Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Are We Ready for a Future with Fewer Surprises?

With the Synods on the Family occurring this year and next it seems like a good time to look at some “family matters” from the perspective of social science rather than the theology and doctrine being discussed by the Church. In recent weeks, when topics like Ebola or climate change have entered the news and politics, we’ve heard a steady stream of calls for people to “look to science.” That is excellent advice. In that spirit, let me start with a concern. I am really worried about Sen. Elizabeth Warren...

Election 2016 already? Am I suddenly showing some partisan leanings? I’m not even registered to vote! Yet the world needs more people like her. How so? Earlier this year Sen. Warren noted on an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that her childhood nickname was “The Surprise.” After this admission, co-hosts, former Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, also noted they were “accidents.”

That was a brave public moment for Sen. Warren. The popular discourse on parenthood in the United States has entered a bizarre stage largely devoid of science (e.g., biology, genetics, demography). Parents, especially those with multiple children, have earned the moniker “breeder” for their overpopulating of the planet; “unintended” pregnancies, like Sen. Warren, are now assumed to be unwanted and something that needs to be discouraged as a public policy; and there is even a growing Childfree Movement.

Some who consciously choose to never have children don’t do this because they dislike kids or think they would be a bad parent. Instead they are deeply concerned about the impact of adding to the global population and the effect that this could have on the environment. Take for example Guardian editor Lisa Hymas:

Population isn't just about counting heads. The impact of humanity on the environment is not determined solely by how many of us are around, but by how much stuff we use and how much room we take up. And as a financially comfortable American, I use a lot of stuff and take up a lot of room. … When someone like me has a child -- watch out, world! Gear, gadgets, gewgaws, bigger house, bigger car, oil from the Mideast, coal from Colombia, coltan from the Congo, rare earths from China, pesticide-laden cotton from Egypt, genetically modified soy from Brazil. And then when that child has children, wash, rinse, and repeat (in hot water, of course). Without even trying, we Americans slurp up resources from every corner of the globe and then spit 99 percent of them back out again as pollution. Conscientious people try to limit that consumption, of course. I'm one of them.”

Hymas focuses here on one set of potential consequences and seems not to understand the internal dynamics of the population growth we are experiencing ( many others). Concerns about overpopulation are very real. We’re likely headed toward more than 10 billion people on the planet by the end of the century and we need to figure out how to produce enough food and energy for them. But babies are no longer the primary concern. You, me, and Lisa Hymas are! Globally, fertility (i.e., average number of births per woman over her lifetime) has been falling for decades (from 4.98 children per woman in 1960 to 2.47 in 2012). The increases leading to the “overpopulation” so many fear in the near future will be driven by those who have already been born living longer than people have in the past. As shown below, the Census Bureau expects the global senior population (ages 65 and older) to increase from about 617,097,000 now to 1,565,844,000 in 2050. That is growth of 154 percent in just 35 years.

The annual number of births worldwide is actually expected to decline during this period by 2 percent numbering just over 130,000,000 each year. In 2000, without notice or ceremony, the world reached an important milestone: “peak childhood.” There were no big news announcements or parades but it happened. From then to now and into the future we can expect there to be about 1.9 billion children (under age 15) around the world at any time. Yet, if the world pushes fertility rates even lower ( play on the graphic below to see how we got here) we will enter a strange period in human history in which we will take steps toward living with an “inverted population pyramid” where there are many seniors and few children. 


In the quest to reduce “overpopulation” many suggest we need to squeeze the bottom of the population pyramid even further without fully realizing the complete consequences of that suggestion.

I certainly don’t think anyone should ever be pressured to have children (e.g., the CeauČ™escu regime in Romania). It is also regrettable when states prevent those who seek to be parents from having the children they want (e.g., the One-child Policy in China). Openness to children is a deeply personal decision with many factors to consider. Some feel they should never be parents for a variety of perfectly valid reasons. Others want desperately to have a child but biologically cannot do so. This post in no way implies that any person or couple “needs” to have kids (...if you are a childfree enthusiast reading this you can now put away your breeder bingo card). However, it does accept the scientific reality that no species can survive without sufficient reproduction collectively. 

