In Western societies like Europe and the United States, women are more religious than men. That is a sociological truism supported by a wealth of survey data. Women are more likely to join churches and to participate in worship services; they are more orthodox in their beliefs generally and more devout in their daily religious practice. Among people raised in a nonreligious family, women are more likely than men to adopt a religion. And women are less likely (12 percent as compared with 19 percent of men) to profess no religion at all.
The Faith Matters Survey, conducted for Harvard University in 2006, found that in comparison with men, U.S. women were more likely to say that they were “very spiritual” and had experienced the presence of God. They were also more likely to read Scripture and to believe in divine guidelines for good and evil. In their summary of this survey, Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell noted, “no matter the specific yardstick, women exhibit a greater commitment to, involvement with and belief in religion” (American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Simon and Schuster, 2010).
The greater religiosity of women has a long history within Christianity. More than twice as many women as men, for example, entered their era’s version of religious life: from the fourth-century Middle East (the consecrated virgins as compared with the hermits) to 12th- and 13th-century Europe (the Beguines and cloistered nuns as compared with the friars), to 17th-century France and 19th-century North America. Sometimes, as in 19th-century Ireland and Quebec, the ratio was as high as four to one. Among Protestants, the same gender disparity was observed as early as the 17th century. As the Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather wrote in 1692, “So still there are far more Godly women in the world than there are men, and our Church Communions give us a little demonstration of it.” Among historians, sociologists and psychologists who have studied the matter, the greater religious propensity of women is an axiom. It may no longer be true, however, for the youngest generations of Catholic adults.
Young Women Opt Out
In the mid-1990s, surveys began to indicate that, while older Catholic women in the United States were indeed more religious than Catholic men of their age, the Catholic women of Generation X (born between 1962 and 1980) barely equaled their male counterparts in regular Mass attendance and were significantly more likely than the men to profess heterodox opinions on women’s ordination, on the sinfulness of homosexual acts and premarital sex and on whether one could be a good Catholic without going to Mass.
More recent data (2002-8) from the annual General Social Survey indicate that the reduced religiosity of American Catholic women extends to the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1995), as well. Millennial Catholic women are even more disaffected than Gen X women are. This is evident when they are compared with Catholic men in the same age ranges. Both genders of millennial and Gen X Catholics are much less devout and much less orthodox than their elders, and many practice their religion infrequently if at all. But the decline is steeper among women. Millennial Catholic women are slightly more likely than Catholic men their age to say that they never attend Mass (the first generation of American Catholic women for whom this is so), and the women are significantly more likely to hold heterodox positions on whether the pope is infallible and whether homosexual activity is always wrong. None of the millennial Catholic women in the survey expressed complete confidence in churches and religious organizations.
Data on those entering religious life and the priesthood reveal the same disturbing trend. Much has changed since the 19th and early 20th centuries, when between three and four times as many American Catholic women entered religious life as did men (even when those ordained to the diocesan priesthood are added to the male totals). Currently, the proportions are nearly equal or in reverse: 1,396 men were in initial formation in religious institutes nationwide in 2009, compared with 1,206 women. A study of Catholics in vocation formation in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2010 found 173 men preparing to be priests, brothers and deacons, but only 30 women preparing to be sisters. And while half the men in religious formation are millennials, only a third of the women are. More than a third of the women entering religious life today are over 40, whereas fewer than a quarter of the men are that old. Millennial Catholic women are less likely than their male counterparts to say they have ever even considered a religious vocation.
A similar decline has not occurred among young Protestant women. According to the General Social Surveys, millennial Protestant females remain slightly more likely than their male counterparts to attend religious services weekly and less likely to say that they never attend. These women are significantly more likely than the men of their generation—and even more likely than older Protestant women—to say that they have a great deal of confidence in organized religion.
All this is not to suggest that millennial Catholic women are not interested in spiritual things. Both Protestant and Catholic millennial women are significantly more likely than the men their age to consider themselves “very spiritual” persons. The danger is that Catholic millennial women who remain disproportionately interested in spirituality and religious practice will seek an outlet for this interest outside the church in which they grew up.
