The National Catholic Review
Where have all the young people gone?

Why aren’t young men and women entering religious life today? A long list of answers has been floating for years among vocation recruiters, novitiate staffs and religious communities. Among them: young adults today are commitment-phobic; a “spiritual but not religious” stance makes religious life too constricting; families are smaller and less likely to support someone choosing to enter religious life; the average age in most communities has risen to a point where a young person is actually entering a retirement home, not a novitiate; the church after the Second Vatican Council has failed to inculcate in young adult Catholics a sense of commitment to the institutional church; young women (and some young men) are alienated by the patriarchal and/or hierarchical nature of priesthood and the church; celibacy is incomprehensible in our overly sexualized age; the horrific and pervasive evidence of sexual and financial scandals in the church makes the young look elsewhere as they choose professions and careers; there are deep intellectual and cultural confusions over the meaning(s) of God, Jesus, church, salvation and priesthood.

The list could go on, but the facts remain: in 1965 there were 45.6 million Catholics and 48,992 seminarians in the United States studying for the priesthood, while in 2006 there were 69.1 million Catholics and only 5,642 seminarians. Similar or more severe declines have been registered in the number of people becoming men or women religious.

After 15 years of interacting with college students (the past five years living in a student dormitory), I can identify certain cultural currents running through the lives of young adults. Like riptides, hidden but strong, these pull persons in their 20s far from the shores of religious life. Such cultural phenomena are off the radar of men and women religious today, mostly because the cultural world of the young people we would hope to attract to our communities differs so much from our own. As a cultural anthropologist, I was taught that good fieldwork reveals what everyone knows but no one in the host culture talks about. What follows are several truths that many young adults know but seldom express to their elders. Some of these cultural currents are not readily apparent to them, though when I have run these ideas by young adults, I have met with wide agreement.

1. One’s culture consists of what one knows. Today’s young adults do not know very much about Jesus, the church, the faith or religious life. In fact, young adults do not know many things that used to be common knowledge among Catholics, and they often know more about other faiths than they do about their own religious tradition. When one excited young woman ran up to me and exclaimed, “I’m going to study Buddhism. It’s so cool!” I said, “Wow. Did you ever think of studying the religion that teaches that God became what we are so we could become what God is”? “Ooh, that sounds cool. What one’s that?” she asked. “Catholicism,” I answered, the faith in which she had been baptized and confirmed.

Culturally, we are the stories we tell. Too easily we assume that young adult Catholics know who St. Francis or St. Ignatius was, but we assume such at our peril. Today’s young adults know Harry and Hermione better than Jesus, Mary and Joseph. One student I spoke to last year thought Vatican II was the name of a pope!

Also problematic are the general intellectual abilities of today’s young adults. Most college students today would balk at the workload the Jesuits threw at high school students in the 1970s. In our first year we read the Documents of Vatican II; in sophomore year, the Dutch catechism. Today’s reading lists for Theology 101 at most universities are decidedly lighter fare. Students will not or cannot plow through Rahner.

This makes the act of intellectually synthesizing the various modes of truth present in Catholic tradition quite difficult for the average student. To argue that analogous conceptions of truth are not equivocal, but in fact more meaningful than univocal truths, stuns young adults, if they can follow the reasoning. To grasp that the Gospel infancy narratives may be true, even though the stories themselves are not historically or scientifically accurate, is a real task for those educated in a culture that leaves little room for nuance. Young adults have intellectual difficulty coming to terms with the intricacies of our faith tradition. In the 1950s and 1960s, older teens and young adults knew what the beatific vision was, and many yearned to see God face to face (1 Cor 13:12); today all we have given them (or all they have paid attention to) is

2. In the past one entered a novitiate with people who were culturally similar and found the process easy. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, most seminarians had attended similar Catholic high schools, and most were young adults unencumbered by other life commitments. Entrance was rather easy: you told a member of the order at your school that you were interested in joining, and in most cases you were in. No longer.

