Mind the Gap

The Return of the Lay-Clerical Divide

Recent studies point to a growing gap between the way American Catholic laypeople and priests understand their roles in the church. What is the nature of this divergence, and why has it developed?

In the years before Vatican II, most laypeople understood their role as a rather passive one and tended to hold a “cultic” view of the clergy-that is, they viewed priests as a leadership group set apart both spiritually and in terms of administration and authority. The laity believed that they occupied a status lower than priests, that their own role was largely advisory, and that priests were the real decision-makers. Laypeople were called to “pray, pay, and obey.”

Those views have been changing in the past fifty years. Laypeople have gradually come to believe that they are as important a part of the church as priests are, that they too should be actively involved in all aspects of church life, and that priests should welcome their participation. In other words, the passive model has been supplanted by a more active one. At the same time, the laity’s cultic view of the priesthood has given way to a view of the priest as a “servant-leader.” These trends are documented in our book American Catholics Today (see review, page 26).

In the 1950s, it would not have occurred to most laypeople that they should play a role in selecting their parish priests. Yet a national survey we conducted of U.S. Catholics in 1987 found that 57 percent of laypeople believed parishioners should participate in such decisions. By 2005 that figure had jumped to 71 percent. Whereas in the 1950s laypeople did not expect to be involved in decisions about parish finances, by 1987, 81 percent did. By 2005 that figure had jumped to 89 percent. Fifty years ago, laypeople assumed that the clergy had the final say on moral issues like divorce and remarriage, abortion, homosexual sex, sex outside marriage, and contraception. But in 1987 and 2005, when we asked who should have the final say-church leaders, individuals, or both working together-the average percentage of laypeople saying “church leaders” declined, the percentage saying “individuals” rose slightly, and the segment saying “both working together” increased most of all.

In the 1950s, priests saw themselves as set apart, both as sacramental ministers and ecclesiologically. It was their responsibility to administer the sacraments, to govern parishes, and to teach the faithful. But in the 1960s and ’70s, how priests understood their own role in the church began to change. Increasingly, they embraced a servant-leader model, one that understands baptism as the basis on which all Catholics, regardless of their status as clergy or laypeople, are called to life in Christ. This model assumes a much more dynamic view of the laity’s role. In keeping with the teachings of Vatican II, which did not change the church’s teaching on the sacramental character of ordination, this model understands the role of the priest as that of a spiritual leader who works collaboratively with laypeople on matters such as religious education, parish finances, and liturgical planning.

Then, starting in the 1980s, another shift took place. Many priests began to turn away from this servant-leader model toward an updated version of the cultic priesthood. The view that ordination entitles priests to more authority than laypeople began to make a comeback: while laypeople would continue to play a greater role than they had in the past, that role was nonetheless subordinate to the priest’s. Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger documented this shift in Evolving Visions of the Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2003).

We can trace a steady trend over the past fifty years in the laity’s attitudes: from a passive view of their own role coupled with a cultic view of the priesthood to an active view of their own role linked with a servant-leader understanding of the priesthood. But priests’ attitudes during this period did not follow the same pattern. While after the council their attitudes initially corresponded to those of the laity, in the early 1980s priests’ attitudes shifted back toward a cultic view of priesthood and a more passive role for the laity.

Why have the views of the clergy and the laity diverged? In the 1940s and ’50s, laypeople experienced low socio-economic status and anti-Catholic prejudice. As a result, they relied on an array of Catholic institutions to achieve solidarity and advancement: parishes, schools, hospitals, professional associations. By the 1960s, the socio-economic situation of U.S. Catholics and their place in the broader culture were changing. Catholics were upwardly mobile and anti-Catholicism was on the decline. Furthermore, the “cultural revolution” of the 1960s challenged long-standing assumptions about authority and conformity to traditional ways of life, while Vatican II introduced major changes in the church’s understanding of the laity and the priesthood.

These trends and their consequences persist. Today’s laypeople are more educated, more affluent, and more self-confident than ever. They are fully immersed in a culture that celebrates individual autonomy and is skeptical about hierarchical authority. Although they cannot cite chapter and verse, most laypeople agree with Lumen gentium that priests and laypeople have different roles to play, but that there is “a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ.”

This trend among laypeople has only grown stronger. Increasingly, the pre-Vatican II generation and its formative experiences have been replaced by Vatican II, post-Vatican II, and now millennial generations that are progressively more educated, prosperous, and integrated into American society. As this shift has developed, so has a preference for an active laity and for priests who favor the servant-leader model. Furthermore, in both 1987 and 2005 we found that post-Vatican II Catholics were less likely than pre-Vatican II Catholics to think that church leaders should have the “final say” in moral decisions.

How are we to explain the more complicated trend among priests over the same period? First, we need to understand the theology of the priesthood and how someone trains to become a priest. The local bishop selects only those candidates he believes are suited for ministry. That selection is based on the recommendation of his seminary faculty, recommendations that reflect how the priesthood is understood at the time. In the pre-Vatican II era, the emphasis was on a cultic, father-knows-best model. Young men who chose to be seminarians were trained in that atmosphere. With an abundance of candidates, the church ordained only those it believed would act according to the expectations of the period.

But the Catholic ghetto began to crumble in the 1950s and ’60s, and Vatican II offered new ways of thinking about the roles of the laity and the clergy alike. As the servant-leader model of priesthood emerged, young men who preferred it were more likely to enter seminaries, and those who ran the institutions tended to promote candidates who fit the model. As a result, there was a marked increase in the percentage of priests who accepted a more active role for the laity and saw themselves as servant-leaders.

But this pattern did not last. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and other church officials have openly expressed their preference for a more traditional model of lay-clergy relationship, one that reemphasizes the difference in authority between the ordained and the nonordained. As a result, greater numbers of men who agree with this view have entered seminaries and have been ordained. In 2007, newly ordained priests are more likely to adhere to a cultic model of priesthood and to see the laity’s role as limited or advisory. They are likely to see themselves as the ultimate authority when it comes to administrative decisions.

This explanation is supported by our research. When Hoge and Wenger examined surveys carried out in 1970, 1985, 1993, and 2001, they found that younger priests in both 1993 and 2001 were more likely than older priests to say that “ordination confers on the priest a new status or permanent character which makes him essentially different from the laity.” Younger priests were also less likely to say that “the idea that the priest as a man set apart is a barrier to the full realization of a true Christian community.” Other researchers have reached similar conclusions.

Today, the church in the United States faces a serious problem, and not simply because of demographics, the priest shortage, secularism, or the sexual-abuse crisis. There is a further disjunction. Laypeople are increasingly committed to an active role in the church while more and more of their priests prefer a limited role for them, coupled with a more cultic model of priesthood. These important cultural differences are the product of generational changes among both the laity and the clergy. Whereas the two groups seemed to converge in the 1960s and ’70s, they have diverged since the ’80s. As a result, there are sharp differences between young adult laypeople who expect the clergy to welcome their participation, and young priests who believe the responsibility for parish decisions is theirs.

Laypeople in the post-Vatican II and millennial generations are going in one direction while “John Paul II priests” are going in another. The full effect of this division is not yet felt or discernible, but that will change in coming years. In a decade or two, today’s older generation of priests and laypeople will be gone, leaving all the decisions to today’s younger priests and laity, precisely where the expectation gap is widest.

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 

The late Dean R. Hoge was professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads