Survey of Youth and Young Adults on Vocations: Part III. Consideration of a Vocation among Women

Consideration of Priesthood and Religious Life Among Never-Married U.S. Catholics by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University - Washington, D.C.

Part III: Consideration of a Vocation among  Women

This section of the report is specific to female respondents and  their consideration of becoming a religious sister.

Encouragement and Discouragement

Non-Hispanic white females are more  likely to say a religious sister encouraged them to consider a religious  vocation than any other type of person (9 percent). Hispanic and other race  respondents  are less likely to indicate this (4 percent and 5 percent,  respectively). 


Hispanic female respondents are most likely to say they were  encouraged by a grandmother (6 percent), a teacher (6 percent), or their mother  (5 percent). Respondents of other races and ethnicities report encouragement  most often from a priest (14 percent), grandmother (12 percent), or a teacher  (11 percent).

Respondents report an average of 0.4 people that encouraged them. 43 This average is lowest among Hispanic females (0.4 encouragers). By comparison non-Hispanic  white females report 0.5 encouragers and those of other races indicate having  0.6 encouragers.

Few female respondents say anyone discouraged them from considering religious life. As the figure on  the next page shows, parents and friends are the most common types of  individuals to discourage female respondents. Non-Hispanic white females are  most likely to report discouragement from their mother (5 percent), Hispanic  females from other family members (6 percent), and those of other races and ethnicities  from friends or co-workers (8 percent).


In terms of net encouragement, the results do not vary  significantly from overall encouragement with religious sisters, priests, and  teachers being most likely to encourage. As with male respondents, the one  group with a consistent negative net influence includes friends and co-workers.  These results are shown in the table on the next page.


Vocations Presentation Made at School or  Parish

Three in ten non-Hispanic white female  respondents recall that someone encouraging vocations from a diocese or  religious order visited their school or parish. Only 2 percent of non-Hispanic  white females say this visit “somewhat” or “very much” made them consider a  religious vocation. Respondents of other races and ethnicities are less likely  to recall a visit and among those who do, a similar few indicate it encouraged  them at least “somewhat” to consider a religious vocation.


As the figure below shows, having attended a Catholic educational  institution significantly increases the likelihood that a female respondent has  seen a vocation presentation.


Participation in Church-related Programs,  Groups and Activities

Non-Hispanic white females are more likely than others to say they  participated in Girl Scouts (40 percent compared to 10 percent of Hispanics and  27 percent of those of other races and ethnicities). Hispanic females are less  likely than others to indicate involvement with a parish youth group (16  percent compared to 26 percent of Non-Hispanic whites and 27 percent of those  of other races and ethnicities). Few female respondents indicate that they were  involved in any of the other Church-related programs, groups, or activities  listed.


Attitudes about the Church and Vocations

Most female respondents express  positive views of religious sisters. About eight in ten or more agree  “somewhat” or “very much” that religious sisters do important work. Similar  percentages agree that religious sisters are well respected in their community.  A majority of female respondents agree “somewhat” or “very much” that they  understand what religious sisters do.


A majority of females, overall, agree at least “somewhat” that the  Church in the United States has too few religious sisters. However, just 47  percent of Hispanic female respondents agree with this statement at least  “somewhat.” Hispanic respondents are also less likely than others to agree  similarly that religious sisters are overworked and underpaid (32 percent).  Non-Hispanic white females (43 percent) are most likely to agree at least  “somewhat” that the Church is closing schools and relinquishing hospitals and  thus will not need as many religious sisters in the future.

Hispanic females are more likely than others to agree “somewhat”  or “very much” that religious sisters should wear habits (27 percent compared  to 19 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 18 percent of those of other races and  ethnicities). Less than one in four overall (22 percent) agree at least  “somewhat” that sisters should wear habits.

Consideration of Becoming a Religious  Sister

Overall, 10 percent of female respondents say they have considered  becoming a religious sister.


