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.


Who is Entering Religious Life?

Note: This blog is from CARA Senior Research Associate Mary L. Gautier, Ph.D. and Sr. Bibiana M. Ngundo, L.S.O.S.F., Ph.D. Sr. Bibiana is a visiting scholar to CARA from Kenya. Her work is supported by a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

For many years, CARA has surveyed men and women religious who are professing perpetual vows in religious institutes in our “Profession Class” series. Last year, we also began surveying postulants and novices who formally entered a religious congregation, province, or monastery based in the United States. We have just completed our second annual study of this kind in our “Entrance Class” series (reports can be downloaded below).
This year, we found that about a third of responding religious institutes (32 percent) had at least one postulant or novice entering religious life in 2016. The average age of respondents of the Entrance Class of 2016 is 28.  Half of the respondents are age 26 or younger.  Nearly six in ten are women and just over four in ten are men.  Among the men, four in five expect to become priests and one in five plans to become a perpetually professed brother.

Most new entrants were born in the United States.  Of those born outside the United States, the most commonly mentioned regions are Asia and Latin America, with Vietnam and Mexico emerging as the most frequently mentioned countries of birth. Seven in ten responding entrants identify as non-Hispanic white, just over one in ten identifies as Asian, one in ten identifies as Hispanic or Latino(a), and one in 20 identifies as either African/African American/black or as “other.”

Nine in ten new entrants have been Catholic since birth and eight in ten come from families in which both parents are Catholic. Almost all respondents of the entrance class of 2016 have at least one sibling and respondents are typically one of the middle children in their family. 

Altogether, respondents report 34 countries of birth. Members of the Entrance Class of 2016 are slightly more likely than other U.S. Catholics to have attended a Catholic elementary school. In a 2016 national poll conducted by CARA, 39 percent of U.S. adult Catholics report having attended a Catholic elementary school, compared to 47 percent among these respondents. Nearly four in ten entrants in 2016 have attended a Catholic high school compared to two in ten other U.S adult Catholics. In addition, entrants are more likely than other U.S Catholics to have attended a Catholic college/university. 

The responding members of the Entrance Class of 2016 were highly educated before entering.  Half reported having earned a bachelor’s degree and about two in ten earned a graduate degree before entering their religious institute. Men are more likely than women to have attended a Catholic college before entering their religious institute while women are more likely than men to have been home schooled.

Many respondents were active in parish life as well as other religious programs or activities before entering their religious institute. Nearly all respondents participated in at least one of these programs or activities before entering religious life. Slightly less than eight in ten respondents participated in retreats. Half participated in a parish youth group, Life Teen, or campus ministry during their high school years. Nearly four in ten participated in a parish young adult group. Nearly two in three participated in a liturgical ministry in a parish, such as being a lector. Half reported participating in faith formation, catechetical ministry, or in RCIA and slightly less than half participated in music ministry, cantoring, or in the choir. Two in three participated in various types of voluntary work in a parish or other setting. One in ten participated in a volunteer program with a religious institute. Slightly more than half participated in campus ministry during college. About one-third participated in a Right to Life March in Washington. One in six participated in World Youth Day.

On average, respondents were 18 years old when they first considered a vocation to religious life. Entrants to religious life were asked how much encouragement they received from various people when they first considered entering a religious institute.  More than nine in ten mentioned a spiritual director, members of the institute, other men and women religious, and/or a vocational director/team as at least “somewhat” encouraging to them when they first considered entering a religious institute.

Two in three (66 percent) report that they got to know a priest or a religious brother or sister who was not a family member while they were growing up. Nearly another four in ten have a relative who is a priest or a religious brother or sister/nun.

Between three-fourths and nine-tenths of respondents entering religious congregations report being encouraged at least “somewhat” by these sources outside of their families: people in the parish, friends outside the institute, campus ministers, and people in their school or workplace. Between six and seven in ten report being at least “somewhat” encouraged by their parents, siblings, and other family members.

Men are more likely than women to have ever had another family member speak to them about a vocation to priesthood or religious life (37 percent for men as compared to 21 percent for women), and to say that starting a discussion with their family about their vocation was easy for them (57 percent for women as compared to 45 percent for men).

Nearly all respondents were “somewhat” or “very much” attracted to religious life by a desire for prayer and spiritual growth and by a sense of call to religious life.  Three in four or more were “very” attracted by these. About nine in ten were at least “somewhat” attracted to religious life by a desire to be of service and a desire to be part of a community.  Between about six and seven in ten say each of these attracted them “very much.” About eight in ten were at least “somewhat” attracted to religious life by a desire to be more committed to the Church.  Slightly more than half say this attracted them “very much.”

Men and women entering religious life were asked to indicate how they first became acquainted with their religious institute. About three in ten respondents report that they first became acquainted with their institute in an institute where members served, through their own internet search, and through the recommendation of a friend or advisor. Between one and two in ten respondents indicate that they became acquainted with their institute through the reputation or history of the institute, through a relative or a friend in the institute, through working with a member of the institute and through the web or social media promotional materials. Between one in 20 and one in ten respondents report that that they first became acquainted with their religious institute through an event sponsored by the institute, through print promotional materials, through a vocation match or placement service, through a vocational fair, as through a media story about the institute.

Entrants were asked how much influence various aspects of their religious institute had on their decision to enter that institute. About nine in ten respondents report community life in the institute, the lifestyles of members and the prayer styles in the institute influenced their decision to enter their religious institute at least “somewhat.”  Between half and just over six in ten say these elements influenced them “very much.”

The full report is available for download, free of charge, here: The Entrance Class of 2016. The previous year's study or the Entrance Class of 2015 is also available for download.

About the Survey
To obtain the names and contact information for entrants, CARA contacted the major superiors of all religious institutes that belong to either the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) or the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the two leadership conferences of apostolic women religious in the United States. CARA also contacted the major superiors of all religious institutes who belong to the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM).  Finally, CARA contacted the major superiors of 138 contemplative communities of women in the United States that were identified by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.  Each major superior was asked to provide contact information for every person who entered the institute (for the first time, as a postulant or novice) in the United States since January 1, 2016. CARA then mailed a survey to each new entrant and asked them to return their completed survey to CARA.

After repeated follow-ups, CARA received a response from 610 of 759 major superiors, for an overall response rate of 80 percent among religious institutes.  In all, 93 percent of LCWR superiors, 84 percent of CMSWR superiors, 76 percent of CMSM superiors, and 59 percent of superiors of contemplative communities provided contact information for 502 novices or postulants that entered religious life for the first time in the United States in 2016.  The Entrance Class of 2016 consists of 272 men (reported by CMSM superiors), 144 women reported by CMSWR, 66 women reported by LCWR, and 20 new entrants into contemplative communities of women. Of these 502 identified women and men, a total of 278 responded to the survey by February 2, 2017.  This represents a response rate of 55 percent among the new entrants to religious life that were reported to CARA by major superiors.

Photos show recent entrants to the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother and the Capuchin Franciscans, Province of St, Mary.


International Sisters in the United States

Researchers at Trinity Washington University and CARA have released a new study of international Catholic sisters in the United States. Based on a ground-breaking study of more than 4,000 women religious from at least 83 countries spread over six continents, the research provides an in-depth portrait and analysis of the “international sisters” who are currently in the United States for formation, studies, or ministry. Unique in the scope of the research and the timeliness of its findings, the study was accomplished through the generous support of the GHR Foundation.

Researchers Mary Johnson, SNDdeN, Mary L. Gautier, Patricia Wittberg, SC, and Thu T. Do, LHC surveyed over 4,000 women religious who were born outside the United States and conducted focus groups and interviews with another 75 international sisters.  The study was designed to learn about their backgrounds, pathways to and reasons for coming to the United States, their contribution to Church and society, and their challenges in coming to a new country and in their lives as women religious. Some of the major findings from the research include:
  • Responding international sisters come from at least 83 countries across six continents. Asia is the largest sending continent, followed by Europe, North America (Canada and Mexico, for purposes of this study), Africa, Central/South America, and Oceania.
  • The average age of international sisters at their time of arrival was 30, and four in ten have been in the United States for 15 years or less. One in five, in fact, have been here no more than five years.
  • Six in ten entered religious life outside the United States and then were sent here for ministry, studies, or formation. Three in ten came to the United States before entering religious life.
  • Fifty-seven percent of respondents were sent to the United States by their superiors for ministry, study, or formation. Fifteen percent came because a priest or bishop from the United States requested sisters from their institute for ministry.
  • These women are very highly educated, with more than half holding a graduate or professional degree and another fifth with an undergraduate degree from a college or university.
  • Two-thirds of international sisters are involved in ministries such as education or healthcare. Fourteen percent are in studies. Thirteen percent serve their institutes in leadership, vocation, and formation work. Contemplatives comprise another 5 percent of international sisters.
  • Housing is a particular challenge for women religious because community life is a vital aspect of religious life. More than four in five international sisters live with other sisters of their own institute, while 8 percent live with sisters from other institutes and 6 percent live alone. More than half of U.S. based religious institutes offer hospitality and support to international sisters who are members of other congregations.

The researchers are currently compiling the findings into a book. The GHR Foundation hosted a day-long symposium in Washington, DC, on March 3 so that key leaders in national Catholic institutions could begin conversations about the networks and structures being developed by and for international sisters to support them in their ministry and life. Project director Sister Mary Johnson explains, “The study helps us realize that our church is more diverse, wherever we are. These international sisters and the people they minister to are in rural areas, urban areas, in all kinds of institutions and ministries. They're present in so many ways that sometimes we don't even see.”  Johnson adds that a second contribution of the study is in “its juxtaposition to the wider society against the backdrop of the political debate over immigration. It demonstrates how complex and beautiful the tapestry of immigrants is in our church and in our society.”

