TORONTO, Canada (The Catholic Register) – It may well be a greater compliment to be trusted than to be loved. If so, is it a greater heartbreak to watch trust evaporate? For an answer, one might ask a parish priest. Canadian trust in clergy has been slipping at an alarming pace over the past five years.
The 2007 Leger Marketing “Profession Barometre” finds that 61 percent of Canadians say they trust church representatives — not even close to the 97 percent who trust firefighters or 94 percent who trust nurses, Canada’s most trusted professions.
However, Canadians still rank clergy more trustworthy than pollsters at 59 percent, journalists at 48 percent or politicians, who garner the trust of just 15 percent of Canadians.
The trouble for clergy is that they appear to have lost the trust of 12 percent of Canadians since 2002. While trust levels for journalists, bankers and teachers have remained steady over the past five years, Canadians’ trust in church representatives has fallen from almost three-quarters at 73 percent to less than two-thirds at 61 percent.
“We should not just look at these things and say, ‘Oh well, it’s just another survey.’ It’s what the people are talking about, what they’re saying,” said St. Clare of Assisi Church pastor Father John Borean from Woodbridge, Ont.
Trust is the essential ingredient in a pastoral relationship, Father Borean said.
“People come to you with their personal needs. They need healing. They need someone who will not put a Band-Aid over them but give them hope of true healing,” he said. “If there’s no trust there, how can that ever happen?”
“Trust is an important ingredient,” said Father Brian Clough, pastor of St. Anselm Church here. “We have to do our best to ensure we deserve the trust that people give us.”
It’s probably not much consolation for today’s clergy to consider that a crisis in trust has historical precedents.
“It isn’t all that new,” said Phillis Airhart, a professor of the history of Christianity at Emmanuel College in Toronto. “There’s a long history of anticlericalism. It’s gone up and down over time.”
If polls could have been taken during the Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, or during the 18th century in Western Europe, the clergy might have ranked lower on the trust scale than they do now, said Airhart.
The professor has a couple of theories about what could have caused a decline in trust since 2002. One possibility is that in 2002, just after the initial impact of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, public perception of the churches as an essential service for traumatized people may have boosted clergy trust numbers above their historical norm. Most of the drop in the trust rating for church representatives comes as an eight-percent fall between 2002 and 2003.
There is also the question of how many people know a pastor well enough to trust one.
“In a period when church attendance is down, you may not have experienced church leadership yourself and had that positive experience of a caring minister to counterbalance what you read in the media,” Airhart said.
The May 8 to 13 Leger survey of 1,500 Canadians in both French and English only asks whether people trust church representatives. It does not explore why people place their trust or distrust in any of the professions named in the survey.
The national results are considered statistically accurate within a margin of plus or minus 2.6 percent 19 times out of 20.
Father Clough also puts his finger on the church attendance factor.
“Who you don’t know you don’t trust,” said Father Clough.
Clerical sex abuse, which dominated church news headlines since the early years of the decade, has also taken its toll on the public reputation of clergy, according to Father Clough.
American polls have documented the loss of respect Catholic clergy have suffered because of sex abuse scandals since the fall of 2001. Polling company Zogby International and Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., have been measuring Catholic perceptions on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops twice a year.
In the LeMoyne-Zogby poll, Catholic support for U.S. bishops dropped from 83 percent in the fall of 2001 to 58 percent in the spring of 2004. Since then the level of support has gradually recovered to 70 percent in the spring of 2007.
The annual Harris Poll in the United States asks about prestige rather than trust. Just as in Leger Marketing’s “Profession Barometre,” firefighters come out on top in this poll, clergy in the top half, and journalists and lawyers in the bottom half.
Over 20 years, the poll shows American respect for clergy holding steady between 40 and 45 percent, except in the three years following revelations of sexual abuse in Boston, when clergy was considered a “very prestigious” profession by just 32 percent of Americans in 2004. By 2007, the Harris poll puts the clergy back at historical levels, with 40 percent of Americans rating clergy a “very prestigious” profession.
For pastors who work in parishes full of people whose trust in the church is demonstrated by their attendance Sunday morning, the drop in support for clergy may not be so apparent, said Father Borean.
“Sitting in my parish and doing my work here, I don’t feel that,” he said.
It’s the people who aren’t in church Sunday morning who might feel they can’t reach out to a priest that worries Father Borean.
“If I were bishop I would say, ‘Gentlemen, you know we have something in front of us. We have to preach the gospel truly. When we do that there’s no hidden interests, there’s no personal agendas,’” Father Borean said.
“Hypocrisy does not engender trust,” said Father Clough.
The example priests set with their lives counts, added the veteran canon lawyer and seminary professor.
“If we live by what we are preaching, and if we keep our minds focused on trying to do that – namely the spread of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments – then I think it automatically instills trust and receptivity among people,” he said.
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from The Catholic Register (www.catholicregister.org ), the largest circulation national Catholic newspaper in Canada, a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner. To subscribe to The Catholic Register, click here.