In 2003, when CARA first fielded this question in our national  polls, 16 percent of female respondents indicated they had considered becoming  a religious sister. A CARA survey in 2008, estimated this to be unchanged at 15  percent. Although the differences between this survey and those of recent years  are within margins of sampling error, the pattern over time indicates the  possibility that there is a slow erosion of the likelihood of ever having  considered a religious vocation among Catholic women in the last decade.44 However, again as noted with male respondents, if this decline is real it is  likely related to generational changes with older female Catholics, who may  have been more likely to consider this in their youth, gradually being replaced  by a younger generation of women who are not equally likely to consider this.

As the first figure on the next page shows, 6 percent of  never-married Catholic females say they have “somewhat” or “very” seriously  considered becoming a religious sister (2 percent “very” serious only). As the  second figure shows, a plurality say they first considered a vocation between  the ages of 13 and 18—indicating that the experiences of female Catholics  during their secondary school years may be among the most important. However, a  third (32 percent) notes they consider this before their teen years, indicating  that primary school years may also be important.  



As shown in the figure below, Hispanic and non-Hispanic white  females are less likely than those of other races and ethnicities to say they  have considered becoming a religious sister. Other race respondents are also  more likely than others to say they have considered a vocation at least  “somewhat’ seriously (11 percent compared to 5 percent of Non-Hispanic white  and Hispanic female respondents).


Reasons for Not Considering a Vocation

Respondents who say they have never considered becoming a  religious sister were asked, “Why do you think you have never considered this?”  as an open-ended question. They could then respond in their own words. CARA  categorized the comments in these responses. Overall, female respondents were  most likely to reference a general lack of interest, celibacy, not having the  calling, or lifestyle issues. Hispanic respondents are more likely than  non-Hispanic white respondents to cite general lack of interest (38 percent  compared to 28 percent). 


General  lack of interest
Three in ten respondents (31 percent) cited a general lack of  interest in vocations. Comments representative of this category include:

  • Doesn't  appeal to me
  • Just  never thought about it
  • Not  something I considered
  • Not  for me

Sixteen percent cite an issue related to celibacy for their lack  of consideration. Comments representative of this category include:

  • I  want to get married and have kids
  • I  don't think I would ever not be interested in men in a sexual way. I also like  flirting and dating them. I like guys too much.
  • Yo quise  tener hijos.
  • I  enjoy the company of a man and would like to get married one day
  • I  like men and having an intimate relationship. I wanted a family, freedom, a  career.
  • I  don't think I could be that celibate

Have  not had the calling
One in ten say (11 percent) say they have not felt the calling to  be a religious sister. Comments representative of this category include:

  • I  did not feel that God was calling me to the religious life
  • Did  not feel I had the calling to serve in that way
  • It  wasn't my vocation
  • It  has not been my calling in life
  • I  never felt called to the sisterhood

One in ten say (10 percent) say that lifestyle issues are a reason  they have not considered a vocation. Comments representative of this category  include:

  • I  couldn't imagine that type of spiritual lifestyle
  • There's  nothing about the lifestyle of a nun I like
  • Lifestyle  never appealed to me
  • Restricted  lifestyle
  • Porque  no me gusta ser hermana religiosa.

Other  reasons
Fewer than one in ten cited other reasons for not considering a  vocation, including: doubts about their faith or lack of religiosity (9  percent), having other life goals (7 percent), not wanting to make the  commitment necessary or to have restrictions imposed on them (7 percent),  disagreements with the Catholic Church or its teachings (2 percent), concerns  about money or financial issues (less than 1 percent), or because they self-identify  as a lesbian (less than 1 percent). Seven percent provided a response that  could not be classified into these other categories and there were not a  sufficient number of similar responses to create another category.

