Researcher Studies Why Priests Quit

By William Cleary
National Catholic Reporter
May 23, 2003

Resigning from the priesthood is commonplace today, but when I resigned in 1969, it invariably drew a gasp. It was like telling your companions on an airplane that you are about to open the cabin door and jump out.

It's different now, but in some ways even scarier. Today many priests leave after only a few years of service: nearly 9 percent in some studies. That shocked the U.S. hierarchy into commissioning this study -- which should have been titled Why Priests Leave. Hoge's team interviewed more than 500 recently ordained priests -- including many who left. Perhaps the troubling facts should have been simply circulated free to professionals. As a book for everyone, it needed more thorough editing and titling, and a lower price tag.

Still, it's a fascinating read: happy priests, miserable priests, every kind, all recently ordained. What I find bracing about Hoge's writing and research is that he is up front about hard questions. Early in his first chapter, he asks how many recently ordained priests are homosexual (perhaps up to 50 percent) or if gay priests persevere in greater numbers (yes). I also like his plain talk. In "guessing" about cultural trends, Hoge speaks of priestly "authority," then describes it as, "They can be counted on to know the mind of God." Another important question: How many believe ordination confers on the priest a new status that makes him essentially different from the laity? (Slightly more than half, all groups considered.)

The heart of Hoge's research discoveries was summarized in an article published in NCR some months ago: "Hoge found that between 20 percent and 30 percent of priests left because they fell in love with a woman. Another 20 percent to 30 percent left because they felt lonely and unappreciated and could not abide by mandatory celibacy. And between 6 and 15 percent left because they wanted an ‘open, long-term relationship' with another man. Between 30 and 40 percent left because they were disillusioned with their fellow priests or the hierarchy."

Newsworthy statistics these, hot off the press. Alas, it's ancient history. Hoge signed his preface in autumn 2001. In January 2002 the Boston sex abuse scandal broke and got Pulitzer prize-winning publicity there and nationwide thereafter. Nothing will ever be the same for priests or seminarians. Already, $350 million has been spent dealing with the scandal. Even people falsely accused still require hundreds of thousands of dollars (of church money) to defend themselves. And juries -- in the light of the avalanche of guilty pleas and hush money paid out -- will not be sympathetic.

Meanwhile the avalanche rumbles on. At the clergy abuse tracker on you can still see each day some 20 to 40 headlines and news stories of grisly new allegations, new law suits, new admissions, new apologies, new arrests, new manhunts for priests, including priests dragged back from Mexico, an elderly priest arrested at a retirement home in Florida, another caught on a ship in Alaska, one audiotaped for all to hear apologizing on his knees to his admitted victim. At you can read the names of more than 1,380 American priests alleged in the news to be guilty of crimes. There are 42 names just beginning with "A."

Is the profession destroyed? It may be. I am not exaggerating. David O'Brien -- who declared recently in Commonweal that 2002 was "a tragic year" for the Catholic church, and that 2003 may be worse -- speaks in a historian's perspective of "the smoldering ruins of Catholic life." Still, it continues to strike me that there is something natural and therapeutic about this phase of the clergy scandals: The boil has burst of its own pathology. The infection, shocking and repellent as it is, is coming to an end. The life-threatening progress of the infection is, we hope, over, and the healing forces in life itself are now at work: disclosure, cleansing, salve. Now we observe with our eyes the terrible depth of the illness, and we can be rid of it.

Everything in the book suggests celibacy is the issue. Of course. Never again should we make sex or sexuality the enemy: It is instead the path of knowledge and even of wisdom. Giving it all up leads nowhere, and may lead to illness, in fact, in my humble opinion. Reverencing the revelation in sexual experience takes us in the only direction we have left. As precarious as is that path, it is the only one forward. Celibacy is natural and valuable in many contexts, not in the religious one, even less for economic purposes. Plant such genetically engineered seed and it will yield bitter fruit indeed. Only now can we appreciate St. Paul's inspired wisdom in 1 Timothy 3, advising the church to choose leaders who already manage their own family and life affairs well. It's time to get back to that. Nothing less will work.

Fr. Richard McBrien was asked on a network television special recently: "Will mandatory celibacy survive another church council?" He replied without hesitation: "No." Then smiled: "It's toast."

You'll smell the smoke yourself when you read this.

William Cleary is author of Prayers For Lovers, published by Forest of Peace.


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