Both sides again

They say there are two sides to every story. Rachel Kohn demonstrated that with reference to the Blake Prize, and now this story from Zenit throws new light on the “Our Fathers” survey by Chris McGillion and John O’Carroll.

When “Our Fathers” was released, the spin on the Catholic priesthood in Australia was largely negative and anti-Church (cf. this program on Sunday Nights and a transcript here on my own blog). The US Study in the Zenit story actually returns data similar to “Our Fathers” (eg. 90% satisfaction and happiness with their life and role) but puts an entirely different spin on the result. The author, Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, says that:

There have been a number of studies in the United States over the last few years with exactly the same findings: About 90% of priests report that they are happy. In my study, it was 92.4%.

In a similar study, when the National Opinion Research Center recently conducted its scientific poll of 27,000 Americans, they found that clergy in general were the most satisfied and happiest of all Americans. This is especially remarkable since over 50% of Americans report being unhappy with their jobs. But this consistent and astounding finding of priestly happiness remains a secret.

Why? First of all, good news doesn’t make the news. Tragedies and scandals fill our front pages but the faces of our many happy priests do not. Second, and just as important, the secularization of our culture breeds a kind of negativism toward organized religion. There is a secular belief among some today that practicing the faith must be constraining and joyless.

Some modern thinkers suggest that the only way to true human happiness is to be freed from the constraints of religion. They see religion as repressive of one’s true human freedom and humanity. Thus, using this logic, being a priest must be the unhappiest life of all. Therefore, to hear that priests are among the happiest people in the country is met with disbelief.

On celibacy, an issue on which “Our Fathers” was particularly critical, Monsignor Rossetti says:

Those priests who felt called by God to live a celibate life and who experienced celibacy as a personal grace, despite its challenges, were much more likely to be happy men. The correlation between this positive view of celibacy and priestly happiness was a strong r=.47.

The good news here is that over 75% of priests have found celibacy to be a positive part of their lives. This percentage is likely to rise even higher in the future. It is the youngest priests who most strongly support mandatory celibacy.

So, contrary to a secular mentality, support for priestly celibacy will likely rise in the future among priests in the United States. It is disappearing as a “hot button” issue among priests in the United States. But this is challenging. It is one thing to accept celibacy as a necessary part of a priest’s life, but it requires a much deeper level of spirituality to experience celibacy as a gift from God and a personal grace. It requires a depth of living that is profound.

The trend towards a positive embrace of celibacy by younger priests is obviously challenging to Australian audiences, which is why McGillion and O’Carroll chose to focus on those dissatisfied with their celibate calling rather than the majority who are very comfortable with it.

And here Rossetti’s conclusion is spot on:

Interestingly enough, my research demonstrated that the most powerful predictor of inner peace is one’s relationship with God. The correlation was a large r=.55, which is a very strong correlation in social science research.

So, where does inner peace come from? When one has a solid relationship with God, there is much inner peace. Jesus promised us this gift. He said, “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”

It was exciting for me to see the truths of the Gospels displayed right in front of my eyes in these statistical findings. We find true and lasting peace only in God. And, of course, one’s reported relationship with God was strongly predictive of happiness as well. Again, there was a strong correlation (r=.53).

So we see our spiritual life as being a powerful contributor both to inner peace and personal happiness. If there is so much violence and unhappiness in our world today, where does it come from? My findings suggest that we will never find the inner peace and joy that we are searching for until we find a personal relationship with God. Most of our priests have found such a relationship, and they are happy men because of it.

The solution, as the Pope repeatedly told the Germans on his recent visit, is not in structural but in inner change:

Behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in a living God? We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit. I would add: the real crisis facing the Church in the western world is a crisis of faith. If we do not find a way of genuinely renewing our faith, all structural reform will remain ineffective.”

My conclusion? If priests are unhappy as celibates, marriage is unlikely to make them any happier in their role as priests. The call to priesthood is a call to a profound relationship with Christ and his people, and it is that relationship which is the key to their “happiness” and “job satisfaction”, not any change to their domestic status.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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