The study, available online now, has many surprises. Although many speak of priest shortages and steep declines in the number of men and women religious, the survey reveals that there is no shortage of individuals who seriously consider these vocations among never-married Catholics in the United States. Three percent of men say they have "very seriously" considered becoming a priest or religious brother and 2 percent of women indicate they have "very seriously" considered becoming a religious sister. This is equivalent to 352,800 never-married men and 254,800 never-married women. Millions of never-married Catholics are estimated to have considered these vocations at least "a little seriously" based on the survey results.
This study identifies subgroups in the never-married Catholic population—including teens and adults—and compares those who have considered a vocation at least "a little seriously" to those who say they have not considered this or who say they did so, but not seriously. Overall, 12 percent of male respondents say they considered becoming a priest or brother at least a little seriously. Ten percent of female respondents say they considered becoming a religious sister at least a little seriously. The subgroups that are especially likely to have considered a vocation include:
- Weekly Mass attenders (now and in high school)
- Those who attended Catholic educational institutions at any level (excluding parish-based religious education)
- Those who participated in Church-related groups, programs, or activities as a youth or young adult
- Those who lived in households where parents talked to them about religion at least once a week
- Those who say their faith is the most important part of their life (now and in high school)
- Those who participate in prayer and devotional activities, groups, or programs (e.g., Bible study, Eucharistic adoration, retreats, or prayer groups)
- Those who pray the rosary at least weekly (alone or in a group)
- Those belonging to a group that encourages devotion to Mary
- Those who were encouraged to consider a vocation by someone else (e.g., family, friends, clergy, religious)
- Those who regularly read the Bible or pray with Scripture
- Those who personally know priests and men and women religious (in their extended family or outside of it)
- Those who have participated in parish ministry (e.g., Lectors, Ministers of Holy Communion, Youth Ministers)
- Those who have participated in World Youth Day or a National Catholic Youth Conference
- Those who have recently accessed religious and spiritual content in traditional or new media
Consideration of Becoming a Priest or Religious Brother among Men
Among male respondents, after controlling for all other factors, those who attended a Catholic secondary school (grades 9-12) are more likely to have considered becoming a priest or religious brother. Compared to those who did not attend a Catholic secondary school, these respondents are more than six times as likely to have considered a vocation. Participation in a parish youth group during primary school years (grades K-8) is also strongly related to vocational consideration. These respondents are more than five times as likely to consider a becoming a priest or religious brother than those who did not participate in a parish youth group. Given that 75 percent of male respondents who have considered a vocation report that they first did so when they were 18 or younger, these two results provide some of the strongest evidence of a possible causal effect.
Encouragement from others is also important. Respondents who have one person encouraging them are nearly twice as likely to consider a vocation as those who are not encouraged. Each additional person encouraging these respondents increases the likelihood of consideration. The effect is additive. Respondents who had three persons encourage them would be expected to be more than five times more likely to consider a vocation than someone who was not encouraged by anyone.
Knowing someone who has become a priest, religious sister or brother, or seminarian also has a positive effect. Respondents who personally know one of these individuals are more than one and a half times more likely than someone who does not to consider a vocation themselves. This effect is also additive and knowing more of these individuals would be expected to increase the likelihood of a respondent considering a vocation.
Attendance at World Youth Day or at a National Catholic Youth Conference has a positive effect for male consideration of a vocation. Those who attended either of these events are more than four times as likely as those who have not to say they have considered becoming a priest or brother.
Finally, those who have recently used traditional media (television, radio, print) to access content about religion or spirituality in the 12 months prior to the survey are more likely than those who did not to say they have considered a vocation. Note however, that this media use in most cases occurred well after their initial consideration. Thus, what this more likely demonstrates is that people who have considered a vocation are more likely than those who have not to use traditional media to currently follow religion and spirituality content. Those who have used one type of traditional media in the last year are nearly twice as likely to say they have considered a vocation than those who have not used these media recently. The effect is additive, so use of two or three traditional media to access religious or spiritual content is associated with an even greater likelihood of vocational consideration. This finding is potentially useful in understanding how male never-married Catholics who have considered becoming a priest or religious brother can be reached now.
Note that neither generation nor race and ethnicity are statistically significant in the full model. Thus, there is nothing about a person’s age or race and ethnicity that are associated with lower or higher likelihoods of consideration, controlling for all other factors. Any disproportionality in the race and ethnicity of men who decide to become priests or religious brothers are in part likely to be related to being less likely to attend Catholic schools or to be involved in youth groups, comparatively lower levels of encouragement, or not personally knowing clergy or religious. This could also be related to factors that are important after consideration of a vocation is made by individuals, such as meeting requirements for entry into a formation program.
Consideration of Becoming a Religious Sister among Women
Among female respondents, the model predicting consideration of becoming a religious sister includes many parallel results to the model for male respondents.
Whereas secondary school is important for male vocational consideration, it is attendance at a Catholic primary school which is important for female vocational consideration. Female respondents who attended a Catholic primary school are more than three times as likely as those who did not to consider becoming a religious sister. Parish youth group participation is also important for female respondents. However, unlike males, it is participation during high school years rather than primary school years that has an effect. Women who participated in a parish youth group during these teen years are more than nine times as likely to consider becoming a religious sister.
Similar to male respondents, encouragement is also a positive factor. With nearly the same effect as is demonstrated among men, women are nearly twice as likely to consider a vocation when encouraged by another person to do so.
Also parallel to men, women who have used traditional media in the last year to consume or follow religious or spiritual content are more likely than those who do not to say they have considered a vocation.
Among the adults surveyed (excluding those ages 14 to 17 in the sample) who say they have considered a vocation, most report that they did so between the ages of 13 and 24. Additionally, one in four Catholic females who have considered becoming a religious sister did so before they were a teenager.
Although most Catholics who are becoming priests, religious brothers, or religious sisters now are typically in their 30s or even older, it is likely that the roots of these vocations were established in their teen years or even earlier.
In Their Own Words
Respondents who said they had never considered a vocation were asked in an open ended question, “Why do you think you have never considered this?” Their responses to this question were coded into categories based on their content.
Among male respondents who have never considered a vocation as a priest or religious brother, the most common responses to the question were related to a general lack of interest (39 percent), celibacy (18 percent), not having a calling to seek a vocation (8 percent), having other life goals (8 percent), and having some doubts about their faith or not feeling religious enough to seek a vocation (8 percent). One percent of comments referenced the issue of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
Among female respondents who have never considered a vocation as a religious sister, the most common responses were related to a general lack of interest (31 percent), celibacy (16 percent), not having a calling to seek a vocation (11 percent), discomfort with the lifestyle they would need to adopt (10 percent), and having some doubts about their faith or not feeling religious enough to seek a vocation (9 percent).