Study explores support for vocations, response to decline in priests

WASHINGTON – Although three-quarters of U.S. Catholic respondents in a new survey have noticed a decline in the number of priests serving in parishes, few of the men said they have considered becoming a priest and less than a third of all respondents said they would encourage their own child to pursue a religious vocation.

Those were among the results of a survey of 1,007 self-identified adult Catholics conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington.

The margin of error for the survey was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

The 178-page CARA report, titled “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among U.S. Catholics,” was made public April 13. It summarized responses to a wide range of questions about Catholics’ attitudes toward and participation in the Mass and the sacraments, their knowledge of the Catholic faith, their views on church leadership and teachings, and their experience with vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

The survey also found that two-thirds of the respondents (66 percent) said that at the parish they attend no priest from outside the United States had come to regularly serve in the past five years. But more than half (55 percent) of those who attend Mass weekly or more often said such a priest had served in their parish during that period.

Among those who have had a priest from outside the U.S. regularly serve at their parish, more than half (53 percent) said they were very satisfied with the priest’s ministry and another 34 percent said they were somewhat satisfied.

CARA found that about one in eight Catholics (13 percent) had attended an ordination ceremony for a Catholic priest. The percentage was 20 percent for those who attended Mass at least weekly and 8 percent for those who went to Mass a few times a year or less frequently.

Asked if they had ever considered becoming a priest or religious brother, only 3 percent of the men responding to the survey said they had seriously considered it. Another 6 percent said they had considered it “somewhat seriously” and 7 percent said they had “only a little seriously” considered a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. The vast majority (83 percent) said they had never considered becoming a priest or brother.

Very few Catholic men (5 percent) said they had given any consideration to the idea of becoming a permanent deacon.

“Regardless of frequency of Mass attendance, Catholic men are less likely to say they have seriously considered becoming a deacon than a priest or brother,” the CARA report said.

Among women respondents, 15 percent said they had ever considered becoming a religious sister, with less than 1 percent of all Catholic women saying they had “very seriously” considered such a vocation.

Most likely to consider becoming a religious sister were women who had attended a Catholic college or university (41 percent), those who attended a Catholic high school (25 percent) and Catholics born between 1943 and 1960 (26 percent).

Only 10 percent of Catholics said they had ever encouraged anyone else to become a priest, deacon, nun or brother. But 31 percent of those who have never encouraged any type of vocation said they would encourage at least one of the four types of vocations.

Asked whether they would encourage their own child to pursue a vocation, 68 percent said no. Among those most likely to encourage their child to become a priest, deacon, sister or brother were weekly Mass attendees (55 percent) and Catholics with postgraduate degrees (46 percent).

On the question of the declining number of priests, more than half of the respondents (51 percent) said they had noticed the decline but had not been personally affected by it. The percentage was virtually identical (50 percent) in 2001, despite the fact that the number of U.S. priests has declined from nearly 45,000 in 2001 to just over 41,000 in 2008.

The CARA survey also asked about Catholics’ preferences for several possible options if their parish did not have a resident priest.

A majority of respondents said they would support or strongly support:

– Sharing a priest with one or more parishes (65 percent).

– Bringing in a priest from outside the United States (56 percent).

– Increasing the use of deacons (56 percent).

– Asking a retired priest to come in and do more (55 percent).

Receiving less than majority support were suggestions to increase the use of lay ecclesial ministers (supported or strongly supported by 47 percent) or merging the parish with another nearby parish (44 percent).

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.