Humans have always experienced periodic population declines. But historically these have come as a result of disasters, disease, and sometimes war. These circumstances often kill without or with little discrimination. All sectors of society are reduced in number. What many countries around the world now experience is selective population reduction. The young are disappearing (i.e., never being conceived) as the old grow in number with extended life expectancies.

These circumstances make the economics of the modern state’s social safety net increasingly difficult and perhaps eventually impossible. Most advanced industrial countries rely on state programs to assist their elderly populations with income and health care after retirement. These are paid for by taxing the younger currently employed workers (…your deductions do not go into a “lock box” with your name on it!). If each generation decides to have fewer children than the last, eventually there are too few workers per retiree. The drop in fertility in advanced industrial economies is “the deficit behind the deficit” and if current trends continue this will only grow more problematic.

The country out ahead of any other on this path is Japan. As you can see below in this country’s projected population pyramid for 2050, Japan is coming closest to dealing with the many challenges of an inverted “graying” pyramid.

The effects of fertility decline are not just limited to the state budget and care for seniors. A future of fewer people year-over-year will also be one of perpetual economic stagnation or recession for all. Currently it costs a middle class family $245,340 to raise a single child to the age of 18 in the United States. If a couple has two kids that’s close to half a million dollars they inject into the economy. A skeptic might say they would have just spent that money on something else if they had no children. Perhaps but as most parents know having a child can “encourage” you seek out more income out of necessity (e.g., dads, on average, make more than non-dads and the combined incomes of a mom and dad outpace a couple with no children). As I write Japan is again in a recession. Downturns and anemic growth have become the normal way of life there for decades and will be so for the foreseeable future until they begin to grow demographically again (innovations and exports have been insufficient).

During the Baby Boom of the 1950s and 1960s the United States had one of its highest ratios of non-workers per employed. But a sizable portion of these non-workers were children and parents bore most of the costs of their care and upbringing. The country now faces another growth spurt in dependents in the Senior Boom and their children, too few in number or non-existent, will struggle to pay the bills.

One could argue that those who are going through life today without contributing to the replacement of their generation by either having children or assisting in the care and upbringing of those children (e.g., adopting, personally caring for, educating, or directly financially supporting) are shirking or free riding the system (…the same way many young adults were free riding the health care system before the individual mandate required them to purchase health insurance). Sure the childfree who contribute nothing to the “breeding” process will still get taxes taken out of their checks too as they work but they don’t provide enough, if at all, to producing the next generation who will pay for their Social Security and Medicare.

When countries don’t have a sufficient number of children to replace their elders they often choose to import population (…or turn to robot caregivers and workers? See Japan 1, 2). Without robust immigration in recent decades the United States would be headed down a difficult path similar to Germany or Italy and perhaps eventually to the crippling realities faced by Japan and Russia. The U.S. needs to have immigrants always wanting to come here (a luxury Russia can’t count on). One advantage of this is that individuals coming from developing countries often bring with them higher fertility rates, at least for a generation, that make up for sub-replacement rate fertility among citizens. However, this is an incomplete solution to the complex problems created by low fertility as immigrants most often arrive during their working years. All of the spending on raising them by their parents when they were children (and the associated opportunities to collect tax revenue on this) was done in other countries.

The United States currently benefits from immigration from Latin America and primarily Mexico but this may not always be the case. In The Next 100 Years (2009), futurist George Friedman notes that around mid-century “Mexico will emerge as a mature, balanced economy with a stable population—and will rank among the top six or seven economic powers in the world.” At this time he predicts growing anti-Americanism. “Given U.S. programs designed to entice Mexicans to immigrate to the United States at a time when the Mexican birthrate is falling, the United States will be blamed for pursuing policies designed to harm Mexican economic interests.” Friedman anticipates more broadly that:

The population bust will create a major labor shortage in advanced industrial countries. Today, developed countries see the problem as keeping immigrants out. Later in the first half of the twenty-first century, the problem will be persuading them to come. Countries will go so far as to pay people to move there. This will include the United States, which will be competing for increasingly scarce immigrants and will be doing everything it can to induce Mexicans to come to the United States—an ironic but inevitable shift.”

