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Young people and the transmission of faith

· ​Female pre-eminence ·

Do young women preserve faith better than young men? This is what a study jointly published at the beginning of 2018 by the Institut Catholique de Paris (ICP) and the Benedict xvi Centre for Religion and Society of St Mary’s University of London seemed to prove. This report on the religious practice of young adults from 16 to 29 years of age throughout Europe reveals significant differences between men and women, especially in France. Thus between the ages of 16 and 29 three French women out of 10 identify themselves as Catholics as compared with only two men out of 10. This is a difference that is also found in Islam, given that 12 per cent of young French women identify themselves as Muslims, as opposed to 8 per cent of young men. “Women are significantly more inclined than men to identify with a religion because the popularity deriving from not belonging to “any” religion is 17 percentage points higher among young Frenchmen” (72 per cent compared with 55 per cent) observes Stephen Bullivant, the author of the study, lecturer in theology and sociology of religions at St Mary’s University. This gender difference is less marked in the United Kingdom but still exists anyway.

The phenomenon, obvious at the level of the younger generation, is also observed in previous generations and concerns all geographical areas. In 2016, a study by the Pew Research Center entitled The Gender Gap in Religion Around the Worldon the population of 192 different countries, from the age of 20 upwards, has shown that 83.4 per cent of women around the world identify with a faith group as opposed to 79.9 per cent of men. This gap of 3.5 percentage points means that an estimated 97 million more women than men claim a religious affiliation. In addition, even if the gap may be more or less consistent, there is not a country in the world in which the number of men believers exceeds that of women believers. These data must however be perfected by looking at the details of practice according to religion and geographical area. The Pew Research Center’s survey thus continues, “Among Christians in many countries, women report higher rates of weekly church attendance than men. But among Muslims and Orthodox Jews, men are more likely than women to say they regularly attend services at a mosque or synagogue”. On the contrary, in terms of daily prayer, the difference between women and men is particularly marked: across the 84 sample countries the average share of women who say they pray daily is 8 percentage points higher than the average share of men.

How can this gap be explained? Many possible reasons have been advanced in the course of history, the survey of Pew Research Center says: biology, psychology, genetics, family environment, social status, and a lack of “existential security”, felt by many women because they are generally more afflicted than men by poverty, illness, old age and violence. Most experts consider that the religious gender gap stems from a confluence of multiple factors whose importance is the subject of debate. Among these are the connection between the levels of religious commitment of women and their participation in the work market.

Thus, according to the study of 2016, “Women who participate in the labour force tend to show lower levels of religious commitment than women who do not work outside the home for pay”, and this is independent of their age and of their level of education.

But this does not explain everything. “The dominant presence of women in parishes implies an experience of the concrete religious factor in its dimension of relations, community, relationship with the sacraments which is more developed in women”, notes Jacques Arènes, Professor at ICP, who took part in the 2018 survey. “Religious practice is essentially passed down through women and it is mothers who inspire vocations: thus, when mothers no longer support priests, vocations collapse”.

And if the gap between female and male piety is preserved in the younger generation, as the study of the Benedict xvi Centre and ICP tends to show, the causes might be significantly different from those which explained the gap for previous generations. “In France, the religious affiliation of young people is not marked by the same determinism as that of their mothers. In the previous generation women were to a greater extent guardians of the domestic hearth, of the family and of a certain conservatism, to the point that after the war various anticlerical currents opposed the extension to women of the right to vote, since “they voted like the parish priest”. This concept went hand in hand with the image much exploited in the cinema and in society – and sometimes true – of the husband who waits at the bar while his wife goes to Mass. Today a crucial role in the gap is played by the dimension of closeness in transmission. Thus, with regard to women in the survey by ICP and the Benedict xvi Centre, “the transmission of faith presumably occurred in the relationship with the mother, in a certain complicity, wherever there were the most shortcomings in that between fathers and children”, observes Jacques Arènes, Director of the École de Psychologues Praticiens of the Institut Catholique de Paris.

Why? Jacques Arènes continues, saying: “as a specialist doctor I am increasingly seeing an anxiety of transmission on the male side; fathers find it harder to pass on values, they wonder about their authority, and children find it harder to receive them”. One observation is to be framed in another current mystery: the collapse of the scholastic level of boys. “They still dominate in elitist sectors but among the young from an average background the level of boys is far below that of girls. Just as mothers are still often the custodians of the daily routine and of the way in which rites are organized, so they are too for the transmission of scholastic achievement. Indeed, between mothers and children things pass more directly, more forcefully, with phenomena of identification which ensure that daughters are more involved in questions of transmission”. Therefore the greater piety of women might not have the same origin as that of 30 years ago. This possibility deserves to be explored.

Marie-Lucile Kubacki




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 19, 2020