In a recent article in the American journal Culture Wars, Fr Brian Harrison OS - a professor of theology at the University of Puerto Rico - analysed the findings of a comprehensive, professional survey of US and Puerto Rican Catholic priests conducted between June and October 2002 by the Los Angeles Times. The Australian-born Fr Harrison himself participated in the survey.
Overall, the survey revealed that younger priests ordained during the past 20 years were more "conservative" (i.e., orthodox) doctrinally and less "liberal" (i.e., dissenting) than their 1960s confreres.
About 5,000 of America's approximately 45,000 priests were asked to respond to a detailed questionnaire. They were requested at the outset to describe themselves as "liberal," "conservative," or "middle-of-the-road."
Asked whether they considered John Paul II's "views on moral issues generally" to be "too liberal," "too conservative," or "about right," less than one percent of all respondents said they found the Holy Father "too liberal". Of the rest, 34 percent found him "too conservative" and 65 percent "about right". In other words, on "religious and moral" questions, about one in every three American priests, in effect, sees himself as more or less "liberal" in this area.
Fr Harrison identified as the "one single question in the survey which, more than any other, could be taken as a kind of rough litmus test, of basic or overall orthodoxy", that which asked: "Do you think Roman Catholics must follow all of the Church's teachings to be faithful, or do you think they may disagree on some issues and still be considered faithful?".
Among self-described "conservative" priests, the affirmative response was 70 percent, although on specific moral questions like contraception, their assent level fell to 57 percent.
Only 16 percent of all the priest respondents gave orthodox answers to all nine of the questions on morality - compared with the 38 percent as a whole who agreed that faithful Catholics must accept all teachings of the magisterium.
Respondents were asked to indicate (anonymously) their own sexual orientation, and were given no less than five options to choose from in doing so: 1) "heterosexual"; 2) "somewhere in between, but more on the heterosexual side"; 3) "completely in the middle"; 4) "somewhere in between, but more on the homosexual side"; and 5) "homosexual."
If "homosexual" priests are limited to those who chose Option 5, the figure is much smaller than most US recent estimates might suggest, but it also demonstrates the lopsided proportion of homosexuals among self-styled liberal priests, who were six times more likely than conservatives to choose Option 5.
In a question where survey respondents were asked whether there was "a homosexual subculture" at the seminary or seminaries which they attended, four options were given: 1) "Yes, definitely"; 2) I think so but I'm not positive"; 3) I don't think so"; and 4) "No, definitely not."
From his analysis of the responses to these questions Fr Harrison concludes that approximately half of all American priests ordained since 1982 - somewhere between 40 percent and 60 percent - have come through a formation experience in which group behaviour manifesting a "gay" orientation was part of the seminary environment.
When the responses to 13 questions on doctrine are broken down according to the length of time respondents have been in the priesthood, we find that priests ordained in the mid to late '60s - and now mainly aged in their sixties - are, with remarkable consistency, the most "liberal" (i.e., dissident) of all age groups.
There is a clear tendency in the direction of greater doctrinal orthodoxy in the precise measure that a priest's ordination date is more removed in time from the '60s "cultural revolution" period - whether before or after.
Only 19 percent of the youngest group, the 40-and-unders, describe themselves as "liberal", less than half the figure for those from the '60s, and less, even, than the 24 percent of avowed "liberals" in the oldest age-bracket, the over-80s.
This trend is also evident when the specific responses to doctrinal questions are broken down according to length of time in the priesthood, with some evidence of a movement back to orthodoxy among the "John Paul II priests" - those ordained in the last two decades.
Fr Harrison concludes that "our most liberal priests today are not only increasingly grey; they are also increasingly grumpy. Expressing consistently higher levels of dissatisfaction and pessimism on a range of issues than other priests, they evidently sense that, contrary to all their confident revolutionary expectations born in the '60s, things in the Church are no longer going their way, and that the future is quickly slipping away from their control."
Asked if they thought things in the Church were "getting better", "getting worse", or "staying about the same", nearly twice as many liberals (41 percent) as conservatives (22 percent) agreed they were "getting worse".
A large part of the reason for this pessimism among dissenters appears to be revealed in the answer to a question asking respondents whether they think younger American priests are now "more theologically conservative - that is, more religiously orthodox - than their older counterparts", or "more liberal", or "about the same". A massive consensus of liberals (87 percent) answered that the younger priests are "more conservative".
Liberal priests are also twice as likely as conservatives to be unhappy with the performance of their own diocesan bishop and eight times as likely to be unhappy with the performance of the Pope. 71 percent of liberals find his "views on moral issues" to be "too conservative", while only 9 percent of conservatives fault the Holy Father in this area.