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Secret Life of Priests

By Kate Mannix

As a priest, I am learning to work through resistance to change in myself as well as change in the parish and in the diocesan community. It is important for the Church to be prepared to dialogue openly about controversial issues, not bury issues under pseudo 'unity' banners which in reality transform to uniformity and overt centralism. My well-being is enriched by being invited into dialogue. Invited into responsibility, being offered a vision to strive for...

- a parish priest, quoted in Catholic Priests in the New Millennium: the 2001 Australian Catholic church Life Survey of Priests in Parish Ministry

The curious thing about the report, Catholic Priests in the New Millenium: the 2001 Australian Catholic Church Life Survey of Priests in Parish Ministry, by Dr Georgia Jane Power, is why it was kept quiet.

The Report, commissioned by the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, was delivered some three weeks ago, a fact that might have gone unreported; despite its significance, the Bishops had no plans to release the Report for comment. The Report is an analysis of information gained in the 2001 Catholic Church Life Survey. It looks at the attitudes of Catholic clergy in parishes toward social and cultural change, and their own relationships with individuals, parishioners, bishops and colleagues. It elicits a view from priests about what the Church needs for a healthy future, and what they themselves need to feel supported, professionally and personally.

The Report's results are more remarkable for the fact that priests were invited to express an opinion than for anything especially extraordinary in the content of their views.

As reported in Online Catholics last week, 71% of priests disagree with celibacy as an obligation. Some 55% said that celibacy should be optional and a further 16% said that celibacy had had a negative effect on the Church. Given the high proportion of priests with reservations about celibacy, the Report finds that clergy then tend to make a ''personal decision" about how they translate this obligation into their daily lives and relationships.

Questions on sexual orientation were not included in the Survey, which is unfortunate given the evidence from outside Australia that homosexual people are found in proportionately higher numbers in the clergy than in the general population. However Dr Power was able to report that priests are very conscious of the strongly negative messages from the hierarchy toward homosexuals, which perpetuate a climate of 'ignorance and anxiety'. Priests were also worried about the (false) link between homosexuality and child abuse in the public's mind, and in the minds of Church leadership. What's clear is that there is an absence of useful thinking and strategies that would facilitate relationship between homosexual clergy and the Church, and homosexual clergy and the hierarchy.

A 'hot' issue from a hierarchical point of view perhaps, is that many priests expressed frustration at not being able to comment on public and controversial issues. As one priest wrote:

"The democratisation process (or lack thereof) is most frustrating. We don't have a consensus rule; policy-making and process of resolution of such diversity of opinions needs airing..."

Priests declared a clear preference for open discussion and debate, and indeed in the 'Enlightenment values' of Western democratic tradition. The refusal to countenance disagreement - indeed, the hierarchy's characterisation of disagreement as 'dissent' - means that priests now connect disagreement with a particular Church teaching and recurrent thoughts about resigning from the priesthood.

Dr Power believes that this 'take no prisoners' view "hinders the psychological and spiritual development of priests as they move toward attainment of an integrated identity and mature spirituality". It also prevents a whole and healthy relationship between priests and their diocesan authorities.

"Do your own thing"
A further effect arising from the lack of discussion and open disagreement is that priests tend to 'do their own thing'. They tend to interpret pastoral strategies personally and decide how such strategies will be effected in ministry. Because priests are then anxious that their decisions will not meet with approval, they seek to protect themselves by engendering a culture of secrecy.

(When we at Online Catholics discuss pastoral matters with local clergy, priests often speak of local pastoral ways of operating in the following terms: "That's the way we do things around here. But we don't try to export what we do..." This usually means two things: first, that they don't want a local practice reported (in case of a crackdown) and second, a genuine wish not to impose a local practice on another parish. As well as reinforcing secrecy, the lack of free discussion in ecclesial culture means that even good ideas are not shared.)

Clergy and their relationships: Bishops
There is an overwhelming feeling amongst priests of a lack of support from Bishops. Dr Power finds that Australian bishops relate 'negligably or not at all to priests, and that when they do, it is either more to priests as a group than as individuals'. There is clearly a link between thoughts of leaving the priesthood, and this perceived lack of support. Unresponsiveness from bishops is material to the need for improved priestly formation and personal growth.

Clergy and their relationships: personal
There is a serious lack of personal support for men in Catholic ministry. 67% of priests who cited another priest as their most important friendship said they had only seen that person twice a period of a month. For over half of the priests surveyed, another priest was their closest personal relationship. There is a close association with lack of personal support from friends and depression.

Older priests tended to have friendships with religious women, and younger priests with lay women.

Clergy and their relationships: parish
Most priests report that they regard themselves as in the right job, and in the right parish. Clergy wellbeing is directly connected to good relationships with parishioners and a high involvement with them. But priests also report that parishioners themselves can be demanding and therefore add to their emotional burden. One priest wrote:

"Parishioners expectations have risen. They're critical, they're articulate, they are looking for excellence in service, they're looking to participate, and they're looking for multi-skilled priests".

This, along with the reduction in moral authority of the priests following the worldwide sexual abuse scandals, leads to quite high levels of measureable stress. 30% of priests report 'fatigue and irritation most days'; 21% say they are less patient than they were and 18% say they are increasingly withdrawn from people to whom they minister.

Psychological health of parish priests
Dr Power found that the personality profile of priests differed on several important respects from a sample of men in the general population. Priests can be both much better - and much worse - than the rest of us in dealing with the stresses of their lives. 64% of priests have high 'Extraversion' scores, that is, strong psychological resources, positive emotions and satisfaction with their jobs. However 57% of priests also have high 'Neuroticism' scores. These people are subject to psychological and emotional distress, experience low self esteem, and lack satisfaction in their work. The Report recommends better provision of support to priests, both in their professional and personal lives.

Ironically given the hierarchical emphasis given to lay education at all levels, priests do not partipate in programmes designed for their further education or for their spiritual development. In 1996, only 31% had done two semesters or more during the last 10 years, and only 28% had undertaken a live-in renewal programme lasting two months or more. The Report does not make clear why this is so, but does say that priests acknowledge their need for further education.

The Secret Revealed
Along with the rest of us, priests want less paperwork and more time to do the job they signed up for. They want more nurture and acknowledgement from the boss, better training, and get great satisfaction from their 'work' communities, be they those to whom they minister or those who are their colleagues.

This Report also shows considerable agreement amongst priests about those matters that are also of concern to the laity. There is a desire for the people to participate in parish life and decision making, to free the priest for ministry. There is concern about the lack of dialogue and discussion in the Church, and the lack of preparedness by the institution to tolerate the change which is necessary for growth.

There are also issues particular to the Church and to this group. Priests, perhaps in greater numbers than amongst lay people, now believe that mandatory celibacy is no longer in the best interests of the Church: priests know that for Catholics it is the Sacrament that holds the Church together. Without a priest to ritually consecrate the Eucharist in the presence of the assembled community, the Church will suffer.

Of particular concern is the attitude of the Church to homosexuality and homosexual people, and not merely for the issues of justice it raises. Homosexual men are found in higher numbers in the clergy and in religious orders than in the population as a whole, with estimates between 30% to 60%. A conspiracy theorist might argue that institutional homophobia is an efficient method of keeping control over the workforce. No one wants to be 'outed'. But another generation of similarly inclined men with a vocation simply won't join up. Why spend your life protecting yourself from your own institution?

But it is the culture of self protection that in turn creates a culture of secrecy. This secret culture is the one that permits sexual abuse to flourish; that enablers abusers to avoid prosecution and indeed facilitates their continued ministry. It is the culture of secrecy that so characterizes Roman Catholicism in the present age, and with such devestating results.

Catholic Priests in the New Millennium: the 2001 Australian Catholic Church Life Survey of Priests in Parish Ministry is an important document because it shows that Australian priests and people are, in many ways, not so far apart in their thinking.

And perhaps that is why the Report was kept quiet.

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