To download the report of the key findings from the study, in English or in Spanish, please visit the GHR Foundation at


A Social Scientist’s Reflections on Ash Wednesday and Lent

The Catholic Church probably began to understand the motivational power of visible identity more than a 1,000 years ago (i.e., when record of many Lenten practices are noted in Europe). Today, nearly half of adult Catholics will receive ashes on their forehead (46%) according to CARA surveys. This is likely the third highest day for Mass attendance and it is not even a day of obligation (although some receive ashes outside of Mass as in the 2016 photo on Boston Common above). More than six in ten will not eat meat on Fridays during Lent (62%). There are few things, other than going to Mass at Christmas (about 68% attending… fewer, 52%, attend at Easter) that so many Catholics in the U.S. do together than abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. Why? Because during Lent, in many ways, Catholics have opportunities to wear their religious identity. This contributes to their sense of belonging, where many other aspects of their faith may call more on their obligation to believe. On Ash Wednesday, your religious identity and sense of belonging is worn on your head. On Fridays, these are on your plate (and then on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram). Of course, this is just one aspect of the season but it is important in the broader explanation of why U.S. Catholics become most active in their faith during this time of year.

When people have an opportunity to wear their identities (and possibly feel guilt for not doing so), they will do so in large numbers. This is also now evident in voter turnout numbers (the topic of my dissertation). Sixty percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in 2016. Undoubtedly, some had extra motivation to do so to get the sticker that visibly indicated they voted. Perhaps later they used it for free food and coffee. Rational choice economists assume the "costs" of voting are small—about $10 or $15 (travel, time, and information costs). The value of the sticker indicating you voted, along with potential freebies, I believe help solve "the paradox of voting" (i.e., costs of voting in large elections exceeds benefits—your vote counts but doesn't “matter” because no large electorate election is likely to come down to one vote and if it ever did, recounts or the courts would likely be the deciding factor).

At the same time, research has also revealed that creating opportunities to wear social identities can also have negative consequences. Social psychology has repeatedly found in experiments that similar people who are randomly divided into competing groups by things as trivial as eye color, group names, or role play can create in-group/out-group prejudice and discrimination very quickly and substantially. This is the negative side of membership and belonging to a group. Certainly many Catholics and other Protestants who observe Ash Wednesday become more physically distinct than others do for a day. Over the years, some Catholics and Protestants have reported incidents of possible workplace discrimination on Ash Wednesday.

We often choose to wear other kinds of labels on clothing. Why do people purchase products with specific visual labels rather than generic t-shirts, jeans, shoes, or bags? Part of the explanation is that they do so, in part, to promote an image to others as a component of their social identity. The things we wear can reflect our status or that we prefer a specific lifestyle or role. People will pay much more for a labeled item than one of a similar quality without a label. The identity provided by the label seems to really matter.

This status aspect of visible identity could also be considered a negative—especially when applied to Lenten practices. Ashes on the forehead were never meant to become part of a prideful selfie (they are an acknowledgement of our own mortality). Pictures of plates full of fried seafood and tartar sauce don’t really embrace the spirit of abstinence either. In theory, one might use some of the money saved from eating fish or vegetarian to donate to the poor. However, these days, a takeout salad or a plate full of fried shrimp and chips may be more expensive than the steak a Catholic could prepare for themselves some other day of the week. When the fat and calorie count of you Friday dinner during Lent exceeds what you might otherwise eat (and you take a picture of it and post it online) there might be a cultural disconnect from the traditions of Lent. At the same time, if this makes Catholics more likely to be active in their faith, perhaps it might best be tolerated or even embraced.

Outside of Lent, there are certainly other days and ways where Catholics could choose to “wear their faith.” Yet, CARA surveys indicate that only about a third regularly wear a crucifix or cross (32%) and even fewer wear a religious medal or pin of a saint or angel (29%), or a scapular (9%). Nearly a quarter regularly carry a rosary (23%) and one in five carries prayer cards or coins (20%). Why do so few Catholics do these things? What makes the ashes and the Friday foods during Lent so much more a part of Catholics’ devotional practices? Perhaps it is the seasonality of it all. If Catholics received ashes at every Mass, it would just become part of the routine of worship.

Social scientists have much to learn about human behavior from what Catholics and other Christians do on this day and those ahead during this season. For a social scientist who studies religion, it is one of the most fascinating. As a Catholic, even more so because it marks the beginning of the most energetic season of activity for the Church—a time of reflection, penance, prayer, and devotion.

Images courtesy of: The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, Churl Han, Omer Unlu, vintspiration, elycefeliz, and David Galalis.

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