Women, Faith, Decline

Women, Faith, Decline February 23, 2012

By Patricia Wittberg, a piece mostly on the decline of Catholic women in the RCC but one can see a trend across the spectrum … and this study deserves some attention.

In Western societies like Europe and the United States, women are more religious than men. That is a sociological truism supported by a wealth of survey data. Women are more likely to join churches and to participate in worship services; they are more orthodox in their beliefs generally and more devout in their daily religious practice. Among people raised in a nonreligious family, women are more likely than men to adopt a religion. And women are less likely (12 percent as compared with 19 percent of men) to profess no religion at all.

The Faith Matters Survey, conducted for Harvard University in 2006, found that in comparison with men, U.S. women were more likely to say that they were “very spiritual” and had experienced the presence of God. They were also more likely to read Scripture and to believe in divine guidelines for good and evil. In their summary of this survey, Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell noted, “no matter the specific yardstick, women exhibit a greater commitment to, involvement with and belief in religion” (American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Simon and Schuster, 2010).

But this isn’t something new, as if the church is getting feminized. In fact, this has been true of the church for a long, long time.

The greater religiosity of women has a long history within Christianity. More than twice as many women as men, for example, entered their era’s version of religious life: from the fourth-century Middle East (the consecrated virgins as compared with the hermits) to 12th- and 13th-century Europe (the Beguines and cloistered nuns as compared with the friars), to 17th-century France and 19th-century North America. Sometimes, as in 19th-century Ireland and Quebec, the ratio was as high as four to one. Among Protestants, the same gender disparity was observed as early as the 17th century. As the Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather wrote in 1692, “So still there are far more Godly women in the world than there are men, and our Church Communions give us a little demonstration of it.” Among historians, sociologists and psychologists who have studied the matter, the greater religious propensity of women is an axiom.

But her major conclusion and the focus of her study is this:

It may no longer be true, however, for the youngest generations of Catholic adults.

In the mid-1990s, surveys began to indicate that, while older Catholic women in the United States were indeed more religious than Catholic men of their age, the Catholic women of Generation X (born between 1962 and 1980) barely equaled their male counterparts in regular Mass attendance and were significantly more likely than the men to profess heterodox opinions on women’s ordination, on the sinfulness of homosexual acts and premarital sex and on whether one could be a good Catholic without going to Mass.

More recent data (2002-8) from the annual General Social Survey indicate that the reduced religiosity of American Catholic women extends to the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1995), as well. Millennial Catholic women are even more disaffected than Gen X women are. This is evident when they are compared with Catholic men in the same age ranges. Both genders of millennial and Gen X Catholics are much less devout and much less orthodox than their elders, and many practice their religion infrequently if at all. But the decline is steeper among women. Millennial Catholic women are slightly more likely than Catholic men their age to say that they never attend Mass (the first generation of American Catholic women for whom this is so), and the women are significantly more likely to hold heterodox positions on whether the pope is infallible and whether homosexual activity is always wrong. None of the millennial Catholic women in the survey expressed complete confidence in churches and religious organizations.

Data on those entering religious life and the priesthood reveal the same disturbing trend.



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  • I teach introductory religion courses in a Catholic, Marianist university. Although this is anecdotal, I’d say that my experience with the majority Catholic young women in my classes overwhelmingly backs up the findings offered above on millennial Catholic women, even down to the heterodox views on papal (and magisterial) authority and matters of sexuality. Interestingly, I find the Church’s teachings on matters of morality (i.e., contraception, homosexuality and gay marriage, premarital sex) are far more controversial among the millennial Catholic women in my classes than the “traditional” Catholic feminist issue of women’s ordination. I’m not sure why that is…