Most people thinking of entering religious life today are much older than in previous eras; they are of various ages, and as a group they are more diverse. They are concerned about what will happen to their 401(k) account, cell phone contract, apartment lease, car, dog and more. To enter a novitiate, they are being asked to break off a set of adult relationships and responsibilities that might be five, 10 or 15 years old.

The process too has grown complex. I have taken to describing the process of admission to the Jesuits, for example, as long, difficult and often uncomfortably invasive. We do want young people to “make it.” But some are put off by the sheer complexity of interviews, psychological testing and the introduction to prayer and spiritual direction.

3. One’s culture is a set of relationships, a base upon which one makes life choices and commitments. Among all their relationships, young adults know few young religious sisters, brothers or priests. A daunting fact of vocation recruitment today is that those doing the recruiting are no longer 10 or 15 years older than the person being recruited; the recruiters are decades older. How many 50-year-olds seek out 75-year-olds with whom to go to a movie or dinner? Why would a 30-year-old want to join a community where the youngest members are 50 or 60? Two recent books, Googling God, by Mike Hayes, and Young Adult Catholics, by Dean Hoge, reveal how radically different young adults’ relationships are, not just with the church, but with much of culture and society, when compared with those of people who came of age in earlier decades.

Also, a study released in 2008 by the Pew Forum indicates that fully one in three Americans who were baptized as Catholics no longer identify themselves as Catholic and increasing numbers of young people choose no religious affiliation at all. This is a significant change from the 1950s and 60s.

4. Young adults live in a media world unfamiliar to most priests and religious. DVD’s, Facebook, Myspace, Halo 3, Wii, cell phones, Madden football—these are the constant companions of young adults, as familiar to them as Notre Dame football, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and foreign missionaries were to Catholics of the 1950s and 1960s. When we tell a young person we do not know how to take a picture with a cell phone, we are communicating not only that we are “out of it,” but that we fall on the spectrum somewhere between imbecilic and incompetent.

5. Young adults experience gender issues, sexuality and the relational world very differently than most priests and religious. From sexual experimentation in their preteens to cohabitation while in college and to comfort with issues of sexual diversity, the experience of young people has changed significantly in recent decades. A president having an affair in the Oval Office? That was front-page news when today’s young adults were in middle school. The attitudes of a typical priest or religious on such matters seem anywhere from archaic and prudish to insensitive and uninformed to young adults whose parents, peers and professors preach not just tolerance but wholehearted acceptance of a wide range of sexualities and lifestyle choices. A church that condemns such sexual choices and practices is seen by a large majority of today’s educated Catholics not as prophetic but as narrow-minded and prejudiced.

Many men, socialized in a culture where women are considered equal, are reluctant to embrace a profession that routinely relegates women to second-class status. With women running corporations and universities, serving as Speaker of the House and campaigning to become president of the United States, many Catholics find incomprehensible a church declaration that one cannot even discuss the ordination of women. A cultural worldview that champions the elimination of sexism has little sympathy for a church that enshrines sexism as a practice supposedly instituted by Christ. As we obstinately refuse to ordain women, we are ordaining fewer and fewer men. The two phenomena may be more closely linked than we realize or are willing to admit.

6. Issues of money and race are significant but rarely discussed in religious communities. More and more young adults say they must work off a crushing student debt before they can even consider entering religious life or getting married. Recruiters from the founding religious orders of many Catholic institutions find that potential candidates from these same schools often take as much as a decade to pay off their student loans, making it difficult for them to consider the possibility of a vocation.

Other sensitive issues concern race and class.Many religious orders are overwhelmingly white and decidedly upper-middle-class in taste and temperament. Latino and African-American Catholics who look into religious orders in the United States see communities where contemporary music is unknown, ethnic foods are rarely served and communication styles reflect middle-class backgrounds. Prospective candidates who grew up in homes where incomes were near or below median family income are often put off by the L. L. Bean lifestyle of some male religious. On the other hand, young women from semi-affluent backgrounds cannot imagine how they could survive on the meager stipends most religious women receive for personal spending, often much less than $100 a month. When I told one Jesuit that median family income in the United States was $48,200, he denied it and argued, “If that were true, how could people afford to go to our schools?” His reply showed a social and cultural myopia often present in our communities.