For the Catholic Church in the United States, immigration has historically meant more Catholics but immigration doesn’t increase population on a global scale. If Catholics move from one country to another there are still the same number of Catholics in the world! However, declining fertility will mean that the Church will have fewer global births and this leads to fewer global baptisms. We can already see this beginning to happen. As shown below, fewer infants and children were baptized in the Church worldwide in 2012 than in 1970.

The Catholic Church gets a lot of criticism for its teachings on married couples being open to the possibility of having children. That may not always be the case in the future (especially for countries unable or unwilling to turn to immigration). Some are already implementing public policies to try to encourage their citizens to have more children.

In Russia they celebrate a national holiday called the “Day of Conception.” Couples who have a baby exactly nine months later win prizes. Russians also can receive payments of thousands of dollars per child throughout the year. In Japan the state is playing matchmaker and spending nearly $33 million hosting parties where young people can meet and begin relationships. In South Korea, “family day” was instituted by the Ministry of Health. They turn their lights off at 7 pm on the third Wednesday of each month so employees can spend more time creating “bigger families.” In Singapore they created an ad campaign that included the following line, “I’m a patriotic husband, you’re my patriotic wife, let’s do our civic duty and manufacture life.” They are limiting the construction of small one bedroom apartments and provide tens of thousands of dollars for each child born in addition to providing tax incentives and parental leave.

Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore penned a 2012 piece for Forbes entitled “Warning Bell for Developed Countries” regarding his country’s experience. He cautioned that low fertility in the developed world will lead to a “shrinking workforce and a stagnant economy.” He argues, “To have babies is, of course, a personal decision, but for a nation’s population that decision carries considerable consequences. … Fewer young ­people means fewer new cars, stereos, computers, iPhones, iPads and clothes will be sold.”

As the Catholic Church focuses this year on the family it must grapple with the fact that family is just simply becoming less common all together. Where it does exist, it most often now includes fewer people. As shown below the fertility rate is falling in most countries with the largest Catholic populations (i.e., at least 10 million in 2012). The average fertility rate in these countries was 5.2 in 1960 and is now 2.9. In 43% of these 23 countries the fertility rate is now below replacement level (i.e., 2.1; the rate at which parents replace themselves in the population).

Looking at the right side of the figure above, Germany is experiencing population decline—even with immigration and in Italy, deaths now outnumber births. If current trends continue, things will only get worse for both countries. As shown below, Italy is headed for net natural population losses in the hundreds of thousands in the decades ahead.

The Italian fertility rate is currently only 1.4. In the long-run Italy must raise this rate or face a persistent diminishing population. Take the simplest example of a closed society model (i.e., no immigration) of 100 people of child bearing age (50 male and 50 female) and a fertility rate of 1.0. At most, the next generation might be expected to include 50 individuals. If this generation maintains the 1.0 fertility rate, the next generation would likely include 25 individuals. Assuming this society practices monogamy and continues at the same fertility rate, the next generation could have 12 individuals. The following would have six, then three, then one, and then extinction. From 100 to none in seven generations at a 1.0 rate. In more realistic big population models the math extends on a significantly longer timeline (i.e., 25+ generations) but nonetheless ends in the same dismal place without an increase in fertility at some point.

It is the case that women (and men) in the United States continue to say in surveys that they want to hypothetically have about two kids, on average. But people are waiting longer to marry and longer to have children after marriage. There are relatively inescapable biological realities that do not necessarily conform to changing preferences about when to have a baby in one’s life-cycle. Some will reach the point where it becomes difficult, dangerous, or impossible to have children without ever reaching their goal of having the two kids and there aren’t enough Americans having three, four, five, or more children families to make up for those who do not have any children or have only one.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of pregnancies in the United States are “unintended.” For many, “unintended” is not an equivalent of “unwanted.” Not every surprise ends in the stereotypes of the parenting debates of the day. However, it is the case that the Department of Health and Human Services has set a policy goal of reducing unintended pregnancies by 10% before 2020. If achieved, this would drive the U.S. fertility rate even lower below the replacement rate (currently 1.87 births per woman). In the macro view, public policies that aim to drive fertility rates well below replacement levels are inherently risky. If successful, these put so many other government programs in danger of becoming unsustainable by constantly downsizing the next generation of workers and taxpayers who will support the ever growing top of the population pyramid.

