Over the past several decades and in the context of the world-wide child sexual abuse scandals that have tarnished the image of celibate priests, it is tempting to form the opinion that today priests must be unhappy. However, as counterintuitive as it might seem, that is not what has been found by empirical research. Although there have been a number of previous studies on the psychological and spiritual health and well being of priests, the current study's primary importance is that it a study of the (hopefully) post sexual abuse scandal priests who currently are serving in diocese in the United States.
Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti - who is both a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Syracuse, New York, as well as a psychologist - addresses happiness and a number of other psychological and spiritual issues in priests. Through the use of statistical inference, summarized and interpreted for the general reader, Rossetti presents some very interesting correlates of priestly happiness as the result of two large scale studies of priests he carried out in 2004 (1,242 priests) and 2009 (2,482 priests).
In interpreting the data in the book one needs to keep in mind that although the sampling covered a number of diocese (including religious order priests working in the diocese) in the United States, this was not a random sampling of priests. Rather, it was an opportunity or convenience sample. Religious order priests working in the various diocese made up 15% of the 2004 survey and 14% of the 2009 survey. The response rates to the surveys were 64.9% in 2004 and 57% in 2009.
The Foreword, which puts this book into context, is by John L. Allen Jr., Senior Correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. There are 12 well written chapters including a final chapter giving recommendations. The first chapter, titled "Summary of Findings," is the equivalent of a 16 page Executive Summary. A Conclusion is titled, "The Secret of Their Joy." There are 4 Appendices containing the survey instruments as well as some of the statistical details. The results of Rossetti's two studies are amply illustrated with 34 Figures and 48 Tables.
On a number of different measures Rossetti found that priests had better overall psychological health than the general population on whom the questions in the survey have been standardized. This should not come as a surprise given that priests are evaluated psychologically prior to going into seminary. The data are divided in many ways in the book. One such way is on the basis of young, old and those-in-the-middle priests, based upon what year they graduated from seminary calibrated in terms of pre-, peri-, and post-Vatican II. In almost all of the spiritual and psychological areas of life surveyed by Rossetti, there were differences in these graduation-year cohorts.
As with all survey instruments that rely on self-report, the reasons why a particular priest answered a question in a particular way cannot be determined. In addition, self-report is always susceptible to self-deception. An example of this can be seen in the questions related to "good morale" in the 2004 survey. Whereas 38.3% of priests agreed or strongly agreed to the statement, "Morale in the priesthood today is good," 80% of priests agreed or strongly agreed to the statement, "My morale is good." Similar types of responses are seen in college professors where 96% of them think that they are better than average teachers!
What, how and why some men feel called to the celibate priesthood is always a topic of great mystery and complexity. The book addresses this issue in a number of ways. Of the men who answered and returned the survey in 2009, 78.2% agreed or strongly agreed that "God called me to live a celibate life" and 66.6% in 2004 and 75.1% in 2009 agreed or strongly agreed that "Celibacy has been a personal grace."
There are large differences in attitudes about mandatory celibacy based upon the year of graduation from seminary. For example, in 2004, 81.4% of priests ordained 1-9 years agree or strongly agree with mandatory celibacy compared to only 37.9% for priests ordained 30-39 years. Also of interest in the 2004 survey, and supporting the view of a specific calling to the celibate priesthood at least for some men, is that only 17.9% of all priests in the 2004 survey agreed or strongly agreed to the statement, "If priests were allowed to marry, I would get married." Of those priests thinking of leaving priesthood it should not come as a surprise that a negative view of celibacy was the most highly correlated variable. Lots of other interesting findings in the book on celibacy.
This book's primary audience is men considering priesthood, various people involved in priestly formation, and psychological and medical professional who assist in the priestly discernment process. The secondary audience is interested lay Catholics. Although Rossetti uses statistics to justify what he writes, the reader needs no more than high school mathematics to understand the text. In summary, this book is highly recommended as a significant contribution to our current understanding of the spiritual and psychological health and well being of men in the celibate Roman Catholic priesthood today.