A study of “best practices” of those religious institutes that have successfully accepted and integrated persons of diverse backgrounds would be helpful. The Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, of which I am a member, counts only three African-American Jesuits as members and no Latinos from poor inner-city families. Both a Latino from Camden, N.J. (per capita income $12,739), and a Georgetown graduate from adjacent Cherry Hill, N.J. (per capita income $38,284), will face cultural challenges when trying to form community in a novitiate.

7. American society may not be producing people who are able to live religious life. Perhaps more problematic are the cultural deficiencies of American upper-middle-class families. In The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids (2007), the psychologist Madeline Levine describes children (often from economically comfortable families) who are in deep emotional distress. One young woman Levine describes is a “cutter,” who wears a long-sleeved T-shirt with a thumbhole in the sleeve. She is covering up a forearm into which she has repeatedly carved the word “empty” with a razor. Too many of our young are empty. The anorexic cheerleader; the star football player contemplating suicide; the nerdy genius at Stanford filled with a numb, nameless rage because she did not get into Harvard; the aimless young man living in his parents’ basement with only video games to look forward to; the legion of others who suffer from “failure to launch.” If these are in deep distress, how much better off are the young adults who are “making it”? Problems ranging from serious addictions to attention deficit disorder permeate the young adult population. Older novitiate programs did not have to deal with these, at least not on the level or with the frequency that they do today.

Nonetheless, there is some hope. Whenever I find myself wondering about the viability of religious life in the United States or the future of the church, I read up on the history of the church at the end of the 15th century. Do we think things look bad now? Then popes were presiding over sexual intrigues and murders in the Vatican. The little friar Savonarola was setting the match to the “bonfire of the vanities,” until he himself became fuel for the flames. Corruption was rampant in the church. Yet in the wake of that era there emerged St. Ignatius Loyola, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of ávila. May our troubled times produce such sanctity.

Richard G. Malloy, S.J., author of A Faith That Frees (Orbis, 2007), is assistant professor of anthropology at Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, Pa.

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Jim Lein | 9/16/2016 - 10:16pm

Wondering if the Richard DeSpirito comment could be by the same Richard DeSpirito I knew in the Army way back in 1964-65, in Maryland and Korea.

NOVICE | 9/22/2008 - 10:04am
In Richard G. Malloy's "Religious Life in the Age of Facebook" (7/7), I emphatically disagree with his point that students today simply "can't handle" Rahner or any other rigorous theological text. I believe students today are asked to synthesize a wider array of data, and take into account many different perspectives. The great educational advances of the day have been around the process of thinking itself not merely the memorization of stories from previous generations, but the ability to critically process and reflect the world around us, including institutionalized religion. On a different note, I think Malloy is right to point out that students are exploring different religious traditions, but I don't understand why he sees this as a negative. Both of these qualities of youth today seem to say that our worldviews are broadening and our paradigms are no longer as simple as they were a few decades ago (in the 1950s). There is something to be said for knowing one's own tradition, but ultimately, a blending of world religions is conducive to intercultural understanding, cooperation and peace.
Cathy Beckley | 7/23/2008 - 7:57pm
I found Fr. Malloy's article right on. As a vocation director working with young adult Catholics and college students, I am inspired by their eagerness to serve, to ask the hard questions, and their openness to consider religious life. They often have not had much real life engagement with sisters, brothers, and priests. We need to continue to invite them - welcome them into our homes - listen to them - and mostly let them get to know who and what we are about - the reign of God. Consider doing a Blog and getting on Facebook to enter into their world too.
2373727 | 7/20/2008 - 4:52pm
One answer to "Why aren’t young men and women entering religious life today?" is "no one is asking them to do so". I have a high school senior son who is interested in his faith -- involved with his parish, attends Catholic high school, participates in retreats and service projects, collects and regularly reads volumes of the St. John's Bible. Colleges, the military, and truck driving schools all recruit him (the military will even stop by the house) -- but from our diocese and from religious orders he hears nothing.
JOHN HOLLOHAN MR/MRS | 7/8/2008 - 3:16pm
Richard Malloy’s Religious Life in the Age of Facebook graphically outlines the wide chasm which separates today’s young men and women from the world of religious life. I’d like to comment on only one point – this issue of being “spiritual and not religious”. Incredibly the Catholic faith is not seen by many as being “spiritual” enough. Malloy’s story of the young woman who is so enthusiastic to study Buddhism, while neglecting her own Christian heritage, brings this out. His response that she should consider the religion that teaches that God became man so that man could become like God, evokes from her :”Ooh, that sounds cool. What one’s that? But should this young lady be faulted for being so myopic with regards to the faith she was brought up in. Most likely she has been instructed in what John Haughey S.J.- in an earlier America article- called Church-ianity, instead of Christ-ianity. Haughey’s terminology highlighted the lack of personal attachment to Jesus and the ability to talk about him in personal terms, an inability to see one’s self as being in a personal relationship with Him. Such a relationship – a human relating to God as a result of God becoming human, as Malloy told the young lady- is the essence of Christian spirituality. Unfortunately much of the presentation of the Catholic faith never rises to the level of this spirituality because it remains anchored in its emphasis on religion, i.e. Church-ianity. Only when the Jesus story is allowed to be front and center and not peripheral will the Christian belief in a Resurrected Lord prove magnetic to the children of this age.
3429715 | 7/7/2008 - 8:53am
Richard G. Mallory's article "Religious Life in the Age of Facebook" should be required reading for the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy, religious superiors, teachers, and parents of children who very often cannot grasp the social, ethical, psychological, educational, political, gender, and religious shifts that ineluctably continue to influence our way of thinking about and interacting with our world. The loss of religious vocations should not necessarily be lamented but may mean the opportunity for the laity's ever greater engagement with the Church. The Church however must be understood as the people of God living in today's world and not in some out-of-touch institution whose positions and practices actively limit or exclude from full membership a good half of the world's population (women, divorcees, gays, the unchurched, etc.)
Susan Francois, CSJP | 7/5/2008 - 9:07am
Richard G. Molloy lists the #4 reason for the lack of religious vocations as: “Young adults live in a media world unfamiliar to most priest and religious today.” I therefore find it highly ironic that this article is only available online to subscribers of the print edition of the magazine! It seems to me that if you seriously want to open up this discussion to young people, the first step would be to provide access to the complete text of the article, online for free. I write this as a young-ish person (in my mid 30’s) who not only has a Facebook page and Blog of her own, but is preparing to profess first vows as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace in October. You might also be interested to know that my first contact with my religious community was via the internet. The internet has also allowed me to build relationships with other young men and women around the globe who are discerning religious vocations. I tend to look at the fact that young adults live in a media world as a positive and hopeful factor for the future of religious life. What I think this article points out is that religious communities (and traditional media) need to catch up.
