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.


Spotlight on Vocations: Interested but Discouraged

CARA recently released results of two surveys—one of Catholic men who have become priests and the other of Catholic women who have become sisters or nuns. The results provide interesting insights about what might cause men and women to consider these vocations and what might cause them to follow through on this consideration. Yet “cause” is a strong word and more often than not the results instead reveal correlations.

For example, 65% of men who become priests indicate they participated in Eucharistic Adoration before entering the seminary. Does Eucharistic Adoration cause a man to become a priest? In most cases, probably not. Instead, the same thing(s) that made that man interested in becoming a priest also likely made him interested in participating in in Eucharistic Adoration.

Most are well aware that too few men and women are choosing a religious vocation to keep up with those lost to retirement and mortality. The numbers of priests, brothers, and sisters is declining annually (numbers of permanent deacons and lay people in parish ministry are increasing—a topic to be covered in a future post). One of the biggest challenges for the Church is to inspire more American Catholics to seriously consider these vocations.

CARA surveys of the adult Catholic population consistently reveal that more than 15% of Catholic men say they have ever considered becoming a priest or religious brother. In the most recent survey this percentage was 17% (margin of sampling error is ±4.5 percentage points).

However, only about 3% of Catholic men say they have considered this “very seriously.” That small percentage actually represents a large real number. That percentage is equivalent to about 840,000 men in the United States today (there have been 12,958 men ordained as priests in the last 25 years). We can roughly estimate that about one in 100 Catholic men who say they “very seriously” considered becoming a priest are likely to follow through and be ordained. If the Church could just increase that to two or three in every 100 who “very seriously” consider this, concerns over priest shortages would end.

However, things may not be so simple. Generational differences show that young Catholic men are much less likely to say they have ever considered becoming a priest than those of the Vatican II Generation (those born between 1943 and 1960). Fewer than one in ten male Millennial Catholics (born 1982 or later) say they have ever considered becoming a priest.

The pattern for Catholic women’s consideration of a religious vocation is similar. Fifteen percent say they have ever considered becoming a nun or religious sister. However, only 0.6% says they have considered this “very seriously.” This is equivalent to only about 170,000 women in the United States today. Thus, there are more than four times as many men who say they have “very seriously” considered becoming a priest or brother than women who say they have “very seriously” considered a religious vocation.

Mirroring the generational differences for men’s consideration of a priestly or religious vocation, only about one in ten women in the youngest Catholic generation say they have ever considered becoming a sister or nun.

The likelihood that someone has considered one of these vocations varies by other attributes. For example, in the general Catholic male population 17% say they have considered becoming a priest or brother but this increases to 21% among Catholic men who attend Mass weekly. Some of these correlates are shown in the table below. Many are consistent with reported behaviors and attitudes found in the recent CARA surveys of ordinands and women professing their perpetual vows.

The most significant factor in any CARA survey where the vocations question is asked is attendance at a Catholic college or university. About four in ten men (40%) and women (41%) who have attended, report having considered a vocation at some point. Attendance at a Catholic high school or primary school also provides a modest boost in the numbers.

CARA surveys of ordinands and women who have recently professed their perpetual vows also show that encouragement is clearly important. Most ordinands (89 percent) report being encouraged to consider the priesthood by at least one person in their lives.  Two in three ordinands were encouraged by a parish priest, while two in five were encouraged by a friend, their mother, or a parishioner.

Surprisingly, six in ten ordinands also report being discouraged from considering the priesthood by a friend or classmate (compared to the four in ten who were encouraged by a friend).  Half related that they were discouraged from considering the priesthood by a parent or family member.

Parents or family members (includes mother, father, grandparent or other relative) are as likely to encourage as they are to discourage ordinands from considering the priesthood.  Friends are slightly more likely to discourage than encourage consideration of priestly vocation, while priests are three times more likely to encourage than to discourage consideration of a vocation to the priesthood.

Ordinands to the priesthood are generally more likely than sisters professing perpetual vows to report that someone encouraged them to explore their vocation.  Only one group—encouragement from friends—is the same for both ordinands and sisters.  Ordinands are twice as likely as sisters to report encouragement from their mothers, fathers, and grandparents.  

However, ordinands to the priesthood are also more likely than sisters professing perpetual vows to report being discouraged to explore their religious vocation by a friend.  Ordinands and sisters are equally likely to report being discouraged by a family member.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to increasing vocations is the encouragement/discouragement dynamic. Getting one more additional person per 100 who is “very seriously” considering becoming a priest to follow that vocation may depend on altering the culture of the American Catholic laity. There are more than enough men who say they have “very seriously” considered becoming a priest. But are there enough people around them encouraging them to follow through on this consideration? Nearly seven in ten U.S. Catholics say they have not encouraged vocations and that they would not do so in the future.

These are tough odds to face—especially with consideration of vocations falling among the youngest adult Catholics.

-CARA researchers Mark Gray, Melissa Cidade, and Mary Gautier contributed to this post.

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