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.

7.28.2017

Vocations: The Importance of Family


This blog post was written by CARA summer research intern Hannah Hagan. She is a rising junior from Vanderbilt University, majoring in mathematics. She presents her analysis of the The Entrance Class of 2016 survey data, which was also used in a March post, “Who is Entering Religious Life?.”  The full report, which was written by Dr. Mary Gautier and Sr. Bibiana Ngundo, is available for download, free of charge, here: The Entrance Class of 2016.

Families, as Pope Francis said during his 2015 Apostolic Journey to the United States, are “true domestic churches… the right place for faith to become life, and life to grow in faith.”  With the Pope’s frequent statements about the importance of family in mind, I decided to look into family background while examining the survey data from the Entrance Class of 2016; that is those who formally entered a religious congregation, province, or monastery in the United States during 2016.  In addition to being a summer research intern at CARA, I am a twenty year old college student, and I am deeply aware of and grateful for the spiritual nurturing and guidance which my family has provided throughout my life.  Given that half of the respondents of the Entrance Class of 2016 are age 26 or younger and that the average age at which respondents report first considering a vocation to religious life is 18, I was curious to see if the majority of respondents would likely say that their families have played similar roles of support in their faith and in their decision to enter religious life.



At first glance, it appears that an overwhelming majority of the entrants grew up in Catholic families and the kind of the faith-centered environments which one would most commonly expect to encourage and produce religious vocations.  Nine in ten respondents say that they were raised Catholic, and eight in ten report that both of their parents were Catholic.  However, an examination of how important respondents indicate religion was to their parents while they were growing up suggests a hidden diversity to respondents’ family backgrounds.  Compared to four-fifths of respondents reporting that both of their parents were Catholic, only about two-fifths of respondents report that religion was “very important” to both of their parents.  Furthermore, three in ten respondents indicate that religion was less than “very important” to both their parents, while only one in twenty say that both of their parents were not Catholic.  Together, these comparisons help to highlight the fact that entrants who were raised Catholic do not always come from families in which religion was modeled as “very important.”

On the other hand, it cannot be said that the majority of entrants do not come from religious families.  Slightly more than seven in ten say that religion was “somewhat” or “very important” to both of their parents while they were growing up, and only two percent say that religion was “not at all” important to both of their parents while they were growing up.

When looking at the responses of entrants regarding how important religion was to their parents, an interesting pattern emerges: respondents are significantly more likely to say that religion was “very important” to their mother than to say the same about their father.  Just over six in ten entrants say that religion was “very important” to their mother while half that religion was “very important” to their father.  This pattern can also be found among the subgroup of respondents who report that they were raised Catholic, with two in three saying that religion was “very important” to their mother and slightly more than half saying the same about their father.  While interesting, it does not seem likely that this pattern is specific to families which produce entrants or to Catholic families in general, as Pew Research Center observed in a 2014 survey that American women are more likely to be religious than American men.


If it is more likely that religion was “very important” to entrants’ mothers than to their fathers, are entrants’ mothers also more likely to encourage openness to a religious vocation?  Not necessarily.  Slightly more than one-tenth of entrants who were raised Catholic say that their mother, but not their father, spoke to them about a vocation to religious life, and about three percent say that their father, but not their mother, spoke to them – a difference which is not statistically significant.  Perhaps even more interesting to note is that, despite the high numbers of respondents who reported that they were raised Catholic and that both of their parents were Catholic, two in three respondents say that neither of their parents spoke to them about a vocation.   


Still, speaking about religious vocation is not the only way in which parents may facilitate and support their child’s openness to entering religious life.  As a measure of how respondents expected their families to react to their discernment of a religious vocation, entrants were asked if starting a discussion about their vocation with their family was easy for them overall.  Around half of entrants answer “yes,” and a similar portion (slightly more than half) of those who were raised Catholic report the same.  One interesting and thought-provoking phenomenon is that slightly less than half of entrants who were born in the United States say that starting a discussion with their family about their vocation was easy, compared to just over six in ten of others.  Are families in the United States less likely to support their child answering the call of a religious vocation, or are entrants born in the United States simply more likely than others to anticipate difficulty?

Lastly, parents can impact the possibility of their child entering a religious institute by providing, or failing to provide, encouragement while their child is considering entrance.  Slightly less than half of respondents say that they received “very much” encouragement from their parents when they were first considering entering a religious institute, and only one in three says that they received “only a little” encouragement or none.  The responses of those who were raised Catholic are similar to the responses of the entrance class as a whole, with just under half reporting “very much” encouragement from their parents and three-tenths reporting “only a little” encouragement or none.  Entrants’ evaluations of their families’ response to their vocation (represented through their indication of whether starting a discussion about their vocation was easy) are fairly accurate, with two-thirds of respondents who said the discussion was easy reporting that they received “very much” encouragement from their parents, compared to one-fifth of other respondents saying that they received “very much” encouragement.  Intriguingly, respondents who were born in the United States and elsewhere do not differ significantly in their reports that they received “very much” encouragement from their parents, despite the significance difference in their responses on whether discussing their vocation with their family was easy. 

Analysis of the family backgrounds of the Entrance Class of 2016 provides observations which may be interpreted as examples of the important and lasting impact which Catholic families can have on the faith lives of their children.  However, analysis also reveals a surprising amount of variation in the ways in which parents, particularly within Catholic families, do or do not encourage their child to consider entrance to religious life.  There is no overarching, secret formula which characterizes all of the families that produce a child who is moved to enter religious life, but examining the characteristics of such families remains an interesting and illuminating endeavor.

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.

Photo courtesy of Flickr creative commons user Saint Joseph.

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