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The Future of the Church is Orthodox

I recently helped conduct a much-overdue national survey of Catholic priests that, among other things, confirmed what most informed Catholic observers already knew: younger priests are much, much more conservative than their older counterparts. While a significant proportion of older priests disagree with fundamental Catholic Church teachings regarding homosexuality, for example, among the latest generation there are few priests that think that contraception among married people is okay. The gulf is pretty big. 

Now, there are fundamental dynamics and background histories at play with the Catholic Church that aren’t relevant to the case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I do not want to overdraw the parallels. Still, some comparison is useful. 

One explanation for our results is that in the past the clerical collar carried with it a cachet and social esteem among certain communities that they no longer enjoy. (On a related note, I wouldn’t be surprised if members of the 12 receive more jeers than cheers when they travel in certain sections of Salt Lake City.) Yes, in the case of the Catholic Church scandals are part of the story, but it is also symptomatic of a broader decline in authority and religion more generally. Consequently, people who join the Catholic priesthood are more likely to do so out of personal devotion, and they will be more likely to choose the Church when its teachings do not comport with modern day norms.

Similarly, while in the past a significant portion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lived under a “sacred canopy;” geographic pockets where being a Church member was the comfortable default and came with a certain esteem, this is quickly changing. Now, even if you live in a densely Latter-day Saint community, because of the Internet you are essentially tapped into every possible community and perspective, some of which are openly antagonistic to the Church’s teachings and emphases. In early Utah there were a handful of voices coming from the great and spacious building, now there are thousands. (And contrary to some perceptions, the alternative voices are not necessarily on the left; I get the sense that there are as many people drawn to Joe Roganism and Fox News-ism as their primary moral compass as there are drawn to wokeism, so any efforts to broaden the Church’s tent are not necessarily synonymous with a leftward shift).

Consequently, it makes sense that over time the ones that stay are more likely to be personally drawn to the particulars of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as they are conciously choosing the Church over a thousand other items on the menu in the rich philosophical and religious landscape that is 21st century America. (Anecdotally, it seems one of the first signs that somebody has left the Church is that they start posting more about their new, alternative source of meaning, often a hobby or interest; of course, as an orthodox member I don’t see how any of the alternatives could begin to compare to “Worlds Without End,” but I’m not going yuck somebody else’s yum and I hope they find meaning in their new path.)

I get the sense that the people who disagree in some very fundamental ways with the brethren yet still remain in the Church and try to change it around them have fairly significant personal and sometimes (in the case of BYU or Church employees) professional buy-in. By the time their Overton windows of the Church and their preferred ideology have stopped overlapping, they are ensconced in Latter-day Saint institutions and communities in middle age, whereas the young with a lifetime ahead of them usually just leave the Church. 

Consequently, as we iterate this process across generations and years, the heterodox (and their children, there just aren’t a lot of 2nd generation Sunstone Mormons) select out of the Church, thus keeping the Church relatively orthodox, since at the end of the day there isn’t much of a reason to pay 10% of your money to a religion that is a secondary or tertiary source of direction in your life. In today’s world of a thousand different paths, I suspect that trying to “reform” the Church is a one generation endeavor, since in a society with so many different options it requires much less energy to simply choose your preference than it does to embed yourself in a Church and try to change it from within to match those preferences. 

As religions become less of a piece with the sociocultural background and more of a distinct, consciously chosen choice, I suspect that Catholic priests will be more Catholic and Latter-day Saints will be more Latter-day Saint. Those that do decide to stay in the Church will do so less as a default and more because they have explicitly chosen it over other competing philosophies, ideologies, and ideals.

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