Jim CONNIFF FAMILY | 7/4/2008 - 9:32am
Malloy's article ducks the big questions of why, as Jesuit Ray Schroth pointed out, the bishops aren't mature enough to display the Gift of the Holy Spirit called "courage" (Fortitude) by publicly confessing their sins against God and man (and children, and the poor with $2 billion wasted on lawyers and settlements), by doing public penance for failing to train properly and then help instead of aiding and abetting their errant priests, by ditching their silly and ruinously expensive Late Roman Empire get-ups and stupid glans-penis type scare-caps, by eschewing the high life in their super-baronial "private residences," and by washing their guilty hands of their sinful lust for and holding onto naked power "of which," as Ray tellingly pointed out, "Scripture has nothing good to say."
Bruce Snowden | 7/4/2008 - 7:25am
All the reasons given by Richard G. Mallory, S.J. for the dwindled youth-response to the priestly and Religious life are true. Exclusive of the minuscule number of sexually delinquent clery and Religious who give rotten example, one factor not mention is the impact of good example on young people by clergy and Religious. As everyone knows, young people can spot of phoney a mile away! Religious and priests don't means to be phonies but often end up looking that way! Young people look for "something different" in clergy and Religious, they seek a challenge and they want to see prayerfulness in their lives. When they see the same old thing that they are used to in clergy and Religious, girls for example seeing Sisters with fine hairdos, ear rings and pretty fancy clothing simply say, "Why bother becoming a Sister? Ther're just like me already!" Priests and Brothers too, who talk only about " worldly pursuits" like fine dining and drinking, the whole nine yards of life "in the world" to use an old, but important phrase, but never about the challenge of a holy life and about prayer, turn off young people who are already fed up with all that shallow stuff, that seems so important to priests and Brothers! When it comes to answering the call to priestly and Religious life young people want something different than what they are used too. At least that's how I see it!
RON DIRKS MR | 7/3/2008 - 11:25pm
Where Have All the Young People Gone? My youngest daughter of five children felt called to offer herself to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) for a year upon graduation from the University of Texas (UT) with a degree in Computer Science (CS) in 2003. She felt a need to serve the poor in the U.S. wherever the JVC program director assigned her while understanding the requirement to live in an impoverished community on the minimal JVC stipend. She was prepared to make such a sacrifice. She contacted the director of the program in San Francisco who, after interviewing her (by phone) decided that she was unsuited for such an undertaking since she had not actively taken part in Catholic Newman Center activities while a student at UT. It turns out that that her demanding degree work consumed all her time leaving little time for anything else at that point in her life. As parents, we know that Elizabeth is a very good and generous person who is kind and considerate of all she encounters. Our recommendation nor recommendations from our priest and deacon in our local parish in New Mexico were of no avail. So now, five years later she holds a very successful position in computer science with a large financial reporting company in New York City and continues her loving concern of those with whom she works and relaxes with - but in part, due to this "rejection" by a representative of the Church to give herself "totally" to Christ in service to the poor, she feels abandoned by Christ and as a consequence has lost her faith and her Church. Pray for her. Where Have All the Young People Gone?
Matthew Doyle | 7/3/2008 - 5:28am
Good. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. This article is at least one map of the nation(s) today; do we have the courage to be missionaries once again? And because of what we have to work with, the process must include the clergy, religious and laity together and not as separate parts. Here is some good news -- you/we -- the Church --can do it. Dust off Go and Make Disciples (e.g.) and try again. Read the intro to Spreading the Holy Fire by Cardinal George as encouragement. But this time put as much effort into that as was put into debunking the Da Vinci Code.
Michael Saso | 7/2/2008 - 8:27pm
Excellent, wonderful article. I shall use these ideas, and the Pope's upcoming emphasis on Catholics owning and reading the bible, in my Sunday Homily. Youth choose to become priests and nuns by the example and sanctity of the lives they (clerics and religious_ lead. Maybe we are as much to blame for fewer vocations.
Michael Saso | 7/2/2008 - 8:27pm
Excellent, wonderful article. I shall use these ideas, and the Pope's upcoming emphasis on Catholics owning and reading the bible, in my Sunday Homily. Youth choose to become priests and nuns by the example and sanctity of the lives they (clerics and religious_ lead. Maybe we are as much to blame for fewer vocations.
Michael Saso | 7/2/2008 - 8:27pm
Excellent, wonderful article. I shall use these ideas, and the Pope's upcoming emphasis on Catholics owning and reading the bible, in my Sunday Homily. Youth choose to become priests and nuns by the example and sanctity of the lives they (clerics and religious_ lead. Maybe we are as much to blame for fewer vocations.
R & E FAVILLA | 7/2/2008 - 6:25pm
