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.


Secularization, R.I.P.? Not even on Dec. 21, 2012

In his last novel F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Not true. “Reborn” like a zombie this week, the theory of secularization is seemingly back from the dead (at least in the American popular imagination …see the image above). Social scientist Rodney Stark has lamented, “For nearly three centuries, social scientists and assorted western intellectuals have been promising the end of religion. Each generation has been confident that within another few decades, or possibly a bit longer, humans will ‘outgrow’ belief in the supernatural (“Secularization, R.I.P.” p. 249). This is a bit odd as people continue to speak of the theory “despite the fact that it never was consistent with empirical reality,” Stark notes (p. 249). Ironically, if you believe in the theory of secularization you are probably doing this mostly on faith. Great new data from Pew on global religious affiliation indicate this theory continues to be empirically challenged (my previous post explores some of the domestic implications of this study along with Gallups recent research on the topic). 

The theory of secularization assumes that human beings will become less religious over time as societies
modernize and undergo economic development that results in important cultural changes. This evolutionary framework predicts that rising levels of education and autonomy in these societies lead people to eventually reject religion after which religious institutions become less significant and eventually wither away. If this theory is accurate we would expect to see religion to be strongest in the “developing” world and weakest in those countries that have “modernized” under capitalist and democratic systems. The problem for this theory continues to be reality. When applied to data it often does not work as neatly as it is assumed. One representation of this is shown below in a scatter plot of Pew’s country-level estimates of the religiously unaffiliated by each nation’s GDP per capita. There is an upward sloping straight line through these data—just not many observations around it that would represent a powerful relationship. However, if you look closely you can see some other potentially important patterns that may deserve further exploration.

Notice that most of the world’s Nones were not fostered in the bright light of “reason” blooming in “modernized” countries. Instead most have been raised in states that actively and in some cases brutally suppress religion.

About 19% of the world’s population lives in China. At the same time this single country is home to 62% of the global unaffiliated. When one adds in other similar states it is evident that two-thirds of the world’s unaffiliated live under a communist regime. An additional six percent live in formerly communist countries adjacent to the former Soviet Union or China.

One commenter to the Huffington Post’s story on the Pew data wrote ,“Yay! Go non-religion go! Reason is pulling ahead in the curve.” Maybe this comment was posted via an iPhone along with many other seemingly celebratory tweets about “Nones being the 3rd largest (non)affiliation in the world.” How many of these people knew that the person who assembled their phone lives in the country that is singularly responsible for that 3rd-place “title”? Remove China from the numbers and the unaffiliated fall to a distant 4th—behind Hinduism (...all of this completely ignoring that many unaffiliated consider themselves religious and believe in a creator).

Of course there are other causal factors to explore than communist state repression of religion. For example, many of the countries with the largest numbers of Nones have historically had very low or immeasurable levels of affiliation with the world’s Abrahamic religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, or Islam). Three-fourths of the world’s unaffiliated live in such a country and all of these are in Asia. Nations that have had an
Abrahamic religious tradition represent a majority of the worlds population (55%) but contribute only 25% of the world's Nones.

Three-fourths of the world’s unaffiliated also reside in countries with a GDP per capita below $15,000. Yet the data may also reveal a weak pulse for secularization theory in the higher within-country unaffiliated percentages, on average, in nations with higher GDP per capita figures (i.e., last column in the table). Then again these percentages are in the teens and far below those seen in communist countries. Modernization is certainly not doing any of the heavy lifting in creating more of the religiously unaffiliated.

Stark once proposed that, “once and for all, let us declare an end to the social scientific faith in the theory of secularization, recognizing that it was the product of wishful thinking” (p. 269). Yet I don’t think the end is near. Predicting the demise of secularization theory is just as dangerous of predicting the demise of religion. Faith remains comparatively strong in both. I know some religion reporters who seem quite a bit fonder in the former than the latter which helps the theory of secularization thrive in popular culture even as belief in God in the U.S. has fallen only 5 percentage points since 1944.

The modern construction of the Mayan prediction ( resemblance to what they believed or understood) was indeed wrong. It’s December 21st and you, me, God, and secularization theory are alive and well in America.  


The Future of Religious Affiliation in America: The other half of the news that is fit to print

I am just finishing a semester teaching a course on theory and evidence for secularization and preparing for next semester where I will teach a class on forecasting and prediction. The intersection of these two courses has me thinking about the future of religion in America and there is some new data out to review on the topic. Pew just released a study on global religious affiliation and non-affiliation. Approximately 16% of people around the world do not have a religious affiliation amounting to about 1.1 billion in all. Some 50.9 million of these people reside in the United States representing 4.5% of the world’s “Nones” (...75% of global Nones live either in China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, or Taiwan... for more on international numbers see my next post).

This comes on the heels of Gallup releasing new data that concluded that “God is alive and well” in the United States. This research, based on a massive series of surveys in which one out of every thousand Americans was asked about their religion in 2012, has gone largely unnoticed by religion reporters. Not that reporters are required to cover anything but this is a bit odd as Gallup’s sample size is nearly ten times larger than many of the most highly regarded studies on this topic in the U.S. (e.g., Pew or ARIS). The sample is a hundred times larger sample than the one used by Robert Putnam and David Campbell used to write American Grace,which was widely covered by the media. The New York Times covered Pew’s research with “Study Finds One in 6 Follows No Religion” but made no mention of Gallup’s, which also provides some much needed insight on religion in America. Was it just not newsworthy? Here were some of the key Gallup findings:
  • Sixty-nine percent of American adults are very or moderately religious.
  • Religiousness increases with age, albeit not in a smooth path but rather in stages. Americans are least religious at age 23 and most religious at age 80.
  • Trends in the age composition of the American public suggest that religion may become increasingly important in the years to come. This is mostly the result of the fact that the number of Americans who are 65 and older will essentially double over the next 20 years, dramatically increasing the number of older Americans. As long as these aging baby boomers become more religious as they age—following the path of their elders—the average religiousness in the population will go up.