I also fear the eventual development of a political cleavage at the other end of the population pyramid. What happens when a society can no longer afford to care for its senior population? Perhaps this is the question that the the Millennial Generation will have to face as seniors. It will not help that they are saving virtually nothing for their later years (1, 2). Will society turn on the Millennials in the decades ahead and encourage “compassionate euthanasia” before they face disability or serious medical problems? Will we ration senior medical care even further or increase taxes on medical research and development so fewer new therapies and cures will lead people to live even longer?

The Catholic Church is often portrayed as a backward “stuck in history” institution. Yet, when it comes to fostering a culture of openness to children and asking many important end of life questions it may play an even more important role in the future than we might think now in 2014. I’m not saying that as a Catholic. I note this as a social scientist who looks honestly at the demography and economics of the future and wonders how we will manage what we are creating now.

Again as a social scientist, it is clear that the high fertility rates of the past in an age of significantly lengthened life expectancies would be unsustainable. However, what is not often recognized is that there is also a level of fertility that is unacceptably low for human society. Many countries are already below this “Goldilocks” rate and globally we may fly by this benchmark by the end of the 21st century. As Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, has warned:

The demographic patterns observed throughout Europe, East Asia and numerous other places during the past half century as well as the continuing decline in birth rates in other nations strongly points to one conclusion: The downward global trend in fertility may likely converge to below-replacement levels during this century. The implications of such a change in the assumptions regarding future fertility, affecting as it will consumption of food and energy, would be far reaching for climate change, biodiversity, the environment, water supplies and international migration. Most notably, the world population could peak sooner and begin declining well below the 10 billion currently projected for the close of the 21st century.”

Depending on where you live you may be able to get a view of the future now. Next time you are at the local grocery store look at the pet products aisle and the baby products aisle. Which is bigger? If it is the pet aisle welcome to the future! You already live there. I certainly have nothing against pets. The generosity and care “pet parents” provide for their companions is commendable. But when you are old your golden retriever won’t inject you with insulin or carry you up the stairs. In fact, your dog will be dead (...after leaving quite a sizable carbon paw print on the environment). Sorry. I didn’t mean for this post to end like Marley & Me.

At the same time if we aren’t open to a few more “surprises” this century we’ll have many sad endings to work our way out of other than the possibility of rising oceans. The future is far more complex than our current political debates. There is more to fear than your thermometer. That is not theology nor doctrine talking. That’s science and another, less well known, inconvenient truth facing us.


Midterms Are a Yawn for the Catholic Vote

The race for the Senate is coming down to the wire. It is highly competitive and the outcome will likely come to define the last two years of President Obama’s term (executive orders or vetoes?). The stakes are huge and the Republicans currently hold a slight lead. But I could not be more bored.

As a political scientist who specializes in how Catholics vote and how Catholic candidates run for office and govern Election 2014 is a bit of a yawn (2016 will be entirely different among the more motivated electorate and a strong field of Catholics running for president).

There are 34 states with Senate seats up for election in 2014 but many have small Catholic populations. In some states with larger Catholic populations the race is not competitive and often does not involve a Catholic candidate. Louisiana is probably the most interesting race as it has a large and important Catholic electorate, the incumbent is Catholic, and the race is a toss up. Democrat Sen. Landrieu is among the most conservative of the Senate Democrats which is interesting as Church teachings are often more similar to what conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans would favor than more “orthodox” Democrats and Republicans (...of course even with conservative leanings some of Sen. Landrieu’s positions and votes would be clearly inconsistent with Faithful Citizenship).

Catholic voters could also be important in Iowa, Michigan, Colorado, and Kansas. None of the candidates in these races is Catholic but the middle of the country is where blue states are often red among Catholics and here Catholic votes could play an interesting role.

The table below shows the estimated number of voting eligible Catholics for Senate races (i.e., already registered or eligible to register; accounting for citizenship and criminal history estimates derived from Gallup polling and the United States Elections Project) and the percentage of eligible voters in each of these states who are Catholic. In six of the ten “toss up” states the electorates are less than 20% Catholic. Catholic candidates in these states include Democrat challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. She, like Landrieu, is seen by many as more conservative than your typical Senate Democrat (…currently 10% of the U.S. Senate is made up of Catholic women). Incumbent Democrat Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan in Alaska are both Catholic but only 13% of potential voters who will choose between them share that faith.

