and 50. Moreover, the youngest priests are twice as likely to identify with the Republican Party (35%) than are priests in general (16%).

The findings from the poll of 2,087 Roman Catholic priests and 1,049 Roman Catholic nuns appear to validate results in recent church-sponsored polls that point to greater conservatism among new priests.

"The pattern is there in dozens of questions on the poll indicating that the traditional character of the 15-year pontificate of John Paul II is clearly affecting the selection, or self-selection process, for new candidates for ordination," Times Poll Director John Brennan said.

The findings are among a wealth of information on how priests and nuns view their church--its strengths, its problems and its future.

Overall, significant majorities of priests and nuns are happy in their calling, would take their vows again if they had a choice and think well of John Paul's job performance.

"Honest to God," wrote a self-described liberal 61-year-old priest from the Northeast, "I am still extremely excited about the gift of faith, the life it gives and sustains, the peace beyond all telling (beyond Rome). What a comfort. I'm proud to share."

But even though the vast majority of priests appear to be happy with their lives, they are less sanguine about the institutional church in the United States.

Fifty-three percent of all priests believe it is weaker than it was 30 years ago; 29% say it is stronger. Another 10% say the strength of the church is about the same.

A bare majority of priests--54%--call things in the church excellent or good, whereas 43% say they're not so good or poor. Nuns are more pessimistic still, with 51% assessing things as not so good or poor, compared to 44% who believe things are good or excellent.

Priests are fairly evenly divided between those who say things are getting better (31%) and worse (33%), with 25% saying things are about the same.

When asked what the greater danger for the church is these days, 42% said it was the excessive desire to please secular and humanistic forces in society; 28% said it was resistance to reform of moral doctrines.

The poll found that a disproportionate number of priests (95%) are white at a time when the ethnic diversity of the church in the United States is demanding new approaches to ministry. However, 24% of all priests now speak Spanish, with more than two of five priests 35 or younger speaking that language.

Although the number of Catholics continues to grow, priests and nuns say when people leave the church they do so because of both shortcomings by the institutional church, the influence of materialism and secular culture, and a lack of faith and commitment by individuals.

But perhaps the most intriguing finding has to do with a possible drift toward orthodoxy by the newest and youngest of priests.

They are more conservative as a group than are middle-aged priests, who were ordained and matured in the priesthood during the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council ushered in an era of renewal and reform within the church.