Pope John Paul II, whose 15-year reign over the Roman Catholic Church has been marked by repeated efforts to restore orthodoxy, may be succeeding in attracting a new crop of more conservative priests to carry the church into the next millennium.
While it is too early to say whether there is a sustained drift toward orthodoxy, younger priests are clearly more religiously orthodox and politically conservative than middle-aged priests, according to a nationwide poll of priests by the Los Angeles Times.
Ordained during Pope John Paul's pontificate, they are less supportive of ordaining women and allowing priests to marry than are middle-aged priests, and less tolerant of married couples' using artificial birth control or surrogate birth mothers bringing a child to term.
On other moral issues, such as euthanasia, abortion or sexual relations outside of marriage, both younger and middle-aged priests tend to be orthodox in their thinking. Only the oldest priests are more conservative.
In the political arena, nearly 40 percent of priests 35 and younger consider themselves conservative -- nearly double the percentage between the ages of 36 and 50. Moreover, the youngest priests are twice as likely to identify with the Republican Party (35 percent) than are priests generally (16 percent).
The findings from the poll of 2,087 Roman Catholic priests and 1,049 Roman Catholic nuns appear to validate results in recent church-sponsored polls that point to greater conservatism among new priests.
"The pattern is there in dozens of questions on the poll indicating that the traditional character of the 15-year pontificate of John Paul II is clearly affecting the selection (or self-selection process) for new candidates for ordination," said the Times' poll director, John Brennan.
The findings are among a wealth of information on how priests and nuns view their church -- its strengths, its problems and its future.
Overall, significant majorities of priests and nuns are happy in their calling, would take their vows again if they had a choice, and think well of the pope's job performance.
"Honest to God," wrote a self-described "liberal" 61-year-old priest from the Northeast, "I am still extremely excited about the gift of faith, the life it gives and sustains, the peace beyond all telling (beyond Rome). What a comfort. I'm proud to share."
Among the poll's findings:
* Fifty-three percent of the priests said they believe the institutional church in the United States is weaker than it was 30 years ago, while 29 percent said it is stronger. Ten percent said the strength of the church is about the same.
* Fifty-four percent of priests called things in the church excellent or good; 43 percent said they're not so good or poor. Among nuns, 51 percent said things were not so good or poor, compared with 44 percent who believe things are good or excellent.
* When asked what the greater danger for the church is, 42 percent said it was the excessive desire to please secular and humanistic forces in society; 28 percent said it was resistance to reform of moral doctrines.
* Ninety-five percent of priests are white at a time when the ethnic diversity of the church in the United States is demanding new approaches to ministry. However, 24 percent of all priests now speak Spanish, with more than two out of five priests 35 or younger speaking that language.
But perhaps the most intriguing finding has to do with a possible drift toward orthodoxy by the newest and youngest of priests. They are more conservative as a group than middle-aged priests, who were ordained and matured in the priesthood during the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council ushered in an era of renewal and reform within the church.
By contrast, the new priests were trained during a time when the pope has steadfastly championed a return to orthodoxy, emphasized that the church's moral teachings are unchangeable, chose conservatives as bishops, and made clear his unflinching opposition to artificial birth control, female priests, married priests, "cafeteria Catholicism" and dissenting theologians.
While only about 20 percent of all priests between the ages of 36 and 60 describe themselves as religiously conservative, 32 percent of the youngest priests do so. Only priests older than 70 are more conservative as a group, the poll found. In the oldest group, 49 percent call themselves religious conservatives.
Experts within the church disagree whether the more conservative complexion of the youngest group of priests constitutes a trend toward an orthodox restoration.
But Dean Hoge, a church sociologist with the Catholic University of America in Washington, said that the Times' findings replicate those in separate church-sponsored polls. Mr. Hoge said there was "a very definite trend" toward conservatism by younger priests -- at least on issues involving the priesthood.
The youngest priests account for just 6 percent of the total priest population in the United States. Most young priests consider themselves moderates or liberals.