There are 22.5 million Catholics who could possibly vote in the midterm Senate races (...of course more Catholics are in states where they will vote for House members. Republicans will maintain control of the House). That represents about 20% of the electorate in those states. In the toss up states, Catholics only make up 15% of potential voters. In a March post I predicted the “God gap” may strike back and turn the Senate red. I still think this is the case but Catholic votes would only be a small contributing cause for such a transition.

Once the exit polls are released there will likely be a discussion of who “won the Catholic vote.” If either party is claimed to have “won” the Catholic vote that answer will be wrong. More Catholics will choose “none” than either Democrat or Republican by staying home. Turnout in midterms is typically about 41% (Catholic turnout is often slightly higher).

In one of the likely scenarios approximately 9.5 million Catholics will vote in a Senate race and about 13 million who could vote for a senator will stay home. If the Catholic voters follow their partisan hearts their vote will likely split with 4.6 million going to Democrats and about the same going to Republicans. The remainder will likely vote for other party candidates or cast a ballot without making a Senate choice. Although nationally Democrats hold a slight edge in identity among Catholics, in the competitive Senate states this year there are fewer Hispanics and Democrats meaning the Catholic electorate is likely to be balanced out or even leaning red in Senate races. Depending on possible turnout differentials it could lean more heavily Republican.

The 2016 election will be a very different race. In addition to the many Catholic candidates expected to run for president, the Supreme Court will likely have handed down decisions on same-sex marriage and the contraceptive mandate. Changes to immigration policy, either through executive orders or legislation, will likely be in place. Maybe some of those Catholic candidates will even have time to talk about poverty? I bet Pope Francis hopes so.

Author’s note: I am proudly not registered to vote (...democracy works just fine without me) and I do not identify with any political party or candidate. I do not give money to candidates or parties nor involve myself in political advocacy of any kind ( I won’t sign your petition). CARA is a non-profit, non-partisan, independent research center committed to “searching dispassionately for truth.”

Baby yawning photo courtesy of Daniel James.


Sister Statistics: What Is Happening?

In spring 2014, CARA began analyzing membership data reported by the religious institutes of women in the United States as listed in The Official Catholic Directory (OCD). Forthcoming is a CARA Special Report based on this research entitled, Population Trends among Religious Institutes of Women. This post presents a teaser to this Special Report as well as some re-analysis of a CARA poll regarding vocational interest focusing on young never-married women’s interest in a religious vocation. Two CARA summer interns contributed substantially to these efforts, Erick Berrelleza, S.J., a Jesuit Scholastic at Boston College and James Fangmeyer, Jr., a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. This is all part of a recent flurry of research on religious life by CARA in addition to CARA Senior Research Associate Mary Gautier co-authoring New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2014) with Sr. Mary Johnson, N. and Sr. Patricia Wittberg, S.C.

As an applied research center, there are many reasons for CARA to focus on women religious. Perhaps the most pressing is that if current trends continue (…and they may not), there would be fewer than 1,000 religious sisters in the United States in 2043 (…most of this change would occur through aging and mortality with 11% of sisters in the United States currently in their 90s, 26% in their 80s, and 32% in their 70s). This estimated 2043 total would be similar to the number of sisters in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. Currently the total number of sisters in the United States is similar to totals for the first years of the 20th century.

The number of sisters relative to the Catholic population is more precarious in the United States than in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. The situation in the U.S., is slightly better than in Austria, France, Poland, and Portugal. Leading all other countries, there are more sisters in India than anywhere else (99,330). That equates to about 199 Catholics in India per religious sister.

By comparison there are 1,338 Catholics per religious sister in the United States (and 672 per religious sister in Italy). In addition to India, in several other Asian and African countries, the number of religious sisters is growing year over year (e.g., Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, Vietnam, Indonesia, and South Korea). Yet in many of these countries there are still more Catholics per religious sister than in the United States (e.g. in Nigeria this is 4,783 compared to 1,338 in the United States). No European country is currently experiencing growth in the number of religious sisters. Between 2002 and 2012, Asia and Africa experienced a net increase in sisters of 39,420. By comparison, the Americas, Europe, and Oceania lost a net 119,823 sisters during this same period (…globally the Church experienced a net loss of 80,403 sisters since 2002).