That final point sure seems a bit provocative and worthy of note or further exploration. The news “problem” with the Gallup’s study may be in that it looks at religiosity through the lens of the life-cycle rather than then the “linear” secularization model that is the dominant “conventional wisdom” (…even as this has largely been discarded in the academic world in both theory and evidence. Comte, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Freud are all dead, yet religion lives on). Both Gallup and Pew reveal similar things about religion in the U.S. There is a large and growing number of Americans who are without any attachment to organized religion—although many are still personally religious or spiritual and believe in God. But there also remains a much larger group that is religiously affiliated.

What about the future? Gallup has placed a bet on growth in religiosity given the demographic changes expected ahead. At the same time The New York Times and most other secular news organizations are fixated on perspectives about the demise of religion in America (…just follow the trail of headlines in the archives). Who will win that bet?

Gallup is correct that
life-cycle effects are important (even if they are largely unnoticed) and are being “stretched” by a growing “adultolesence” that has taken the rather typical dip in religiosity many American have always experienced in their teens and 20s into the 30s. One simple piece of evidence can be found in the age structure of Nones. Look in any recent decade and you’ll find that Nones are always disproportionally young—as if they are the “Lost Boys” never aging. Where are all the senior citizen Nones who had no affiliation in their 20s in the late-1960s?

Adultolescence is only part of the puzzle. Religious affiliation is being affected in the same way that all kinds of membership organizations in America have been since the 1950s from PTOs to the Shriners. For Robert Putnam the primary cause for this membership decline was television (…Bowling Alone is one of the most important books I have ever read). People are not as likely to bowl in leagues anymore—even though bowling may be something they still enjoy. Similarly, there are many Americans who do not belong to a church anymore but who believe in God and consider themselves religious. Too many jump to the conclusion that a lack of affiliation means a lack of religiosity. The Gallup study is important in clarifying this common mistake. Just as Putnam highlighted the effects of TV (…still America’s #1 leisure time “activity” and growing by the year) I think we can now add in the hours we spend on iPhones, tablets, video games, Facebook, etc. to the demise of face to face participation in membership organizations (...on average, teenagers spend more than an hour and a half per day just texting... and a day is still only 24 hours!). We focus so much on the simple number of people who are not in churches on Sunday. Why don’t we ever study what they do instead? In CARA’s research we know many Catholics cite family obligations, work, illness, etc. It might be interesting to know how many are playing Assassin’s Creed instead of saying the Nicene Creed at Mass. We just don’t know. The Gallup study is betting that the 20-year-old without a religious affiliation playing video games on Sundays now will be in a church 35 years from now.

As always I’m really only interested in where the data lead. This requires one to try to disentangle period, life-cycle, and generational effects. In the figure below we see the trends in lack of religious affiliation by generation. This was very uncommon among Americans born before 1942. It was never common among the Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900) and the G.I. Generation (born 1901 to 1924). Yet this begins to tick up among the Silent Generation (born 1942 to 1960) in the 1990s. This of course is a pattern that the Gallup life-cycle model would not predict. With each successive generation from the Boomers (born 1943 to 1960) to the Millennials (born 1982 or later) there is significant growth in non-affiliation as if parents are increasingly unable to pass on their affiliation. This coincides with what Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” model would predict. The generations raised with a television in their living rooms are less likely to be connected to organized religion (…or other secular institutions). Those born in the digital age are even more disconnected from real-world membership institutions. I don’t think the figure below leads one to be very confident that those playing video games on Sundays now will be praying in churches at mid-century when they are in their late 50s. 

As shown below, Protestant churches have felt the brunt of these changes. A majority of Baby Boomers self-identify as Protestant or Christian (excluding Orthodox Christians), yet only about four in ten Millennials identify as such. This is a reality that would be unrecognizable to the Lost Generation—the youth of a century prior who were 76% Protestant. This is visible linear change.

However, something quite different is occurring among U.S. Catholics. Here, there is remarkable stability across generations (even growth compared to the oldest generations). Some believe this pattern can be completely explained by immigration. Yet as I’ve noted elsewhere the numbers for that argument just don’t add up as nicely as it is assumed and the reality we see in survey data shows a significant number of Catholics who may lose affiliation for a time returning later in life as the Gallup life-cycle model predicts. Immigration is important (as it has always been for Catholics in the U.S.), but the religious life-cycle may be as well.

So I think Gallup may be partially correct in its predictions. Catholicism seems to “stick” more than Protestant affiliations and this may be important in understanding the future of religious affiliation in the U.S. The Church has a higher retention rate of its youth than individual Protestant denominations and some who left revert back later in life (...the None retention rate is even lower. Not the “Lost Boys” after all...). Immigration is expected to continue to be important as well even as some of this has been on the decline since 2007 (...and the Catholic population percentage has remained steady).

I am less hesitant about making one prediction. I am 100% sure religion and God will still be alive and well in America, as Gallup argues, when The New York Times prints its final edition (1, 2, 3). Some institutions survive cultural changes better than others. Those who don’t see the changes coming probably weren
t paying attention to all of the relevant data.


Bellwether Second Thoughts: The State-level Catholic Vote

On the national level, the votes of U.S. Catholics are a bellwether—nearly always in line with the popular vote outcome—and this was the case again in 2012 (50% for President Obama and 48% for Gov. Romney). However, the national popular vote does not decide the presidency and instead we use the population-weighted popular votes of the states in the Electoral College system to determine the winner.

Although President Obama won more Catholic votes nationally than Gov. Romney, he would have lost badly in the states if the Catholic vote acted as a similar bellwether on that level. We can’t see what role religion played in each state because a religion question is not fielded in every state and this year some states did not even have an exit poll. But based on what we can see Mitt Romney would likely have preferred that the state-level Catholic vote would have been the bellwether rather than the national.

It is unlikely that President Obama won the Catholic vote in any Southern state and with what we can see above Romney would have been just 69 electoral votes shy of 270. So how did the president get to 50% percent of the Catholic vote nationally? By winning this in California by +24 percentage points (62% to 38%). He also had big advantages in smaller states we can see like New Mexico (+32 percentage points) and Maine (+15). Romney won the Catholic vote in several Democratic states including Connecticut (+2), Illinois (+3), New York (+6), and New Jersey (+8) and led by strong margins in some of the Midwestern swing states including Michigan (+11), Ohio (+11), and Wisconsin (+12).

