Catholic by the numbers: New religious brothers and sisters have a lot in common

Dominicans Nashville Members of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia enjoying a performance of The Hillbilly Thomists at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on Aug. 1, 2022. | Credit: Joe Bukuras/CNA

Almost all Catholic religious in the United States who took final vows in 2023 were raised by their biological parents during the “most formative part of their childhood,” according to a new survey by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

The survey report, published this month, polled 101 religious in the U.S. who professed perpetual vows in 2023. Forty-eight religious brothers and priests and 53 religious sisters were surveyed.

The report found that the vast majority of those surveyed had one thing in common: They came from stable, two-parent families.

Ninety-nine percent of respondents said they were raised by their biological parents during the “most formative part of their childhood,” the report said. 

And 88% said they were raised by a married couple living together during those formative years, while 5% were raised by one parent who was divorced or separated. 

Three percent of respondents surveyed were raised by an unmarried couple who lived together, a married couple who lived separately, or a widowed parent.

The survey covered a wide range of additional topics and reported several other life experiences of respondents indicating most are U.S.-born, highly educated, white, “cradle Catholics,” and engaged in regular prayer before joining their institute. 

Average age at vows

According to the survey, the average age of religious taking perpetual vows in 2023 was 36.

For women religious, the oldest sister made perpetual vows at 61 and the oldest brother made his at 78. Half of those surveyed are 33 or younger and the youngest, a brother, took vows at 24. 

About 20% of respondents made final vows at 29 and younger. Fifty-six percent professed perpetual vows between the ages of 30 and 39.

Where are they from?

Seventy-six percent of the religious taking final vows in 2023 were born in the U.S.

The rest came from all across the globe with 7% from Latin America, 6% from Asia, 4% from Europe and Africa respectively, and 3% from Oceania.

For those born outside the U.S., on average, they were 19 when they arrived, and they lived in the country for 18 years before final vows. 

Cradle Catholics

Ninety percent of respondents have been Catholic since birth, while converts to the faith entered the Church at an average age of 24. 

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Respondents were also surveyed on their upbringing, and 94% said that at least one of their parents was Catholic when they were children. A similar number, 86%, said that both parents were Catholic. 

A sizable amount, 30%, reported having a priest or religious in the family.


Among the respondents, a far higher percentage than is found in the U.S. population of Catholics attended Catholic elementary school. The report said 51% of the religious attended, while 16% of U.S. Catholic adults did so. 

Forty-six percent of respondents said they attended Catholic high school, compared with 5% of U.S. adult Catholics. Forty-three percent of those surveyed said they attended Catholic college, compared with 5% of U.S. Catholic adults.

Of those surveyed, 14% reported being home-schooled at some point. Nine years was the average length of time for those who said they were home-schooled.

About 6 in 10 said they participated in parish religious education. Eighteen percent reported that they were in a “Catholic ministry formation program” before entering their religious institute.

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The report said that the religious surveyed are “highly educated.” As many as 20% held a graduate degree before entering their religious institute. Just over 60% of respondents had a bachelor’s degree before entering their institute. 

Path of discernment

Almost all respondents, 96%, participated in regular prayer practices or groups before entering their religious institute, the report said: 

  • Eucharistic adoration (82%)

  • Rosary (72%)

  • Participation in a retreat (72%)

  • Spiritual direction (69%)

Those surveyed reported, on average, first considering religious life at age 18. Half of respondents were 18 or younger.

The ages ranged, for both men and women combined, from 3 to 54 when they first considered a vocation.

Eighty-two percent of respondents reported being encouraged by someone to consider a vocation, with 45% being encouraged by a parish priest. Just over 40% said they were encouraged by a friend. 

Fifty-five percent reported being discouraged from considering a vocation by one or more people. The report found that women are far more likely to receive discouragement than men.

Sixty-four percent of women reported being discouraged from considering a vocation compared with 37% of men.

Respondents reported, on average, knowing the members of their religious institute for four years before entering. Twenty-eight percent said they were “acquainted” with their institute through an establishment sponsored by the religious community, like a school or hospital. Just over a quarter said they first became acquainted with their institute through its promotional materials. 

Ninety-four percent of respondents participated in at least one discernment program before entering their institute, with most (77%) taking part in a “Come and See” vocation retreat.

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