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How do you get into religion?

Comment entre-t-on en religion ?

Religious vocations and European societies from the end of the 18th century to the present day

Vocations religieuses et sociétés européennes de la fin du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours

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Published on Monday, November 25, 2019 by Céline Guilleux


Religious vocation is considered by the twentieth-century theology as both an intimate and supernatural phenomenon, resisting analysis and explanation. Yet, it is an object of study in its own right for historians and sociologists alike. Through a dialogue between these two disciplines, using new and increasingly accessible archives, this symposium aims to examine the place of religious vocations in European societies from the end of the 18th century to the present day, and to situate this choice of life in relation to the alternatives open to men and women.



Defined by twentieth-century theology as "the act by which God calls certain souls to the practice of evangelical counsels under a rule approved by the Church" (Dictionary of Catholic Theology, 1950), religious vocation is considered to be both an intimate and supernatural phenomenon, thus resisting analysis and explanation. This is because, as sociologist Charles Suaud says, "the process of the vocation’s inculcation aims to impose, at the same time as the vocation, a lack of knowledge of the determinisms that make it possible" (Suaud, 1978). It is, however, subject to analysis and verification by the Catholic Church – sometimes by the directors of conscience of people who feel called to the religious state, and more generally by religious institutions who must recognize the vocation and ensure that the individuals concerned correspond to their expectations in terms of recruitment. Religious communities and congregations seek, in particular, to ensure that their new members are fit for community life and related apostolic activities (if any), and that they will comply with the discipline required by the rule. Moreover, in the middle of what is presented as a calling and its sanction by the institution, a set of social, family and economic logics contribute to the decision to enter into religion. A massive social phenomenon that was characteristic of the feminization of Catholicism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Langlois, 1984), taking orders is one life choice among others: an alternative path to marriage or celibacy, a family project or, on the contrary, one feared by relatives, especially parents. Far from being a purely ecclesiastical phenomenon, the religious vocation questions society as a whole, its norms, and especially its law, since civil legislation provides a framework for the entry into religion. Religious vocation is also an integral part of the social imaginary: many religious feature among the lives of saints published in the nineteenth century, while veils abound in pious imagery. Since the 1950s, the theme of the "vocation crisis" has been nourished by representations that make this state of life a residual phenomenon that is considered alien to current social logics, while forms and experiences of religious life have undergone profound transformations, based in particular on the metaphorization of the theme of "flight from the world" and a revision of post-conciliar rules (Hervieu-Léger, 2017; Jonveaux 2018). 

Consequently, the religious vocation - priestly, religious, or monastic - is an object of study in its own right for historians and sociologists alike, as shown by the extensive scholarship devoted to this question over the past forty years. Through a dialogue between these two disciplines, and supported by new and increasingly accessible archives, this symposium aims to examine the place of religious vocations in European societies from the end of the 18th century to the present day, and to situate this choice of life in relation to the alternatives open to men and women. To what extent do the representations, or the legal framework and social expectations, associated with religious life, whether male or female hinder or encourage the decision to take orders, or even encourage new experiences of religious life? To what extent and in which ways is this "state of life" a rupture with secular life, or on the contrary, is this commitment part of the continuity of social, family, economic and relational logics? 

The aim will be to articulate a macro-social analysis of this phenomenon, often considered through the question of the recruitment of religious personnel by the Church and religious communities (Langlois, 1984; Cabanel, 1997), with an analysis of individual trajectories wherein entry into religion is invested with personal meaning, between the pursuit of a past inclination and a moment of biographical rupture (Mínguez Blasco, 2016). Changes in the representations of religious vocation will be examined, because the place it occupies in the social imagination can be considered as revealing of the relationship between contemporary European societies and religion. Finally, this conference will focus on the different definitions that this object may have had from the twentieth to the twenty-first century in the European space, whether they emanate from the Church and its law, from modern States (via civil law or administrative practice), or from social or political groups (for example, anti-clericals), paying attention to the contradictions or forms of competition that can be observed. The objective of these two days will be to identify temporal sequences and configurations of entry into religious life, trying to hold together the different social, political, legal, cultural and religious dimensions that hinder or encourage it, make it attractive or unattractive. While priestly vocations and the "Catholic crisis" (Pelletier, 2002) have been the subject of much work, research on the evolution of vocations to religious life, especially among women, from the interwar period to the 1970s (Rousseau, 2009) is still rare, due to lack of access to archives. Can we identify, on the basis of statistical and life-course studies, contrasting sequences and evolutions on the logic of entry and exit in different forms of religious life? Despite the massive retreats from religious life after 1968, for what reasons do some people continue to take orders? 

Particular attention will be paid to the question of the sources for describing and analysing religious vocations. The gradual opening of congregational archives offers historians new perspectives for a social history of the vocation: postulancy registers confronted with obituaries, registers and directives of the councils of religious communities, exit registers that allow historians to see the sorting carried out at the time of entry (Jusseaume, 2016). Although they are irreplaceable, the private nature of these archives, but also sometimes the absence of filing or the lack of staff, make their access unequal. Even if some convents are opening their doors, many historians have been forced to abandon them while continuing to study religious life. In this respect, the dialogue with sociologists practising ethnography of the religious world seems fruitful, in order to discuss and overcome the difficulties of access to the field. In addition, other documents can be used to fill this possible gap, or to complete the material on religious vocation: notarized archives for example, which make it possible to know the family strategies sometimes accompanying entries into religion (Atienza López, 2008), or the sources of the private useful to question individual trajectories and the way the persons concerned conceive them (Muller, 2019). Documents of a normative, literary, iconographic, material or oral inquiry nature may be considered, and papers may discuss the usefulness, limitations and difficulties of different types of material. 