There certainly is no consolation prize for winning the Catholic vote at the state level! But Mitt Romney can look back at his state by state performances in the primaries and later in the general election and see quite a bit of success among Catholic voters. Republicans of the future on the other hand need to be aware that winning the Catholic (and Protestant) vote in many states is no longer enough to win national elections. The “Nones” of 2012 are as important to the Democratic Party now as Catholics were to them in 1960 (pre-election, post-election).

A comparison of which candidate won the Catholic, Protestant, and None vote is shown in the table below:


Santa Claus: To believe or not to believe?

It’s seems odd how troubling Santa Claus has become. Among religious and non-religious alike there are those who second guess, for various reasons (e.g., secularism, commercialism, honesty), whether Santa should be “invited” over for Christmas in the 21st century.

I can remember my two childhood confrontations with faith in Santa in the 1970s (before you could Google any doubts). I can’t remember the precise age but I can recall pushing my bed to a window overlooking another house. I tried to stay up until I saw him and his sleigh land on their roof. Without ready access to caffeine I failed. The next Christmas I set out a pen, paper, and inkpad with the milk and cookies and requested Santa’s autograph and a stamp of Rudolph’s hoof. It was my first real try at data collection. My handwriting analysis was inconclusive but I did know, even at that age, the difference between a beagle’s paw print and a reindeer’s hoof. But maybe Santa was in a hurry and my dog was nearby? (Others have had more success at collecting evidence).

Santa is certainly no St. Nicholas and whether one is Christian or not there was a time not long ago when most American children believed in him. Eighty six percent of Americans in the most recent survey asking such a question (…that I can analyze) said they believed in Santa as a child. This is highest among Catholics at 94%. Even most non-Christians and the currently unaffiliated (…”Nones” who may have been religious earlier in life) say they believed in their youth.

If you’re a parent you may be asking yourself does my child believe or are they just pretending to believe? If kids today are anything like we were in our youth they will likely begin to have doubts around age 10—the most frequently noted age for this. Nearly half of adult Catholics (48%) who believed in Santa say they stopped believing in the jolly old man before age 9. Overall, for American adults of all faiths, only about 2% of those raised to believe in Santa continue to believe in him as an adult (...comparatively speaking not a good “retention” rate). 

Even as very few believe as adults, six in ten Catholics (61 percent) say Santa Claus is still “somewhat” or “very” important to their holiday celebrations now as adults—more so than any other affiliation group. Minorities of Evangelical and Mainline Protestants say Santa is at least “somewhat” important to them this time of year. Some may find it surprising then that majorities of those who are of other religions or who have no affiliation say Santa is
somewhat” or “very” important to them. 

Is there an Evangelical Protestant “war” on Santa that I have been unaware of? A majority of Evangelical Protestants (55%) also agreed that the Santa Claus tradition detracts from the religious significance of the Christmas holiday. Fewer Catholics (47%) and Mainline Protestants (43%) agreed that this is the case. 

The Associated Press replicated the childhood belief in Santa question in December 2011. Data are not yet available for public analysis but the topline results are essentially the same at 84%. The earliest poll I can find that asked this question was conducted by ABC News in 1993. Here childhood belief stood at 86%. So belief in Santa seems quite stable. You still need to bake the cookies and put out the milk (or hot buttered rum). You never know…

Photo above courtesy of Bart Fields from Flickr Commons.


U.S. Catholics are Divided but Far from Politically “Realigned”

With election season over its time for the political science content on this blog to take a back seat for a bit (...until the 2014 midterms approach). In this final Election 2012 post I have to note some amusement with assumptions made about the U.S. political parties having set into “permanent” majority and minority statuses. Journalists and commentators have short memories. Political scientists know better. One of the best models for what we might expect in the future is in research conducted by two of my mentors Bernard Grofman and Thomas Brunell along with Samuel Merrill entitled, “Cycles in American National Electoral Politics, 1854-2006.” American politics is rarely, if ever, linear in its evolution. There are no “locks” on anything (…following 1960 and 1964 one could have easily predicted that Catholics would overwhelmingly vote Democrat in the future but reality didn’t pan out that way) and the parties have quite a knack for reinvention (...see any review of the history of the Democratic Party and you’ll know what I mean). In recent years, Americans have tended to favor divided government and it is uncommon for them to let one party control the presidency for more than two consecutive terms.

Despite some of the post-election rhetoric, the 2012 election cycle did not realign the U.S. party system generally or for Catholics more specifically. The figure below shows party identification of U.S. adult Catholics (i.e., the voting age population) in CARA Catholic Polls (CCP) fielded closest to a presidential election since 2000. The 2012 election represents a bit of a regression to the mean with the Democratic Party affiliation advantage over Republicans dropping 7 percentage points from +17 in 2008 to +10 percentage points, which is more consistent with 2000 and 2004. The Washington Post has a figure on how this same regression to the mean occurred among many sub-groups of voters in 2012 compared to 2008. 

Even factoring in party “leaners” does not significantly alter the overall Catholic partisan balance (...leaners are the most volatile group and often shift between parties or independent stances as issues and candidates change). 

Why am I amused by the notion of
“permanent” majorities being set in 2012? Because things could change quickly. Looking ahead, the 2014 election will be a decidedly lower turnout contest without the presidency on the ticket. This may favor Republicans again as it did in 2010 among the overall electorate and Catholic voters. Currently, Democrats have long odds on regaining the House (although this could change depending on how the fiscal cliff is resolved). The Republicans may even have a better than fair chance to make significant gains in the Senate given the distribution of races and recent electoral history accounting for the party of the incumbent president. If I were Sen. Harry Reid I would really think twice about weakening of the filibuster. He may need it.

Republicans are also likely to have more favorable odds in 2016 than they did in 2012 without having to face an incumbent ( of the reasons many Republicans sat on the bench during the 2012 primary season). Second terms can be a mine field. The president’s popular vote total and percentage declined from 2008 and his approval ratings are on a rather typical long-term downward trajectory that has been experienced by most post-World War II presidents (...even his post-election polls have shown a worse than average “bounce” in approval). This all comes at a time when presidents have traditionally started thinking about their legacy.
Historians and political scientists will pay close attention to unemployment and poverty rates, deficits and debt, as well as economic growth during his two terms. President Obama will also inevitably be compared to both Clinton and Reagan who were able to overcome and/or work with opposition from Congress. The resolution of the current taxes, budget, and deficit stalemate in Congress will be important not only for the perception of his effectiveness but also for its eventual policy outcomes. Will the economy improve, jobs grow, and the deficit be reduced? Those thinking of running for president as a Democrat in 2016 have their fingers crossed.
On the other side of the aisle I think the Republicans find themselves in a similar position to the Democrats in 2004. Following that loss, Democrat strategists Stanley Greenberg and Matt Hogan produced a paper entitled “Reclaiming the White Catholic Vote” as a road map to winning the presidency again. I would not doubt if somewhere Republican strategists were working on a similar type of paper now perhaps entitled “Making Gains among the Hispanic Catholic Vote.” Republicans already do well among Hispanic Evangelicals but would likely be unsuccessful in convincing Hispanic “Nones” to switch parties or votes. Catholics may represent their best chance at convincing more Hispanic voters to consider choosing a Republican in 2016. Yet, winning a sub-group of the Catholic vote for Republicans in a higher turnout presidential election is often like sailing into a headwind. As you can see in the table below, most sub-groups affiliate with or lean toward the Democrats with the exception of Catholics in rural areas, non-Hispanic whites, those with a college degree, those with an annual household income of $100,000 or more, and weekly Mass attenders.

Republicans would not need to win the votes of Hispanic Catholics outright, but gaining more votes from this sub-group would improve their odds—especially if these gains were made in key battleground states. Democrats have one huge unknown on their side. Will Hillary Clinton run in 2016? If she does, I think the odds for Republicans become decidedly worse. Catholic Democrats often favored her over the then Sen. Obama in the 2008 primaries. Regardless of what either party does in the next four years I expect the vote of Catholics to continue to be divided and a bellwether for the larger electorate.


Tracking Changes… Accepted?

In August 2011, CARA released results of a survey that showed only about one in four adult Catholics and nearly six in ten of those who attend Mass weekly were aware of the changes to the English-language liturgy that would begin during Advent 2011. Now more than a year later, CARA has revisited the revisions to the Mass in a new survey that replicated some of the questions we asked in 2011. As far as I am aware this is the only “pre and post” national data examining Catholic reactions to changes in the liturgy (although note that these surveys use two different random samples, the same individuals were not interviewed in both polls). CARA conducted this research for Rev. Anthony J. Pogorelc, S.S., M.Div., Ph.D at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. He constructed the framework and questions and has presented the results for the study at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association in Phoenix on November 9. Here is some of what we found…

In September 2012, nearly a year after the changes took effect, seven in ten U.S. adult self-identified Catholics agree that the new translation of the Mass is a good thing (with 20 percent agreeing “strongly”). Nearly a quarter “disagree” (23 percent) and 7 percent “strongly” disagree with this statement.

Catholics who attend Mass weekly are among the most likely to agree that the new translation of the Mass is a good thing. Eighty-four percent responded as such (47 percent “strongly” agree with this statement). By comparison, 63 percent of those who rarely or never attend Mass agree with this statement (only 4 percent “strongly” agree).

Regular Mass attendance levels remained the same in the 2012 survey compared to 2011 with both polls estimating that about a quarter of adult Catholics (24 percent) attend Mass weekly or more often (weekly Mass attendance levels of have been steady since 2000). However, there was a slight decline in the total percentage of Catholics saying they attend Mass monthly (i.e., once a month or a few times a month) from 25 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2012. However, this difference is just within the surveys’ margins of sampling error and thus may be due to random variations between two samples. CARA will continue to track Mass attendance in its polls to see if a new pattern is emerging. It is also the case that there have been no statistically significant changes in the numbers of Americans who self-identify as Catholic in the last year either. Thus, there was no identifiable exodus from the Church that could be related to the changes in the liturgy.

Respondents in the 2012 poll were asked, “During an average Mass, would you say that you have noticed that the language of the prayers that are said during Mass have (1) remained about the same, (2) changed to a small extent, (3) changed to a moderate extent, or (4) changed to a great extent?” Four in ten respondents (40 percent) said they had noticed the language of these prayers had changed to a small extent and 23 percent said these had changed to a moderate extent. Only 6 percent said they noticed changes to a great extent and 31 percent said that the language of these prayers had remained about the same as far as they noticed. Those who have perceived less change are those most likely to agree that the new translation is a good thing. Among those who feel the language was changed to a great extent, a majority disagree that the new translation is a good thing (65 percent). However, this group makes up only a small number of respondents (6 percent).

A series of agree or disagree questions were asked of respondents in both the 2011 and 2012 surveys. These are compared in the table below which shows the 2012 results and the percentage point change in agreement from 2011.

Respondents were less likely to agree with all statements in 2012 than in the 2011 survey. However, in most cases, the differences between the surveys is within the margin of sampling error. In one instance, respondents are discernibly less likely to agree at least “somewhat” with the statement: “The words of the prayers recited by the priest and people make it easier for me to participate in the Mass” (79 percent in 2012 compared to 86 percent in 2011). This shift may represent the learning curve some Catholics have experienced with the revisions.

Catholics who attend Mass more frequently are more likely to agree with all four of the statements regarding the Mass in 2012. It is also the case that among weekly Mass attenders there are no significant differences in responses to these questions between 2012 and 2011.

If there is one note of caution for the future in the data it is in generational differences. As shown in the figure below, Millennials (adults born after 1981) are more likely than older Catholics to “disagree” that the new translation is a good thing and less likely to “strongly” agree with that statement. These differences are beyond margin of sampling error. At the same time it is also the case that significant majorities in each generation agree with that the translation is a good thing.

The 2012 survey was completed by 1,047 self-identified Catholics who were 18 years of age or older resulting in an overall sampling margin of error of ±3.0 percentage points. Sixty-seven percent of the GfK Custom Research (formerly Knowledge Networks) panel members invited to take the survey completed it. The survey was in the field from September 10 to September 18, 2012. The 2011 survey included 1,239 self-identified Catholics who were 18 years of age or older resulting in a sampling margin of error of ±2.8 percentage points. Fifty-seven percent of the Knowledge Networks panel members invited to take the survey completed it.

…On an unrelated note I apologize for having been on a mini-sabbatical from the blog of late with work, travel, and even a bit of vacation. I spent Election Day in Disneyland, which I hear may have been more of a “real” experience than watching what could be seen on MSNBC or Fox News that evening (...or thereafter)! Glad to see some voices recently calling out these networks for what they are (Wash Post, Huff Post, NY Times). I'll have more analysis of the changing Catholic electorate and a bunch of new CARA data on other topics to post here so be warned that the blog may take on a bit of an Advent calendar quality in the days ahead.


The Day After: Catholic Vote 2012

National exit polling estimates that President Obama beat Gov. Romney by 2 percentage points among Catholic voters (50% to 48% with 2% voting for some other candidate). This is such a close margin that we may see some other polls like Gallup and the American National Election Study disagree with this as they did in 1988 and 2004. But for now, the "bellwether" status of the Catholic vote appears safe. Catholics made up 25% of all voters (...just one more dagger in the mythology that the Catholic population is in decline and only held steady by immigration). Gov. Romney beat President Obama among Protestants 57% to 42%. However, President Obama was a clear favorite for those without a religious affiliation, winning the "Nones" 70% to 26%. The estimate for the Catholic vote from the exit polls is within 1 percentage point of the final Gallup weekly pre-election estimate for the Catholic vote (i.e., likely voters; see figure here). President Obama had a clear edge among Catholic registered voters throughout much of the campaign but he trailed slightly among Catholic likely voters until the final week when the polls showed a slight shift (see figure here). There will be more data available in the days to come that will allow for analyses by Mass attendance or most important issues... 


Were U.S. Catholics Raptured? ... Again?

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released The 2012 American Values Study last week, which looks at religious affiliation and election issues among those of different affiliations. The second line of the Executive Summary was a surprise:

While Catholics and white mainline Protestants remain two of the largest religious groups in the United States, they have each experienced significant declines in membership.” [emphasis added]

There are fewer Catholics in the United States now than in the past? When was the population ever higher? The claim in the PRRI report is incorrect. As I understand it, this may have just been a poor choice of words rather than something that the PRRI researchers literally intended to say or believed. Regardless, it is the kind of thing that gets picked up and then repeated in error by a religion reporter (example). Then your pastor reads it and puts it in a homily. Your great aunt posts it on Facebook. Before you know it this suddenly becomes "conventional wisdom."

It is true that Catholicism, like all religious affiliations, does not retain all of those raised in the faith (although the Church's retention rate is higher than many others) but that does not mean that the overall number of Americans self-identifying as Catholic is in decline. Just look at the unaffiliated, the fastest growing (non)affiliation which loses more of it's youth (as they later become religiously affiliated), as a percentage, than the Catholic Church or any other major religious group (i.e., retention rates reported on pg. 9 of the PRRI report). PRRI researchers seem to have similarly relied on only part of the "ledger" of affiliation in that second line of the Executive Summary. Your bank account would likely have "significant declines in its balance" if you similarly did not pay close attention to how and when all deposits are made. The PRRI researchers later in the report provide a bit of a qualification:

[T]he Catholic share of the U.S. population has remained relatively stable, despite losing a significant number of adherents (12%) and attracting relatively few converts from other religions (2%). The primary explanation for this paradox is an influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly from central and South America.” [emphasis added]

This already has become a classic of "conventional wisdom" in commentary on Catholic affiliation. You know, the Catholic Church is "hemorrhaging" members and their places are being filled by immigrants. Yet researchers rarely present data or do the simple math that would provide any evidence for how much immigration plays a part in the population dynamics. It just "has to be true." I have responded to different aspects of claims of membership decline and the effects of immigration in the past (1, 23, 4) but I'll try to be more clear and present new data to show that this notion just does not add up the way it is imagined. It won't stop people from claiming this but maybe your great aunt will discover this post in a Google search and I can save her from making a misleading Facebook post. I try to do my part.

The figure below includes three of the highest quality long-term series of surveys that we have to study religious change over time (...and you need a "moving picture" to do this. A one-survey snapshot is insufficient. Some knowledge of demography and attention to how religious affiliation varies over the life-cycle is also important). The first is Gallup’s religious affiliation data (details). In Gallup's 2011 surveys, Catholic affiliation among U.S. adults was estimated to be 23%. In its first observation of the series, in 1948, Gallup measured Catholic affiliation at 22%. For the series overall, this averages 25%. The second source is the American National Election Study (ANES). This survey’s sample (details) is based on citizens so if immigration is so important to maintaining the stability of the Catholic population percentage we should see a big drop in Catholic affiliation here. From 1948 to 2010 the Catholic share of respondents in this survey averaged 23% with 21% self-identifying as such in 1948 and 19% self-identifying as such in 2008 (the most recent data point for the ANES. Another will be released in a few months). The final series (details) has a shorter range. This is the General Social Survey (GSS) which began in 1972. Here, Catholic affiliation has averaged 26% for the series with an initial observation in 1972 of 25% and the most recent observation in 2010 of 25%.  

Differences within all three series are generally within margins of error. You'll find recent survey estimates for the adult Catholic resident population percentage typically ranging anywhere from 20% to 26% with occasional outliers in either direction. Taking any one of these surveys within this range and assuming that it is showing a decline or an increase would be bad science. Margin of error really does matter (more on this below). Thus, each of the three historical trends represent the stability that you can see in the figure below. The black line running through the figure represents a triangulated aggregation (by average) of these three Catholic population estimates. This smooths out some of the random variations (i.e., sampling error and occasional outliers) in each source and provides a more reliable estimate than relying on any one source.

Of course a stable Catholic population percentage amidst a growing U.S. population means that the absolute number of adults self-identifying as Catholic over time is increasing. Even a decline in the population percentage does not always result in a decline in the actual population. A sub-group population can still be growing and adding net positive members but fail to grow as fast as the overall population and thus lose a percentage point or more. Below I will isolate changes since 1980, which coincides with the beginning of the most recent wave of immigration the U.S. has experienced. If immigration is the only thing "holding up" the Catholic population we should definitely see it clearly in the post-1980 period.

The U.S. Census Bureau provides population estimates by year and by age group for the United States (and other countries) in a publicly accessible database (details). I collected adult population totals (those ages 18 and older) from 1980 and 2011 and multiplied each annual total by the aggregated Catholic population percentage for each year from the figure above. This results in the trend you can see below. Don't make too much of the sharp waves in the figure as these represent fluctuations within the margin of error from the surveys measuring Catholic affiliation. With these data the adult Catholic population, as measured by self-affiliation, is estimated to have grown by 32 percent from 41.3 million in 1980 to 54.7 million in 2011. It is not possible to measure the change in the under-18 Catholic population. However, The Official Catholic Directory records 30.4 million infant and child baptisms between 1980 and 2011 with 17.8 million of these occurring since 1993 which are not yet "visible" to national polls that almost always use adult samples. Some of those baptized will no longer affiliate themselves as Catholic later in life as we know that a good chunk of those leaving the Church do so in their youth. Some return when they are older as "reverts." These reverts, as I will explain below, are an important part of the story of how the Catholic population percentage has maintained stability.

How much of this increase in affiliation is related to immigration? Another question frequently asked in surveys is country of birth and parents' country of birth. Below, I use these from the GSS and Pew's Social and Demographic Trends survey for 2011 to estimate the impact of immigration (Note: the GSS is not fielded every year and in recent years shifted to being done every other year. With the exception of 2011, I have interpolated any other missing year using data from the neighboring years. This is a reasonable method as the distribution for place of birth does not shift annually in the aggregate like attitudes can). The figure below breaks out the adult Catholic population into three stacked groups. The first are those born in the U.S. to native-born parents. The second are those born in the U.S. who have one or both parents born outside the U.S. The final group includes all those who are foreign-born.

The adult Catholic population born in the United States to native-born parents grew by 24% from 1980 to 2011 from 27.4 million to 34.1 million. This population is not in decline as many assume and continues to make up a majority of the U.S. adult Catholic population. The number of U.S. adult Catholics who are foreign-born or native-born children of at least one foreign-born parent grew from 13.9 million in 1980 to 20.6 million in 2011. This represents a 48% growth rate. Not all of this growth is directly related to immigration and some of this is linked to differences in fertility rates. For example, the 2011 birth rate (i.e., births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44) for Hispanic females was 17.5 compared to 10.8 for non-Hispanic white females. It is clear from the figure below that the Catholic population has gained some membership through immigration and the children of immigrants throughout the period (it should also be noted this statement would be true for most of American history in regards to Catholics and for some other religions in recent decades as well—including Nones. With native-born fertility rates falling below replacement, there are a variety of groups that now grow primarily through a combination of immigration and generational replacement). However, it is also the case that this growth is insufficient to explain the whole "paradox." More interestingly the percentage of adult Catholics indicating that they were born outside the U.S. is now in decline (since 2007) and the adult Catholic population percentage has continued to remain stable. This has occurred as immigration rates from Mexico have collapsed (1, 2).

The figure below shows the breakdown of the adult Catholic population by place of birth in 2011. About a quarter of adult Catholics (24%) are foreign-born representing 13.1 million individuals. This is up from 10% of Catholics being foreign-born in 1980. This is certainly part of the Catholic population growth story but it is also clearly not the only story or perhaps even the biggest story in the numbers. In 1980, 66% of adult Catholics were born in the United States to native-born parents. In 2011, this segment consisted of 62% of adult Catholics.

Also of interest is the declining numbers of Catholic adults who report that they are a child of a foreign-born parent(s) (i.e., 23% in 1980 and 14% in 2011). This may represent those who were children of the last waves of European immigration from the early 20th century passing away. The figure below shows how the proportion each group adds up to the total Catholic population percentage (i.e., summing the numbers equates the U.S. adult Catholic population percentage that was 23% in 2011. Note that the PRRI measurement of 22% is not statistically different from 2011). You can see there is a declining percentage for native-born Catholics due to their slower growth rate, but again the numbers of these individuals is growing in the aggregate population as shown above.


Immigration has contributed to the stability of the Catholic population percentage, as shown above, but not nearly to the degree argued by many (...Pew's 2007 data shows specifically that there are not enough foreign-born Catholics in the population to make up for the numbers of native-born Catholics who are estimated to have left. These data also document that a sizeable number of those who have left Catholicism are foreign-born. Note there is a difference between the results in Pew's report and what one can find in the data that are publicly available. No researcher is ever able to include a completely comprehensive analysis of their data in a single report). Thus, on the second statement highlighted above, I believe PRRI is simply putting too much emphasis on foreign-born Catholics to solve the paradox (...and they certainly are not alone in doing so). At the same time, I will reiterate that the PRRI statement is absolutely factually incorrect in claiming that the Catholic Church in the United States has experienced a decline in members (...even if one wanted to stretch to a "decline" in parish registration this would still be inaccurate as many young Catholics and Hispanic Catholics do not register but are still attending Mass with some regularity. We know this at CARA because we have surveyed more than 385,000 Catholics in-pew, during Mass to date). It is also incorrect when others make the assumption that there are fewer native-born Catholic adults with native-born Catholic parents now than in the past and that this group is declining in number (...someone let Robert Putnam know).

So what makes up the difference? Most pollsters don't think much about demography and seem to forget that there is an important population that is not often in our view. Polls are generally done with adults ages 18 and older. Here lies some of the briefly "disappearing Catholics." Consistent with CARA's own surveys, Pew notes that "Almost half of Catholics who are now unaffiliated (48%) left Catholicism before reaching age 18" (i.e., before they ever enter the population we regularly survey). Notice that PRRI estimates that those raised Catholic are equivalent to 31% percent of the population (p. 9) and Pew similarly estimates this to be 31.4% (p. 26 of the Religious Landscape report). Yet, as shown previously, the Catholic population percentage has never actually been 31% since the 1940s (...or in any earlier period of U.S. history). Some insight into teen religious affiliation can be seen in a recent CARA study. We conducted a national survey including an over-sample of 677 teens, ages 14 to 17, in Catholic households. Their Catholic parent(s) provided permission for their children to respond. Of this group CARA found that 174 or 26% did not self-identify as Catholic even though their parent(s) do and presumably some are unaware of a change in their child's affiliation. Many of the teens who leave their childhood religion grow up and continue to have no affiliation or join another faith. But as noted previously some come back to the Catholic Church later in their lives as "reverts" or returned Catholics (...and this is nothing new as Hoge et al. wrote about the topic in 1981). The complete solution to the "paradox" of the stable Catholic population percentage is a combination of immigration and fertility effects along with minors raised in the faith who leave as teens and later return to the faith most often in their 30s and 40s.

To better understand the revert process in more depth one would need a panel study which includes children or teens who are interviewed in their youth and again at later points in their life as adults. These surveys exist but it is unlikely that many include a religious affiliation question. If the U.S. Census asked religious affiliation this would also help us understand these life-cycle changes as well.

We do know reverts are in the Catholic population and in the pews. They tell us so when we ask. CARA surveys estimate there are more than 5 million Catholic reverts nationally (i.e., equivalent to 9% of all adult Catholics). PRRI or Pew don't "see" them because the structure of their questions do not allow them to. Both have asked for a respondent's current affiliation and the affiliation they were raised in. If I grew up in a Catholic household, stopped affiliating as such for a time, and later came back I would look like a "cradle Catholic" in their polls even though I had "switched" out for a time. Also there are many who were raised Catholic but who are now unaffiliated (leaving as minors) who will return to the Church in the future contributing to growth of the adult population (i.e., if history continues to repeat itself... and it may not. If it doesn't the Catholic population will likely be in decline).

We can see reverts in other Catholic populations as well. For example, Ireland asks about religion in its census. This is broken down by cohort in the table below across 20 years. The first row of the table isolates the cohort born between 1987 and 1991 who were under 5 in 1991. We can follow this group ten years later seeing their numbers when they aged 10 to 14 and finally can examine their population total when they are 20 to 24. The first four cohorts including those under 40 are all showing a decline in population. But then we see growth in the next three cohorts among those who are currently ages 40 to 54. Each cohort is lowest in numbers when they are in the 20 to 29 age range. The same thing happening again and again in the same way (i.e., unlikely to be related to something like changing patterns of immigration). Each experiences growth from their 20s into their 30s. For example, the cohort born between 1972 and 1981 showed losses as they reached their 20s and growth moving into their 30s. It's hasn't yet been enough growth to wipe out the losses from the 20s, but if this group is anything like those born 1962 to 1971 they should be back in positive territory in 2021 in their 40s.

So if life-cycle effects are so important to explaining how the U.S. Catholic population percentage remains stable and how the U.S. Catholic population continues to grow, why isn't this a part of "conventional wisdom" yet? In part because I don't think there are many people who want to hear it. Most religion reporters ignore research that indicates growth in or satisfaction with the Catholic Church. For example, Pew did a study in August that showed "large majorities of Catholics are satisfied with Church leaders." Oh you didn't hear about that? Even within the Church many don't want to hear it. Both "progressive" and "traditional" Catholics want to be able to argue that the Church is losing members and can only regain them by urgently doing __________. Many would like to continue believing the Church is hemorrhaging members and that Mass attendance is declining even though neither of these claims can be found in the data (the Mass attendance trend can be seen here). Reality marches on whether we pay attention or not...

A final note... PRRI did not provide much information in the report about margin of error and statistical significance other than the overall N and margin of error. This N is printed under every figure even though this cannot be reflective of some of these (e.g., anything summarizing results for likely voters). I estimated my own sub-group margins of error for the report (here). There are several findings in the study where I really wonder about statistical significance. For example, the researchers really had to stretch the data thin to get to likely voters by religion and race and ethnicity. When a national random sample survey has 3,003 interviews it is difficult to drill down to the levels this report tries to get to without having to deal with very large margins of error. At the same time, I will note that this practice is not uncommon among some pollsters and social scientists ( just makes it more difficult for readers to parse out the most meaningful findings). For example, the 2006 Faith Matters survey used by Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us includes a sample of only 212 Hispanic Catholics (sub-group Ns and margins of error were not published in the book). There was a lot made of differences between Hispanic Catholics and non-Hispanic Catholics in that book based on very few interviews and readers were never made aware of this (...I have noted my skepticism of some of their findings previously). 

I think any research organization that is releasing data that they intend to be read by the media and disseminated to the public needs to be very careful about what is put into print. Saying the the Catholic population has declined significantly is going to be something that catches the eye of religion reporters and regurgitated. When that statement is false and people are misled, even when it is unintentional, it can't effectively be "pulled back." Reporters don't write a new story and even if they issue corrections these receive little notice. Similarly I think it is important that researchers provide some context of differences and changes that are statistically significant and those that are not. Reporters and the public tend to take even the slightest differences within polling far too literally. Science is about helping people understand the realities of this world. We shouldn't cloud this with results that are incorrect or insignificant.

Photo above courtesy of Patrick Gage from Flickr Commons. 


A Final Pre-Election Peek at the Catholic Voter

There will certainly be more polls released before election day but absent any substantial October surprise I would not expect to see any big shifts in Catholic voting preferences. My analysis from a Catholic Vote session with others on Monday remains the same. In my opinion it is too close to call. This election may end up being similar to 1988 or 2004 where polls disagreed on which candidate won more Catholic votes (...both those elections involved candidates who had served Massachusetts). 

President Obama has an edge among registered voters but loses this advantage among likely voters. Turnout among different Catholic sub-groups will determine who attracts the more votes. Even in a high turnout election in 2008, Hispanic Catholics and young Catholics, who tend to vote for Democrats in great numbers, had lower turnout rates than older and non-Hispanic voters (although the magnitude of these differences is fuzzy given margin of error).

Surveys on intention to vote mirror what we saw in 2008 with Hispanic and younger voters indicating they will remain less likely to vote. Catholic sub-groups who tend to vote Republican (i.e., weekly Mass attenders) are more likely to vote which may give Gov. Romney an edge in the end. I do think the Catholic vote will likely maintain its bellwether status and follow the popular vote closely. 

One thing to watch closely in an election that seems to be primarily about economic issues and jobs is the final unemployment data that will be released before the vote. Gallup's tracking on unemployment might offer a preview of what will be reported. However, some good news in this report last month did not provide a boost for the President in the polls. 

Stay tuned as CARA will certainly have post-election analysis. However, with Exit Polls being cut this may take a few weeks to collect enough data from a variety of polls to have some confidence in what actually happened. Update 10/31: Greg Smith from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life mentioned that although some state Exit Polls were cut that there will still be a National Exit Poll conducted. It is not clear what sample sizes will be available or how many forms will include a full religious affiliation question but it will still be possible to have an estimate of the Catholic Vote after the election. 

There is of course one very safe prediction that doesn't rely on polling. We will have a Catholic VP.


Author Meets (Online) Critics: CARA Vocations Study

CARA released a new study this week on interest in vocations among never-married Catholics showing that a small percentage of Catholics have very seriously considered becoming a priest (among men) or member of a religious community (among men and women). Although small in percentage terms, this is equivalent to a large number of individuals in actual population. The study has made its way into the Catholic press and received some notice in the comments sections on websites. I thought I might respond to a few of these here in an “author meets his online critics” post. Here are two that I think are saying something similar:

-The article is wishful thinking. So where are they?

-Obviously it’s wrong else how could you explain the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the largest, wealthiest Archdiocese in the world can’t field more than a small handful of priests each year.

This report never implies in any way, “problem solved.” This study was not commissioned to prove there is no problem or to make people feel good. The fact that it was commissioned at all is because there is a pressing problem. The Church has a declining number of priests and vowed religious and the current numbers of people choosing a vocation is insufficient to meet the Church’s future needs. It is also the case that the Church’s population of priests, religious brothers, and religious sisters lacks the racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. Catholic population. Why is this happening?

We are the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. This name fits well because we do applied research. We’re not like the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which conducts and releases research to advance public knowledge and awareness. Most often we are doing research to assist a client in dealing with a problem or challenge. Our goal with the vocations study was simply to find out who is interested in vocations and how they became interested to help the Church better understand this process.

But just identifying that many have considered a vocation does not mean that many are “on the way.” Interest is just the first hurdle in the process and there are so many more hurdles (e.g., getting past discouragement, meeting education requirements, dealing with college loan debt, personally coming to terms with a new way of life, formation) between someone who is considering a vocation and living that vocation. Just finding many interested doesn’t mean that many will follow through on their consideration. You can see this in another comment about the report:

-I too find these statistics possibly misleading. I “seriously considered” seminary myself about 3 or 4 years ago; I know two others who did as well. Of the three of us, one has married, I’m still single, only the third has actually begun seminary studies. I even visited a seminary.

Yes, it would be misleading if one assumes that consideration of a vocation means that this person always follows through on this. The study obviously never makes such a claim. One of the more troubling aspects of conducting research that gets released to the public is in knowing that many will read a news story and very few will ever see the broader report and thus some will end up making some invalid assumptions. This project was the first in a number of studies CARA is conducting examining the vocations process. In the most recent report we focus on the beginning—looking to the moments when people initially consider a vocation. More CARA research will be released soon that addresses some of the other hurdles “in the way” and how those interested in vocations are dealing with these. It won’t always be good news (e.g., see this CARA study on student loan debt and vocations).

So why publicly release applied research? If this is all just about solving a problem why even bother with news stories? In this case I think I can clearly explain with the figure below:

One of the most important factors leading to the consideration of vocations is you (and at least two of your close friends, family, and fellow parishioners). We’ve noted before how damaging discouragement can be. It turns out encouragement is equally powerful (...and positive). Those who have had three or more people encourage them to consider a vocation are significantly more likely to become interested in this.

The bad news here is that many Catholics don’t or won’t encourage vocations. In the study we asked respondents who said they have not and would not encourage why this was the case. The most common answer given was that this is an individual decision and “none of my business.” The figure above shows you just how many Catholics become interested on their own (i.e., considering a vocation “a little” seriously or more). A report like this is made public so that all the Catholics out there who are concerned that their parish may not have a resident priest in the future or that the school has no more religious sisters on staff will now know that they are part of the process. Only a fraction of those who consider vocations follow through on this interest. More people making it just to consideration will likely lead to more vocations overall.


Catholic Vote Update Before the All-Catholic VP Debate

Thursday's VP debate will be the first with two Catholic candidates from opposing parties meeting in a televised national election forum. As they meet, the "Catholic vote" is back to "too close to call" with President Obama leading among all Catholic registered voters (49% Obama to 45% Romney) and Gov. Romney leading among all likely Catholic voters (50% Romney to 44% Obama). This week's new data are from two sources; Gallup and Pew (their estimates are averaged in the figure below). Likely voter estimates are now revealing the importance of enthusiasm and turnout for the eventual outcome. Currently, 84 percent of Catholic registered voters say they will definitely vote in November.

It's unprecedented for two Catholic candidates to face off in a national forum that is likely to be so heavily watched. It will be interesting to see if faith becomes part of the discussion and if the debate moves the Catholic vote one way or the other.

Note: A more current update on the Catholic vote has been posted here.

Millions of Never-Married Catholics Have Considered Vocations

We've focused on Catholics' consideration of vocations before. But we've never had a whole survey devoted to the topic... until now. In winter 2012, the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned CARA to conduct a national poll of never-married Catholics ages 14 and older regarding their consideration of a vocation. CARA partnered with GfK Custom Research (formerly Knowledge Networks) to conduct the survey in May and June 2012. The survey was completed by 1,428 respondents (resulting in a margin of sampling error of ±2.6 percentage points).

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
The study utilizes a form of regression analysis to sort through these different influences (and more) to isolate those that are most important and influential. 

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).

Search This Blog

Blog Archive

© 2009-2021 CARA, Mark M. Gray. Background image courtesy of muohace_dc.