Respondents who say they have never considered becoming a  religious sister or who have but “not very seriously” were asked what they  thought the reasons for this were. Nearly six in ten agreed “somewhat” or “very  much” that they want to be a mother (58 percent) or that the lifestyle and work  is not what they prefer (58 percent). Similar percentages (57 percent) agree  that God is not calling them to a religious vocation or that they have just  never really thought about it (56 percent). More agree that they can do God’s  will without becoming a religious sister (61 percent).


More than four in ten cite the celibacy requirement (42 percent  agreeing at least “somewhat” compared to 16 percent noting this in a response  to the open-ended question). Nearly half say they don’t want to give up their  freedom (46 percent) or that they don’t feel holy enough for a religious  vocation (46 percent).

About a third (35 percent) agree at least “somewhat’ that their  disagreement with some of the Church’s teachings plays a role in their lack of  consideration. One in five (20 percent) agrees similarly that the stigma of the  clergy sex abuse issue is a reason for not considering a vocation.45

Only 16 percent agree “somewhat” or “very much” that not feeling  invited by the Church to consider a vocation is part of the reason for their  lack of consideration. And fewer than one in ten (7 percent) cite similarly  concerns about family approval played a role.

Few differences by race and ethnicity are evident. As shown in the  figure below, non-Hispanic white females are more likely than others to cite  disagreement with Church teachings and celibacy for having not considered a  religious vocation.


Respondents were asked to select one of the reasons that was most important to their lack of  consideration. These are shown below for each race and ethnicity group.  Non-Hispanic white and Hispanic females respond similarly selecting their  desire to be a mother and that they are not very religious. Respondents of  other races and ethnicities indicate they don’t feel holy enough, they are  concerned about the economic needs of their family not being met, and that they  have just never really thought about it.


Reasons for Considering a Vocation

Among those females who did say they had considered a religious  vocation at least “somewhat’ seriously, the respondents are equally likely to  say they did so because of a desire for having an active religious life devoted  to ministry and service (77 percent) and a contemplative religious life devoted  to prayer and community (79 percent).46


Of those female respondents who have considered a religious  vocation, 21 percent indicate that they were considering a vocation for a  specific religious order. This represents a small number of respondents  overall. However, this small group indicated a diverse number of orders  including Benedictine, Dominican, Franciscan, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of  Notre Dame de Namur, Sisters of St. Joseph, and The Little Sisters of the Poor.

Consideration of Becoming a Lay Ecclesial  Minister

Female respondents were also asked if they had ever considered  becoming a lay ecclesial minister.47 Seven percent of female respondents indicated they had considered this and 1  percent indicated they were already serving the Church in this capacity.48


Thus, fewer Catholic  females consider becoming a lay ecclesial minister than a religious sister.  However, this may be related to the age at which lay ecclesial ministers often  report feeling the “first call” to ministry.49

There are no statistically significant differences between racial  and ethnic subgroups in consideration of becoming a lay ecclesial minister.

As shown in the figure on the next page, 3 percent of  never-married female Catholics say they have “somewhat” or “very” seriously  considered becoming a lay ecclesial minister.



  1. Thus,  female respondents, on average, report fewer people encouraging them than male  respondents (o.4 compared to 0.7).
  2. It is  important to note the sample for this survey includes never-married Catholic  women, whereas the 2003 and 2008 survey included all Catholic adults.
  3. None of  the responses to the open-ended question referenced the issue of clergy sex  abuse.
  4. After  reading the following description: “A lay ecclesial minister is someone with  professional training working or volunteering in a ministry at least part-time  for a Catholic parish or other Church organization (for example, director of eligious education, pastoral associate, youth minister, campus chaplain, or  hospital chaplain).”
  5. CARA  estimates that there are about 38,000 lay ecclesial ministers serving the  U.S. Church (Source: The Changing  Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes, pg. 60).
  6. The  average age “parish leaders” report first hearing the call is 29 (Source: Perspectives from Parish Leaders: U.S.  Parish Life and Ministry, pg. 42).