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  • Research on Catholic Priests in the United States, Since the Council:Modeling the Dialogue between Theology and Social Science
  • Bryan T. Froehle*

Just before the Second Vatican Council, a critical voice in twentieth- century pastoral sociology, Joseph H. Fichter, S.J. (1908-1994), had already made landmark contributions to the empirical study of the priesthood in the United States.1 Then, within the first decade after the Council, the U.S. Bishops' Conference oversaw a major project on the priesthood in the United States, its second largest [End Page 19] research project2 in the fifty years since Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in1962.3

Compared to shifts in understanding the role of bishops,4 the diaconate, or laity, the immediate fruit of the council for priestly life was relatively modest.5 This is not altogether surprising: priestly life and ministry is so central to what the Church does in its sacramental life that such a topic could perhaps only be adequately addressed through empirical theological reflection on the exercise of priestly ministry and the impact of developments since the Council.

Emerging shifts within priestly life and ministry have tracked wider societal developments, including secular advances in understanding organizational leadership, as seen in the work of pastoral researchers, consultants, and countless priests themselves. They are reflected in pastoral documents of individual bishops, the U.S. Bishops' Conference, and the Holy See.6 [End Page 20]

All these developments help explain why priest research became a point of intersection for the kinds of cross-disciplinary conversations characteristic of practical theology. Though sociologists have produced some of the most important work, theologians and other specialists have contributed. Indeed, one could make the case that since Vatican II convened a half century ago, priest research began with sociologists' studies, was sustained by pastoral researchers, and concluded with theologians' works. At each step, interdisciplinary conversations influenced research to create a model of practical inquiry7 informed by contextual and intercultural theology.8

Flow of the Conversation(s)

Priest research has frequently occasioned considerable contention. A kind of barometer for wider issues within the Church, it has reflected ecclesial and wider social realities and tensions during the times in which it was conducted. The very design and contracting of priest research has been, in this sense, political. Such contention reflects the implementation of the Second Vatican Council's agenda, often messy, [End Page 21] particularly since the Council advanced the understanding of priesthood more incidentally than intentionally.9

Three broad, cross-cutting streams of conversation may be identified, neither mutually exclusive nor the only that might be identified, they do connect with most priest research over the five decades since the Council. These are intersecting, spiraling conversations: works that could be placed within one conversation naturally overlap into another.10

The first conversation, perhaps the most consistent over the years, relates to themes of vocation and formation, including the first few years of priesthood and on-going formation. The second dimension centers around issues of priestly morale, and has oscillated around various issues, including sources of priestly satisfaction as well as challenges in priestly life such as priest-bishop relationships (or religious priest-superior relationships), alcoholism, sexual abuse, and so on. The third addresses the exercise of priestly ministry, particularly in the form of parochial leadership.

These three distinct but related conversations develop from different underlying practical questions. The first typically asks "What are the best ways to recruit and form priests?" The second asks "How can priests be as fulfilled as possible?" The third asks "How can priests be effective leaders?" Each of these three sets of overlapping conversations has been resourced by empirical research, particularly pastoral sociological studies, as well as psychological and leadership theory, together with practical theological reflection.

Vocation and Formation

Given United States history and culture, American bishops have tended to bring pragmatic and managerial questions to their ministry more than theoretical or cultural ones.11 Instead they focused on practical questions, such as building and developing dioceses, parishes, and other institutions—along with recruiting priests to staff [End Page 22] them.12 The same is true of leaders of religious orders, resulting in a substantial body...


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