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.

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