This is an interesting descriptive study of some of the beliefs, attitudes and opinions of Australian Catholic priests. As such if offers an important empirical insight into a much neglected area. The study is based on a questionnaire sent out to 1700 diocesan priests (according to the authors there are 1940 diocesan priests in the country as of 2010). The authors seem to be concerned with the response rate of 31.6% but this is within the acceptable range for questionnaires of this type. It is not clear if respondents had the option of returning the questionnaire anonymously, an important procedural consideration. The authors describe the essential part of the project as the more than fifty interviews that accompanied the survey. Here the methodology followed is a little opaque. The authors claim that the interview participants were selected at random but also mention that some priests were contacted on the basis of their responses to the questionnaire and that six were contacted because they were known to the authors (p.155). If the interviewees were contacted at random then an unreported but critical statistic is, what percentage of those contacted agreed to be interviewed? In any case, a list of those interviewed is provided in appendix 2. Six of the respondents were seminarians, three “ex priests” and one was an “active deacon”. I raise this because none of these categories were mentioned in the methodology which is quite emphatic in stating that the subjects in this study were priests – either active or retired. When ten of the interview subjects do not fit into this description then some questions about the rigour of the study can be raised.
The strength of the book lies in the descriptive nature of the data, which provides a fascinating overview of some of the beliefs of Australian Catholic priests. For instance, over 90% of respondents agreed with the statement, “My life as a priest has been fulfilling”. On doctrinal issues, 84% agreed with the proposition that Jesus was born of a virgin and 38.3% agreed with the statement that, “Jesus bodily rise is not the only way a Catholic can understand the resurrection.” On a moral question such as contraception, 19.19% agreed with the statement, “It’s always a sin for married couples to use artificial birth control”. Findings such as these open up a wealth of conceptual considerations and as the authors rightly point out challenged simple stereotypes. I would have liked to see much more discussion of the research data in a wider scholarly context and thereby incorporating more analysis. The finding, for example, about the satisfaction of priests in their chosen vocation surprises many, but it is well attested in the literature perhaps most notably in some of the more recent work of Andrew Greeley. The comments of some of the interviewees refer to the tension and discordance between younger and older priests. This, again, is a well established finding, highlighted in the work of Dean Hoge. Such a closer examination could presage a fruitful, wider discussion about, amongst other things, how the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are being appropriated by different generational cohorts, at least, by those who are religiously committed. Comments about lay movements in the Church, World Youth Day, and the liturgy are similarly tantalizing without being sufficiently contextualized. Much more could be made of finding such as only 2.4% of respondents agreed with the statement, “Many of my parishioners want a return to the Latin Mass.”
In a similar vein some of the regional differences in responses lend themselves to a more engaged analysis of both Australian society and the Church. I am intrigued as to why priests in Victoria and New South Wales should have different views on the future of the Church in Australian and why priests from Western Australia appear to stand out on their own on many issues. Could this have anything to do with how priests are trained and recruited in different parts of the country? These regional differences do not seem to have been explored in any depth in the interviews and remain one of the most unexpected findings of the study. It is hoped that this study sets the stage for further research on Catholic priests in Australia.