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.


What Was Behind the 1960s Vocation Boom? Not Your Mom or Dad Apparently...

In 1966 there were nearly 60,000 priests in ministry in the United States and only about 17,900 parishes. Few were concerned with the notion of a "priest shortage." There were also more than 176,000 religious sisters and 12,500 religious brothers. This was the ultimate time of plenty for the Church in America. Catholic parents must have been a big part of that.

I didn't talk to your mom about this but sociologist Father Joseph H. Fichter, S.J. may have. Especially if you grew up in Illinois. Deep in the CARA archives sits an historical gem of social science, "Catholic Parents and the Church Vocation" published in 1967 using data from 1964 Fichter survey (CARA is in the process of digitizing its public print archives for future online distribution...stay tuned on that).

As Louis Luzbetak, S.V.D., CARA's Executive Director at the time notes, "There is no diocese in the United States that has at hand such a wealth of information about the image of its priests and religious, and about the corresponding parental attitudes toward Church does the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois." Corporations frequently test products in Columbus, Ohio because it is supposed to be representative of the country as a whole. Think of Peoria being a similar type of locale for Catholicism in the 1960s ("Will it play Peoria?," middle America, sitting squarely between Chicago and St. Louis). Fichter and a group of academics and practitioners developed the survey and tested it first as a pilot survey of 1,287 Catholic parents in New Orleans in 1963. Then after revisions in 1964, fielded the survey in Peoria to 8,689 Catholic parents through their parishes. In half of the surveys the father was asked to complete the form and in the other half the mother.

These parents were asked if they had ever considered a vocation (i.e., men as priests or brothers and women as religious sisters). Six in ten indicated they had never considered this. Only 6% of the Catholic parents surveyed said they had considered a vocation seriously and 1% indicated they had entered the seminary or convent and had left. Among fathers more specifically, 5% had considered becoming a priest seriously and 2% had entered seminary and left. Seven percent of mothers had considered becoming a religious sister and 1% had entered a convent but left. By comparison, 3% of adult Catholic men today say they "very" seriously considered becoming a priest or brother and less than 1% of adult Catholic women say they "very" seriously becoming a religious sister (note that serious interest in vocations is a bit higher among never-married Catholic adults and teens and this still translates into a large number in absolute terms).

Parents were then asked if they thought they should promote vocations to their children. Surprisingly, many did not feel they should. I think this stands in stark contrast to our "memories" of this period. Only 17% said they thought they should encourage vocations. Additionally, 25% said they should just "initiate a discussion" of vocations. Parents were most likely to say their child should "bring it up first" (31%). Four percent said they should pray for their child to be interested in a vocation but mention nothing to them about this and 23% said it should be left "completely in the hands of God." I would not be surprised to see survey results like this in 2013 but it sounds a bit off coming from the parents of 1964 (...especially when we know now that encouragement is so important in fostering vocations).

Regardless of encouragement from a parent, what if a 13-year-old Catholic had interest in a vocation in 1964? What would a mom or dad think is the right course to follow? A majority of parents surveyed wanted their son or daughter to finish high school first. About one in seven thought their child should go off to study for their vocation right away at 13 and 13% wanted them to have at least a few years of high school before doing this. Thus, more than eight in ten Catholic parents in 1964 thought the path to a vocation begins as a teenager (note that even today most Catholics say they first consider a vocation as a teen).

Ironically, parents had quite different attitudes about dating. As shown in the figure below, 86% of parents surveyed thought their sons should not "go steady" with someone until he was 18 or older and 73% of parents said the same about their daughters. Thus, a significant portion of parents thought that consideration of a vocation and perhaps pursuit of this should and would begin before their son or daughter ever had a steady girlfriend or boyfriend.

Parents were most likely to say that their sons might not consider a vocation because he would be attracted to other occupations (27%). They thought their daughters might not do so because of they would be attracted to the opposite sex (33%).

If their child was interested in a vocation, most parents had no preference for a specific area of Church ministry that they enter. If they did indicate a preference, parents more often than not preferred their sons to become diocesan priests (27%) and their daughters to enter an "active teaching order" (24%).

If their daughter entered an order, many did not expect her to have much contact with them. One of the more interesting details of the study is in its testing. When the pilot was fielded in New Orleans, parents were asked if they would favor religious sisters being allowed to eat at the Blue Room, play golf on public links, attend Sugar Bowl games, and direct girl scouts. This series of questions was modified (beyond regional relevance) because the researchers found that "these suggestions were apparently too 'far out'" for the respondents to consider. The figure below shows the final question wording and results for this series in Peoria.

While most in 1964, thought that it was just fine for sisters to read newspapers, watch television, have a yearly vacation back at home, attend cultural events in the evening, and accept dinner invitations, there were more mixed opinions about them being able to eat in public restaurants, wear up-to-date clothing, or join civic organizations. 