This is hardly the first time women have become disaffected from the church. Both the Cathars in the 13th century and the Protestant Huguenots in the 17th century attracted more women than men to their ranks. In both instances, Catholic officials, alarmed by the prospect of losing the mothers of the next generation of Catholics to these groups, provided new opportunities for Catholic women. The creation of “apostolic” teaching and nursing orders in the 17th century and later, for example, was a direct result of the Huguenots’ appeal to French women. In contrast, while today’s Catholic officials have expressed concern about the overall decline of religiosity among “the young,” I have not seen evidence of alarm about the disproportionate decline among young women.
1. Some readers may see these trends as further support for the view that the church must allow the ordination of women. The lack of women’s ordination in previous eras did not drive women from the church, however. That is at least partly because new religious orders offered women more opportunities for religious leadership and influence than existed in secular society at the time. Today, by contrast, leadership opportunities in the secular world are much more visible and accessible. Nearly a quarter of senior managers in U.S. firms, for example, are women; women head national government offices and state and city governments; women start thousands of small businesses and lead prestigious universities. As a result, the limited opportunities for women to use their leadership gifts and talents in the church are less attractive.
In one survey of millennials, 70 percent of college students (male and female) said they would not consider the priesthood or religious life because they had a different career in mind. Even in Asia, which has been a growing source of new entrants to religious communities, vocations to religious life are decreasing.
Some 60 percent of young adult Catholics, male and female, think that the church should be more proactive in empowering lay ministers and should pay them more competitive wages. Meanwhile, the number of formation and training programs for lay ministers in the United States is actually decreasing. Since 80 percent of lay ministers in parishes are female, this decrease represents a reduction, not growth, in the number of opportunities for women to exercise religious leadership and service in the Catholic Church.
If the lack of opportunities for spiritual leadership is a major cause of the disaffection of young Catholic women, then one obvious remedy would be to open up more opportunities for them. Some women already hold leadership positions in diocesan charities and personnel offices and on the local and national review boards that consider ethics and morals charges against clergy and lay staff. These women and their work could be profiled in the various media that reach young Catholic women, and other efforts could be made to attract other women to fill similar roles. More women could be appointed to head secretariats in local dioceses and in the Vatican. Women could be ordained as deaconesses and, with the appropriate change to canon law, could even be appointed cardinals—ideas that have been discussed for decades.
2. Other readers may see in these statistics evidence that the church needs to proclaim more strongly a “true feminism” to counteract the corrosive effects of secular feminism on the young. “True feminism” was described in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. This strategy, however, has not shown much success so far at influencing mainstream Catholic culture. Affecting—let alone changing—a widely held cultural value is difficult and requires considerable time, personnel and financial resources. If the church hopes seriously to promote this idea, it must take more concrete action. Focus groups, surveys and other research would need to be conducted to explore what “feminism” actually means to today’s young people. While some effort has been made to depict alternate, church-centered interpretations of the term, this would have to be greatly expanded. New professional journals, blogs, speakers’ bureaus and institutions would have to be set up with a focus on feminism, and an expanded electronic presence would have to be maintained, for example, on Facebook, Twitter and other venues.
More theologians and scholars would also have to think deeply and write persuasively about the role of women in the church under this alternative vision of feminism. To be effective, their writings would need to be promulgated beyond the narrow circle of conservative Catholics who currently read them. And more researchers, media directors, authors, Web gurus and theologians ought to be women. The church would have to establish and fund teaching positions for experts in Catholic feminism. In turn, these experts would offer courses at universities and seminaries and train an entire cohort of engaged and creative academics, film producers/directors, Web designers and popular authors committed to developing and disseminating “true feminism,” the Catholic version.
3. Of course, the church could also do nothing. The consequences of this last alternative, however, would be fewer young women, and likely fewer of their children, remaining in the Catholic Church. If that were to happen, practicing Catholics in North America and Europe would run the danger of dwindling to a small and eccentric fringe group, stereotyped in the popular imagination as quaint, irrelevant, self-limited and oppressive. Without attracting more women from Generation X, the millennials and subsequent generations, the church could cease to be an influential voice in Western societies.