Pathways to Religious Life

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Thomas P. Gaunt
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For anyone who is curious about changes in Catholic religious institutes of women and men, Pathways to Religious Life is a treasure-trove, and its breadth and depth make it appealing and worthwhile for many readers. Its main purpose is to analyze the numerous studies on religious life prepared and published in the past two decades by the staff of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Following an engaging but brief history, the next five chapters focus on the trends and influences that have affected the substance and form of religious institutes. The final chapters reveal new directions and innovative modes of involvement in religious organizations. All six authors of the ten chapters are well-versed on their topics with four of them among the most accomplished researchers on religious life (editor, Thomas Gaunt, and authors Mary Gautier, Mary Johnson, and Patricia Wittberg). The contributions of the two newer authors, Thu Do and Jonathon Holland, blend in seamlessly and add the indispensable perspective of younger generations.

Considering the changing context in the United States, the overview of the history of religious life covers essential topics such as demographics, varieties of ministry, and the sources of vocations. It describes the transformations before and after 1950. An early key moment was the publication of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which resulted in what one critic called “a virtual ice age” for women religious—women and men who belong to religious communities—who “were warned to restrict contact with the outside world as much as possible” (6). Yet advancements in the larger society demanded a certain professionalism and engagement, which gradually resulted in adjustments that produced different outcomes than anticipated by church authorities. The impact of the Second Vatican Council reinforced new directions and lessened regulations, especially in more humane lifestyles and educational advancements for many religious. 

The drastic decrease in the number of religious in the past five decades is vividly portrayed in chapter 2. For women, the most telling graph shows the peak number in 1966 at 181,421 and the nadir in 2015 at 47,170—a nearly 75% decrease (17). For men (priests and brothers), the peak year was in 1970 with 41,886 and reduced to 17,721 in 2015. The decrease occurred even as the Catholic population grew to 70 million, 20 million more than fifty years before. Thought-provoking analyses of the downward trends are offered as well as an explanation of the reasons why a few communities experienced growth. 

The next four chapters address personal and societal influences on vocations to religious life, addressing in depth the effects of family, education, and volunteer programs. The central role of family life (chapter 3) is to be expected and shows that the holy, happy ones, and those engaged in many devotional practices and church-related activities, produce more vocations. Considering overall statistics on the high divorce rate and single parent families, the 90% of two-parent families of priests and religious is notably high (39). Variations in ethnic and racial practices are evident and significant when considering approaches to young people in making their vocational choices.

The findings in chapter 4 concern the influences of higher educational experiences. Generally, both men and women enrolled in Catholic colleges scored slightly higher on virtually all measures of religiosity, but in some cases by only a few percentage points. The greatest difference occurred on the question of spiritual direction at Catholic colleges, a critical element in vocational discernment. At Catholic colleges men were much more likely to have a spiritual director (62%) than were women (44%). At non-Catholic colleges, the percentages were much lower, 30% for men and 24% for women (68). The data concerning encouragers of vocational discernment were almost always higher for men than for women and, surprisingly, some scores were higher in non-Catholic than in Catholic colleges (77). Moreover, unexpectedly, fewer scores among the discouragers took a negative stance in non-Catholic colleges (78). The advantages of Catholic colleges influencing vocations seem not to be remarkably better than those of non-Catholic colleges.

The effects of volunteer programs were reported to have a highly positive effect on young Catholics discerning a religious vocation (chapter 6). A high percentage of volunteers graduated from a Catholic college—58% in one study and 68% in another (85)—and were raised Catholic (80% in both studies) (86), so it is difficult to discern which influence was greatest. Nonetheless, extensive quotes from participants indicated the positive impact volunteering had on their faith in later life. Chapter 7 considers a variety of other influential factors not previously discussed, such as the effects of parish life, pre-college Catholic schools, and familiarity with religious men and women who are relatives or friends. Involvement in enriching and appealing parish life is important to younger people, as is the experience of early Catholic education and acquaintance with religious. 

The three chapters dealing with evolving forms and directions of religious involvement were among the most distinctive and refreshing. “Associates and Religious Institutes” (chapter 7) deals with the rapidly growing phenomenon of programs for people who seek relationship with vowed religious for the sake of participation in their prayer life and mission, and other opportunities for spiritual growth and service. The preponderance of associates are women (90%), as are vowed religious who responded to the survey (96%) (125). Strong associate communities are considered a great benefit to both associate and vowed members. A brief chapter 8 describes religious communities formed since Vatican II. Of the 142 new groups, about a third have ceased to exist and, with rare exceptions, those remaining have only a few members (142). Chapter 9 describes the importance and gifts of the numerous international sisters and priests who have come to serve the Catholic Church in the United States. Their ministries are mainly in parishes, hospitals, and schools, and often serve immigrants from their own ethnic background. 

The final chapter, “Learnings for Vocation Directors,” briefly summarizes the main themes and offers questions for reflection, which serve as a superb resource for the entire leadership of religious institutes. They provide a kind of “examination of conscience” that requires an honest evaluation of the future direction of every religious organization, whether Catholic or not. This book is filled with fascinating information that will be especially pleasing to those who have a penchant for numerical data and factual analysis. Authors rarely speculate about the future, but rather base their opinions on concrete and plentiful data. Extensive comments by survey participants add substance and liveliness to the many charts and graphs. Ultimately, the book not only provides considerable insight into the Catholic Church, but also reveals a significant vision of the role and effects of religion in the United States. I find it to be a valuable resource and I highly recommend it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katarina Schuth is Endowed Chair Emerita for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Gaunt, SJ is the Executive Director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Prior to CARA, he served in Jesuit governance as the Socius/Executive Secretary of the Jesuit Conference for nine years and the Formation and Studies Director of the Maryland and New York Jesuits for seven years. After ordination, he spent ten years as a pastor and as Director of Planning in the Diocese of Charlotte. Father Gaunt is actively involved with the L'Arche Communities in Washington, DC.


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