While the results for what sisters should be "allowed" to do or for the age when young Catholics should be allowed to "go steady" may seem odd 50 years on, what is even more remarkable to me is how the parents of 1964 were not all that different to those of 2013 in terms of what they see as their responsibility to be in encouraging their children for a vocation. In fact it creates a bit of a mystery. In the heart of the biggest vocations boom this country has ever known, parental encouragement and their own personal consideration of a vocation is not far off from what it is among parents today. I guess there is some "good news" in that. There are some other X-factors out there that were responsible for that boom which could surface again some day.


Surplus and Shortage: Mapping Priests and Parishes

Every parish needs a priest. At least one. On Sunday for sure...

Yet, nearly one in five U.S. parishes do not have a resident priest pastor. Seven in ten have a diocesan priest serving in this capacity and religious priests serve as resident pastors in 11% of parishes. In 17% of parishes a priest is serving as a non-resident pastor (in a small number a "team of priests" administrates). In about 430 parishes (or 2.5% of all parishes), due to a shortage of priests, a deacon or lay person is entrusted with the pastoral care of a parish by their bishop (Canon 517.2). Yet even here, the parish life coordinator, as this person is often titled, must still do their best to arrange for priests to be available for Masses and other sacraments.

Priests cannot be in two places at once and there are only so many hours in a Sunday. We have a good understanding of how many parishes there are in the United States and how many priests are available. The map below (click for full size) shows the number of parishes subtracted from the number of active diocesan priests in each diocese. From time to time priests from outside the diocese may come and serve (i.e., externs) to fill needs. It is also the case, as noted above, that many religious priests serve in parishes as well (although their numbers are in decline). But the core of parish life has been diocesan priests serving in their diocese. In 60% of dioceses, those marked in yellow and red, there is no surplus of diocesan priests active in ministry relative to the number of parishes in the diocese.

The green areas on the map have more active diocesan priests than parishes. These include a number of urban areas. But even here the math gets tricky. An urban priest who is a pastor of one parish may be responsible for serving the needs of 5,000 registered households, while a rural priest in one of the red areas of the map may serve as pastor in three parishes in one county with 200 registered households in each parish. That rural pastor may be able to serve the needs of these communities by himself, whereas the urban pastor may need a parochial vicar and a retired priest to assist him and still struggle to meet the needs of his community. Green and red are not always as "clear" as it might seem in practice.

Yet the math does say something important. A "traditional" model of parish where one can find a priest at any time of day or night is not possible in many areas of the United States (to some degree in rural areas and the South this has always been the case and certainly has long been a reality in many other areas of the world). How will parish life change in the future if the U.S. Catholic population continues to grow while the number of priests in the country continues to decline? This would likely create more pressure to close and consolidate parishes at the very time that population growth would indicate a need for new construction.

CARA research indicates the average parish has more than 3,200 registered parishioners along with some unknown (and likely growing) number of unregistered households ( a recent national CARA survey 55% of adult Catholics said they were in a registered household. This percentage has been falling in the last decade. Only eight in ten of those surveyed in pew during Mass say they are registered). About 1,100 of these parishioners attend a Mass in a typical week. The average seating capacity of Catholic churches is about 540 per Mass. The average parish has about four Saturday/Sunday Vigil Masses per week.

In an era of fewer priests, one could reduce the number of Masses, outside of holidays, down to the "demand" capacity (i.e., enough open seats for Mass attenders). One could also reduce and consolidate parishes to the degree possible (...what is the maximum distance people would be willing and able to travel?). The Church can (...and has in the past) invited priests from overseas to serve here to balance the equation as well. In 1999, international priests made up 8% of all priests in the United States. Today, they are 16% of all priests in the country.

It is also the case that what the United States is experiencing right now is not an entirely new reality—just one many have forgotten in the pages of history. As shown in the figure below, the ratio of diocesan priests active in their diocese to parishes in the United States of 1950 was very similar to what it was in 2012.

There was about one active diocesan priest per parish then as there is now. The late 1950s into the 1970s represent an exceptional period in American history when there were significantly more active diocesan priests available than there were parishes. Age and mortality has and continues to diminish the size of the diocesan clergy population. Although ordinations have remained stable for decades, these are not sufficient to make up for the number of priests lost each year to retirement or death.

Although 2012 may not have felt all that different from 2011, it did represent a new era of parish life in the United States: parishes are beginning to outnumber a key population of priests. Coinciding with recent efforts in New Evangelization and welcoming new or returning parishioners to communities, it seems unimaginable to simultaneously be reducing the number of parishes and/or Masses. Instead, it may be time to more boldly let the country know that the Church is "now hiring."

And there may be more help on the way. Recent CARA research has shown that young men attending a World Youth Day are 4.5 times more likely than those who have not attended to consider becoming a priest or religious brother and one fifth of newly ordained U.S. priests in 2013 say they attended a World Youth Day. With more than 3 million in attendance, the final Mass of World Youth Day in Rio this year is one of the largest gatherings in human history. Somewhere on that beach may be your future pastor...

Image above courtesy of galeriaes.gaudiumpress at Flickr Creative Commons.

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