In the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandals and Rome’s unchanging positions on the ordination of women, priestly celibacy and traditional marriage, that was the fate many cultural commentators predicted for the Catholic Church.
But in their new book, “Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops is Revitalizing the Catholic Church” (Encounter Books, $25.99), Anne Hendershott and Christopher White unpack the sociological evidence that proves just the opposite.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke about that evidence with Hendershott, professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Here’s what we learned.
Our Sunday Visitor: If the only knowledge someone had of the Catholic Church was what they saw reported on the evening news, what kind of Church would they see?
Anne Hendershott: Essentially, they would see a Church in decline. If all you’re doing is reading secular newspapers or new programs, you’ll get the idea that people are deserting the Church, that priests are disgruntled, graying and unhappy and we’re not attracting new Catholics.
OSV: Where does that picture of the Church come from?
Hendershott: Bad news sells papers, good news doesn’t. So, you have a few people who have left the Church in anger, such as Garry Wills, who have become the go-to sources for secular newspapers. Wills says the priesthood is dead, no one should be attracted to it, and there’s no Real Presence in the Eucharist. But the media love him. He goes on Colbert’s show. He appears on “60 Minutes.” And what emerges from that is a distorted picture shaped by a bitter ex-Catholic.
OSV: How does that picture contrast with the real picture?
Hendershott: Well, when I started to write the book, the plan was to write about the Catholic culture wars. That was the original title, “Beyond the Catholic Culture Wars.” At that point, I was buying into the secular media’s idea that the Church was in decline. I didn’t know how good the news about the Church actually was. Everything changed though, when I started writing. I knew intuitively that some dioceses were doing well and producing vocations. So, I thought I’d have a chapter that focused on that good news. The plan was to put it at the end of the book and close on a positive note.
But then my research assistant who was helping with the data, Christopher White, came to me and said, “This news is so good, I don’t know if you want to end the book with this.” I was blown away by what he showed me: It wasn’t just a few dioceses that were doing well. There was more good news than I could fit into just one chapter. So, I totally redid the plan for the book and made Christopher a coauthor.
OSV: What is some of the good news you found?
Hendershott: Going in, I knew there would be some dioceses that had strong ordination numbers. But there were far more dioceses than I anticipated that fit into that category. Also, the picture of priests as unhappy, depressed alcoholics is just so false. There was a study done not too long ago that tells us 95 percent of priests find great joy in their priesthood and most wouldn’t even think of leaving.
OSV: What makes for happy priests and good priestly vocations numbers?
Hendershott: What we found was that the bishops are what make the difference. Bishops who are involved with their seminarians, encouraging vocations, and living their priesthood — that matters. So does what bishops are saying and doing on specific cultural issues. Bishops who protested Notre Dame awarding an honorary degree to President Obama, those who were high profile in talking about the problem of pro-choice politicians, and those who signed the Manhattan Declaration, which defends the definition of marriage as one man and one woman — in all those cases, what you see is more vocations. The more orthodox the bishop, the more vocations he inspires. Archbishop (Elden) Curtiss said as much in the early 1990s. He wrote an article back then that said when dioceses are unambiguous about the priesthood, and there’s a minimum of dissent about the nature of it, you have more vocations. Our research found that to be true.
OSV: What about the dioceses that aren’t producing vocations? What are the commonalities there?
Hendershott: What it comes down to in those cases is the bishop as well. Except there, it’s bishops who have given into the culture too much. That’s not to say the bishops of those dioceses aren’t good men who love God, but in trying to be nice or liked, they’ve gone along with the culture too much. They’ve also empowered the wrong people. You even see some who, instead of encouraging priests to be leaders, talk about priests as facilitators of others’ ministry. You see others who don’t back up their priests, who don’t support them or spend time with them. When those things are happening, men aren’t drawn to the priesthood.
OSV: What other signs of renewal give the lie to the secular portrayal of the Catholic Church?
Hendershott: The growing involvement of faithful laity, the increase in the number of permanent deacons, and so many wonderful new organizations focused on the New Evangelization, such as FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and Word on Fire Ministries.
Then, there are the books being written by faithful Catholics and Catholic universities who are taking their Catholic identity seriously, as well as faithful women’s religious orders who are attracting vocations while dissident orders are dying out. There is so much good news.
OSV: What else can the laity do to help encourage the renewal taking place within the Church?
Hendershott: Celebrate the good news. Pray for priests and honor them. Encourage your children and grandchildren to consider priestly and religious vocations.
The more people realize the priesthood and consecrated life are wonderful callings, the more they will inspire their sons and daughters to consider it.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.