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Posted September 11, 2003

Research on the Image of Religious Men and Women

Initial research on young people’s attitudes toward religious life finds that Catholics aged 18-39 look positively on men and women religious but lack significant understanding of their commitment.

The findings come from The Image Project, launched in October 1999 to learn how young Catholics view people in religious life. The survey was conducted by Dean R. Hoge, Ph.D., director of The Lifecycle Institute of The Catholic University of America. Phase I was completed in April 2001. Initial findings are listed here.

Seventy-eight percent of the respondents said that “the lives of priests, brothers, and sisters are inspiring to me.”

Young Catholics are not well versed in religious life. Most know a priest, brother, or sister personally and have watched one at work; but only 33 percent are clear about the difference between a diocesan priest and a religious order priest, only 52 percent said that to be a member of a religious order a person needs to be Catholic, and only 47 percent said that a person needs to be single. Eighteen percent (erroneously) said that a person needs to have a college degree.

Differences between men’s and women’s attitudes are very small. Women reported going to church and praying more often than men, but women’s attitudes towards religious life are no different from men’s.

Persons who attended a Catholic school or know a priest, sister, or brother personally have better information about religious life.

Catholics who attend Mass weekly have a more positive image of religious life. Eighty-six percent of these people (versus 74 percent of others) said that the lives of priests, brothers, and sisters are inspiring to them.

Latinos differed from other Catholics in attitude. Latinos rated themselves as more religious than others rated themselves, but Latinos reported less contact with priests, brothers, and sisters than others did.

The overwhelming majority of people have positive images of religious life, but less than one-fourth of the men and less than one-sixth of the women have ever been asked to consider joining a religious order or community.

Television programs and movies that portray religious people have little impact on young people’s views of men and women religious. The image of religious persons on television and in movies reinforces a positive image of priests, brothers, and sisters. Any negative impressions young people have of religious are not derived from TV and movies.

Young adults prefer priests, brothers, and sisters who are outgoing and approachable. They dislike ones who are remote or stern. In general, they find younger priests, brothers, and sisters to be easier to relate to than older ones.

Focus group participants often spontaneously mentioned the importance of retreats they had attended.

The study called for 750 random-digit dialing phone calls, 200 of them to Latinos. The survey was conducted in January 2001, when callers interviewed 302 Latinos and 448 non-Latinos. The focus groups were done in January and February 2001. Gender-specific groups were done with European-American Catholics, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans, all between the ages of 18 and 39.

Founding partners of this study include the Leader-ship Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM), the National Communicators Network of Women Religious (NCNWR), and the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC).