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.


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.

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