The Special Report will highlight institutes in the United States that are seeing women enter formation and the few that are experiencing this at a rate that allows them to grow. This is easier for smaller, newer orders than it is for the larger, more established orders that are losing many older members who joined communities at membership peaks in the 1960s.

Here in the United States, Gautier and her co-authors note, “Some commentators, for ideological purposes, attempt to create generalized typologies that mask the complexity of the religious reality, arguing that all new entrants go to traditionalist (CMSWR [Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious]) institutes and few or none go to LCWR [Leadership Conference of Women Religious] institutes. … The reality of the situation is that almost an equal percentage of LCWR and CMSWR institutes have no one at all in formation at the present time (32 percent and 27 percent, respectively). One of the most striking findings regarding new entrants is that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences in recent years.” (pg. 20-21).

One of the key differences between those attracted to LCWR institutes is that they are more likely to be over the age of 40, whereas those attracted to CMSWR institutes tend to be younger. As Gautier and her co-authors note, the Millennial religious sisters (b. 1982 or later)—in an institute in either conference—are more likely than those who are older to say the following types of prayer are “very” important to them: daily Eucharist, common meditation, Eucharistic Adoration, and other devotional prayer. Younger sisters are also more likely than older sisters to place more importance on aspects of community: they find living with other members, sharing meals together, and socializing together to be “very” important to them. Finally, the younger sisters are also more likely than older sisters to be attracted to their institute’s fidelity to the Church and its practice regarding a habit.

Gautier and her co-authors caution that “Millennial Catholics, of course, are not the last generation the Church must attract. The Post-Millennial generation is already passing through our high schools. While we do not know what worldview they will develop when they reach young adulthood, we do know that they will not be the same as the Millennials.”

Far too few Millennials and Post-Vatican II Generation (b. 1961-81) Catholic women in the United States have decided to enter religious life to make up for the older generations who have passed away or left. Gautier and her co-authors argue that those currently and recently entering religious life are a rather anomalous few among their peers. To reach more women beyond these few, institutes in the United States would need different approaches to attract Millennial women who are not as currently devoted to their faith. There are no easy answers to just what these approaches may be.

CARA’s Special Report analysis identified only six units of religious institutes with at least 100% growth between 1970 and 2013 (i.e., doubling their membership). Some of these units are often used in anecdotes and news reports about Church trends reversing. However, when one sums the membership of all six “fast” growing units you find that in total they have added only 267 net members since 1970 (i.e., totaling a membership of 229 in 1970 and 496 in 2013). Whatever the units of these institutes have done or are doing will unlikely be the solution to reversing losses in the tens of thousands elsewhere. It’s simply not enough. There are 348 units of religious institutes that have lost 50% or more of their members since 1970 (i.e., net change in total membership). The total net number of sisters lost here from 1970 to 2013 totals nearly 105,000.

Here is a teaser to what the Special Report will reveal about this complex situation (…available soon!):

What gets lost in the discussion of the overall decline of women religious are the stories of institutes that have not followed the decline trend. Religious institutes experiencing growth, for instance, were virtually unaccounted for in past studies. Since any growth in vocations did not surpass the number needed for replacement, many institutes were simply dismissed as having no new members. While in many cases new vocations to religious life are not abundant, it is important to recognize that women continue to be called to this way of life. Although the numbers overall continue to decline, this Special Report presents signs of life that are hidden in those numbers.

It also reveals the diverse ways in which religious institutes have and are responding to declines in membership in the United States. There is no universal approach. However, the choices being made will have significant implications for the future of the Church in the United States.

While the Special Report will focus on women already in religious institutes, other recent CARA research has evaluated who is potentially interested in joining in the future. In a 2012 CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) of never-married Catholics ages 14 and older, respondents provided their attitudes toward religious vocations. A shown below, never-married Catholic females ages 14 to 30 are slightly less likely than those who are older to have considered, and considered “very” seriously, becoming a religious sister. However, these differences are small-especially when one accounts for margin of error.

