Another Take on Millennials and Vocations

Two years ago a friend and researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University and I co-authored a scholarly article in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education on the statistical and theological significance of certain demographic shifts concerning Millennials and their affective religiosity, propensity to do volunteer work, and likelihood to study theology or religion in college. One thing that emerged from our research was the statistical evidence that suggested the breakout (the first five-year cohort of a given generation) population of Millennials at Catholic institutions of higher education were more likely than their generational predecessors -- notably, the Gen-Xers -- to study theology, philosophy, or religion in college and volunteer. Yet, their affective religiosity was observably different from the generations that preceded them. Characteristic markers of typical religious affiliation appeared less relevant, a fact that comes as no surprise to those who parrot the "spiritual but not religious" line to describe young adults today.

What we found is that young adults are indeed religious, but perhaps not according to the standard markers of their Catholic generational seniors.

To look at this in an analogous way, lots of initial talk about Pope Francis's seemingly "anti-liberation theology" talk as an Archbishop did not align with his expressed or affective behavior, discourse, and writing. On the contrary, the standard markers of who is and who is not "for" liberation theology (namely, those Catholic prelates who expressly say they are for or against it) do not really apply in the case of a man who so overtly lived and promoted by word and deed the tenets or principles of Catholic Social Teaching and liberation theology. We can draw a similar point about young adults -- they might not poll the same on questions about eucharistic adoration or praying the rosary like their generational predecessors, but they are categorically more likely to identify service to the poor and other tenets of CST as constitutive of Christian living.

Ironically, if Jesus were a pollster, I have an intuitive feeling that he might be more apt to identify affective religiosity in terms Millennials recognize rather than how often one goes to daily mass (we could call it the "Matthew 25 Survey" or "The Statistical Significance of Sheep and Goats").

I share these musings because I was reminded of them when a friend and classmate pointed me to a web article by Emma Green in The Atlantic Monthly titled, "Why Would a Millennial Become a Priest or a Nun?" For at least a couple reasons the title alone caught my attention: (a) I am a Millennial and (b) I am a priest. This should be interesting.

And interesting it was.

By and large, I was impressed with Green's use of vocational, religious, and otherwise technical Catholic jargon, something rarely seen in the so-called "secular media." The statistics, drawn from both CARA and the USCCB, are good. But, as I'll get to in a minute, statistics are meaningless until interpreted (my sociologist friends would certainly agree), and the interpretation in Green's piece is in need of some additional nuance that is all-too-often absent when discussions of vocations today appear.

Before getting to an observation about statistical interpretation, I want to comment on Green's claim that Millennials who enter religious life or diocesan formation are exceptions to the clichés about my generation. Early in the piece we read:

There are a handful of young people across the country who have interpreted "calling" in perhaps the most literal way possible: By devoting their lives to the Church. The decision seems radical in the context of common stereotypes about millennials, a generation often accused of lack of discipline, skepticism bordering on snark, preference for a hook-up culture, and only the vaguest spiritual impulses. These millennials defy those clichés, taking lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to God -- and to the Catholic Church, which, especially in their lifetimes, has been regularly plagued by scandal. [emphasis added]

While it is true that the numbers of those entering religious life or diocesan formation does not rival the numbers of those entering fields of accounting, medicine, or law, that some Millennials are choosing to respond to "a call" to religious life is hardly defiance of projected clichés.

Additionally, old-cynical-fat clergy -- we all know some -- seem to fit Green's depiction of the Millennial generation's caricature as "a generation often accused of lack of discipline, skepticism bordering on snark" better than the young adults themselves. What is particularly unique about Millennials in this regard?

One way that they are unique is with regard to their expressive religious practices, all-too-frequently uncounted among those markers traditionally associated with über-religious Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers (and hence Green's cliché about their "vaguest spiritual impulses"). I, and some colleagues of mine, are convinced of quite the opposite: Millennials have especially heightened spiritual impulses -- just ask program directors at organizations like Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) or Franciscan Volunteer Ministry (FVM) or campus ministers around the country. Millennial spirituality is alive and strong, but it doesn't look and act like that of our parents or grandparents (an admitted challenge for the same program directors and ministers).

All this to say that Millennials who enter religious life or diocesan formation are, in all honesty, not major exceptions to the generational rule. They are particular iterations of a growing trend that, I admit, can seem initially incongruent alongside other demographic and cultural characteristics. Nevertheless, generational cohort analysis is complex and never black-and-white. Millennials may be both more-likely to delay marriage (something Baby Boomer and Gen-Xer analysts frequently interpret as "lack of discipline" or "resistance to commitment") and be more-likely to associate service, volunteering, and Sermon-on-the-Mount-esque action with the core of Christianity.

The second thing worth noting -- and the reason my friend thought of me after reading the piece -- is the absence of necessary contextualization of the vocation-numbers data so often presented in these types of articles. Like the Lake Placid Winter Olympics Ski Jumps, these charts often depict an impressively high number of young religious and seminarians in the 1950s & 1960s followed by a steep decline beginning in the 1970s & 1980s through today.

This, in itself, is misleading. As I mentioned above, statistics are worthless without interpretation and how one presents the data also shapes the popular interpretation (for more on this, check out the excellent book by Joel Best, Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians and Activists).

Looking at the Vocational Ski Slope Charts, you might be inclined to think -- as Green and others (including many Catholics and Catholic clergy) are -- "Holy Smoke, Batman, the numbers have really decreased!!"

Yes. They have, relative to the 1950s and 1960s, which were aberrational decades for religious vocations in the United States. As the theologian Sandra Schneiders, in her three-volume work on religious life, and others have noted, there were very significant sociological, cultural, economic, and religious reasons in post-war United States for these artificially high numbers. This also helps to explain why, in the 1970s, "so many" women and men religious left religious life. There are many reasons why people join and many reasons why people leave religious life, but the 1950s & 1960s were very unique.

Both charts in The Atlantic Monthly piece begin in 1965 or 1967. A more accurate depiction of trends in religious vocational response in the United States should include a broader data selection, perhaps demonstrating the trends over the last century. Instead of Lake Placid Olympic Ski Jumps, one might find a Mt. Rainier-esque peak centered around the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, suggesting aberration rather than a standard against which to judge the current state of affairs.

So where does that leave us? How are we to judge the state of religious life in numerical terms?

My suggestion begins with looking at our context today and not worrying about how 2013 compares with 1963. We do not live in the 1950s & 1960s, our world, our society, our church, our needs are different. The Holy Spirit provides, in every generation, women and men to live religious life. Let's look at how the whole Body of Christ, which is the church, can serve and be served by each who is called by the Spirit in different ways... and stop wringing our hands that we cannot keep things going like it's 1963.

This post was concurrently published on the website