Thank you for a very accurate descritpion of the current culture in the USA and how it relates to religious life. I often wonder why from about 1945-1965 so may young people in the US entered religious life. (I was Jesuit Novice 1959-1961) Richard Malloy's descpriton of those times contrasted with the contemporary scene I think are accurate and well expressed. The question that always comes to mind when I think of those times in my earlier life - What attracted so many to religious life and why not today? I think the article gives some insight to the issue but I would hope this would be researched and some conclusion reached, e.g., is there no place for religious life among young people in the USA? or whatever some research may point out. Thank you again for this article. Sincerely, Edward Favilla
William Morton | 7/1/2008 - 9:21pm
As a vocation minister for the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati I can say that the issue raised by this article has been in the forefront of my mind for many years. I agree that young Catholics cannot choose what they do not know- and the youngest generations of Catholics have not had the kind of contact and opportunity to build relationships with sisters, brothers and priests that many Baby Boomer and older Catholics did. There are many positive efforts underway to provide experiences and contact that will help remedy this situation. What is more disturbing to me is a concern hinted at in the article: namely that the young adults of America are "empty", lacking some very basic capacity for commitment, service, or even the intellectual discipline, to respond to the call to vowed life or priesthood. I can't believe that is the case, though in these times perhaps more than others it is a more difficult and countercultural choice. My other concern is that we who are living the life are not doing so in a compelling manner- that our lives do not proclaim any good news and that we have become apathetic about inviting young men and women to consider making the kind of commitment that we still find worth the gift of our lives every day.
Doug McFerran | 7/1/2008 - 9:36am
A year back I brought out a book ("Unexpected Company") that included the stories of some three dozen former Jesuits, mostly from the California province. Most of us were from the generation prior to Vatican II, and our experiences were of "the long black line." Typically we were products of Jesuit schools who expected to have lives like those of the priests and scholastics who taught us. And, yes, we were likely to be accepted quite readily with hardly any serious psychological screening. A few years back I had the opportunity to work with Jesuit scholastics in Vietnam, and it was only then that I began to appreciate how different our worlds had become, not because they are Asian but because, like all new Jesuits, they are expected to be involved in active apostolates from their novice days on. Gone are the days of Latin and Greek, the memorization of Thomistic theses, and a comfortable community life with all needs met. Possibly, though, what makes these young Vietnamese different from their American contemporaries is that they do have a distinctive identity as Catholics in a Communist society and so are not fully accepted (one, for instance, had been a soldier who, as a Christian, could never become an officer). In this respect their world was much more like the world in which I had grown up as an Irish-Catholic teenager. I knew I was different because I was Catholic, and it was far easier to see myself as a priest than as a corporate executive. Ironically, the American Catholic community may be suffering from its success.
KEN CHAISON | 7/1/2008 - 9:31am
The article focused on the young people; however, one must also look back one generation. The institutional church effectively broke with the parents of these young people when the full promises of Vatican II were not kept. If the parents of young people have 'doubts' about the church, then of course, the young people have been hearing about those doubts their entire lives. If there are young people who would 'break' with their parents thinking, the financial and sex scandals are simply 'nails in the coffin' to their vocations, especially since there is little change to the heirarchy since the scandals. In any other business, someone, a CEO perhaps, deemed responsible, would have been fired. There is no such symbol of change in the church. For the most part, the bishops are still in place. There will be no real interest in church vocations for at least another generation, until these people are gone. Then it might be too late for the Catholic Church in the US. If the bishops really cared about the people they should have taken responsiblity for the failed policies (including keeping offending priests in ministry) and resigned as bishops. If they were good pastors, they could have done well in a parish somewhere. Other priests should have been made bishops to take their place to show a sign of renewal and contrition in the church.
Richard DeSpirito | 7/1/2008 - 6:26am
Richard G. Malloy, S.J may have more to do with the lack of vocations than the laundry list he provides in his article: "Religious Life in the Age of Facebook." He writes that "A cultural worldview that champions the elimination of sexism has little sympathy for a church that enshrines sexism as a practice supposedly instituted by Christ." When a priest-educator has such a negative view of Church teachings, claiming that the Church "enshrines sexism," how can he expect his students or readers to embrace such a Church?
Jim Lein | 9/16/2016 - 10:19pm

Wondering if, perhaps, you just might be the Richard DeSpirito I knew in the Army way back in 1964-65, in Maryland and Korea.

Recently by Richard G. Malloy

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