It is the case that most Catholic women do not consider religious life. But then again, the Catholic population in the United States is and has been so large that even a small fraction considering is equivalent to hundreds of thousands seriously considering this at some point.

Among females ages 30 and younger, a majority of those who have not considered a religious vocation indicate a desire to be a mother (55%) as being “very much” the reason for this lack of consideration (25% say this is the “most important” reason for not considering compared to only 7% of older women). On a related note, many also cite the lifestyle and the work of sisters as reasons for not considering a religious vocation (43%) as well as concerns about celibacy (38%).

Older never-married women are less likely to cite any of these reasons as a factor that “very much” led to their lack of consideration. On the other hand, older female respondents were more likely than younger to cite the stigma of clergy sex abuse to be a reason for not considering religious life. This in part may reflect the passing of time, as respondents in their teens at the time of the survey were small children in 2002 when news of these cases became widespread. Note that in the closed-ended questions this older group cited God not calling them as the “most important” reason for not considering (26%).

What is perhaps also striking about the figures in the table below is the lack of generational differences on many other issues.

Respondents who had never considered a vocation were also given the opportunity to express reasons for this in their own words. Below is a sampling from those ages 30 and younger:
  • Always wanted to get married and have a family.
  • At this point of my life I don’t want to settle down to one thing.
  • Different career aspirations and perhaps motherhood.
  • Felt my calling was outside sisterhood.
  • God had another purpose in life for me.
  • I am in a relationship.
  • I couldn't imagine that type of spiritual life style, I enjoy the company of a man and would like to get married one day.
  • I do not believe I can follow the way of the sisters.
  • I have had a great deal of exposure to sisters and have great respect for them, but I have other plans for my life that include another career path.
  • I have other interests that I want to accomplish.
  • I want the joys of being married with children.
  • I was not interested, it did not fit with my dreams.
  • My boyfriend is against it.
  • That is not a lifestyle I could picture myself living in.

By comparison below are some representative comments from respondents ages 31 and older:
  • Because it’s not my calling.
  • Believed that I would marry and have children.
  • Could not take a vow of poverty.
  • Freedom of movement and speech.
  • I am not holy enough.
  • I could not follow their strict rules.
  • I don't have any interest in it nor do I think I'm the "right" type of person.
  • I don't have the patience or humility required.
  • I don't think I would ever not be interested in men. I also like flirting and dating them. I like guys too much.
  • I enjoy my freedom of choice.
  • I like men and having an intimate relationship. I wanted a family, freedom, a career. I did not want to live with women to serve God. I could serve him as a lay person active in my parish community.
  • I have never felt the "calling."
  • I'm not willing to be totally submissive to the rules and obligations of the order's leader.
  • Not that selfless.
  • This was not my calling in life.
  • When I was young nuns wore habits and I liked clothes.

On that last note, there are mixed opinions among never-married Catholic women regarding sisters wearing habits. Half of the younger respondents say they do “not at all” agree that religious sisters should wear habits compared to 58% of older respondents. At the other end of the spectrum just 5% of the younger respondents and 10% of the older agree “very much” with this practice.

Younger never-married Catholic females also appear to have less awareness than older respondents that there is a diminishing number of religious sisters, as only 14% agree “very much” that the Church has too few sisters compared to 31% of never-married females ages 31 and older. It is also the case that younger respondents are less likely than older respondents to agree “very much” that they understand what religious sisters do (16% compared to 36%).

Regression analyses of the survey responses (available in the full report) indicated that women 1) who attended a Catholic elementary school as a child (...and too few may be enrolled now to support vocations), 2) who remained involved with a Church group while in high school, and 3) who were encouraged by multiple people to explore a religious vocation were most likely to have considered it. Among those who had considered this at least a little seriously, majorities of the younger respondents say they were “very much” interested in an active religious life devoted to ministry and service (52% compared to 42% of older respondents) as well as having a contemplative religious life devoted to prayer and community (50% compared to 30% of older respondents).

Again this post is just meant as a teaser. I can’t give away the bulk of the story (no spoilers) which you’ll find in the upcoming Special Report.  

Update: This report became available on Oct. 13 and is available for download here.

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