They will be part of one or more of the following axes.

Axis 1: Religious vocation in the social imagination: between heroism and disqualification, disappearances and rebirths

In what way have religious and secular representations of religious vocation been formed and evolved, and how are they disseminated? What do contemporaries mean by this term and what realities does it designate for them? Literature (religious auto/biographies, novels, works produced by congregations...) and the press, iconography (images of piety, photographs, medals, caricatures...), cinema but also canonization processes contribute to the creation, dissemination and prioritization of models of religious vocation. While the "sister of charity" seems to be the most useful in the eyes of the world, Carmel represented for a long time the "nec plus ultra" of vocation. Religious life is now considered as a residual and aging reality (Amiotte-Suchet, and Anchisi, 2017) within the so-called countries of "old Christianity", despite the internationalization which has partially delayed its decline. However, well before its current diminution, vocation seems to have been perceived and presented as a break with the rest of society, which goes hand in hand with a conception, internal to the Church, of the religious state as a distance from the world. Nevertheless, it has served the interests of these same societies (from the social demand for care and education through to colonization), and the walls of the cloister do not prevent either popular devotion or editorial success: just think of the posterity of Thérèse de Lisieux (Langlois, 2016 and 2018). It is interesting to note that the separation from the world is contested by some of the ecclesiastical personnel after the Second World War (Poulat, 1999; Suaud, 2004), whereas the decline in vocations is already very noticeable, at least in the French case. But the renunciation of the world, far from being totally outdated, was once again claimed as a utopia by the "new communities" in the 1970s (Hervieu-Léger, 1983). In addition, we can question the discrediting of the religious state, and religious life can be considered as a possible stigma from a Goffmanian perspective (Goffman, 1963). How have these negative perceptions evolved since the end of the eighteenth century, whether at the time of the triumph of the bourgeois family, the rise of individualism or, more recently, sexual democratization? On what dimensions of religious life do they focus: the scandal represented by the vow of obedience perceived as a renunciation of freedom during the revolutionary period in France? Or suspicion towards the vow of chastity and gender and sexuality issues related to the time of anticlericalism in the late nineteenth century or today (Lalouette 2002; Art and Beumann 2009; Tricou 2016)? To what extent does this discrediting view differ according to the gender of the religious communities considered and their activities? But also, according to the "local gender regime" of each community (Tricou, 2017 and 2019)? From which environments does it emanate? How do communities react to this view? Finally, the porosity between the notions of religious and professional vocations could be examined: does the discourse on the latter borrow from the religious lexical field, or on the contrary, does it free itself from it? Can common conceptions be highlighted beyond the separation between the sacred and the profane?

Axis 2: Competition between courts: civil rights, canon and the evolution of forms of religious life in European societies 

If religious vocation is the object of an important codification by canonists, it is also governed by civil law. Reforms of canon law in the twentieth century redefined the contours and forms of religious life, opening it up to people engaged by simple vows (since 1900), and today it is no longer considered a civil death. In addition, European legislation differs on the recognition of the religious state and on the rights of individuals who enter religion. In France, the Revolution produced a major upheaval with the abolition of the solemn vows that signalled the end of civil death. Civil law took precedence over canon law, and religious status became a political issue, already addressed by work on republican anticlerical legislation (Machelon, 1976). In Spain, the state has the power to remove religious men and women from their communities on request, which the Spanish clergy consider to be a negation of the divine character of the call to a state to which individuals are supposed to devote themselves for the rest of their lives (Castells, 1973). The comparative perspective prompts reflection on the prerogative to which modern European states in the process of secularization lay claim: that of authorizing, refusing, and in any case defining, the frameworks of religious life, whereas the state itself evolves in its own forms and laws. From competition to complementarity, how are civil and canon rights articulated in the different European spaces during the contemporary period? To what extent do the legal and political measures of these States encourage new experiences of religious life that gradually transform their norms? 

Axis 3: Vocation production: family rationales, socio-economic factors, religious beliefs

As Suaud points out, "the sociology of vocation must both reveal the system of social determinants that explain the production of vocations (such as social origin, school enrolment rate, sibling rank, or the social reproduction strategies of the different categories of lay people, etc.) and take into account religious belief, without which it would not be possible to understand how these objective conditions can be the instrument and object of a conversion process, a process of subjective transformation (at the end of which the recruit, convinced of responding to God's "call", perceives herself as "another Christ") that accompanies and conditions a transformation of objective social status." (Suaud, 1978). Vocation is integrated into biographical or autobiographical narratives that give meaning, in a religious discourse, to individual trajectories. Is it considered, by those who live it, as a choice, and at what point in their lives? What materials make it possible for researchers to examine it? Entry into religion is a time when a desire for religious life is expressed (Jusseaume, 2016), but it is also a fact whose family, economic and social determinants can be identified. Vocation also stems from a social, psychological and religious climate – sometimes from a conditioning since childhood – and it is necessary to be attentive to the relational, emotional and spiritual dimensions that participate in the construction of the vocation. Other reasons for entering into religion include personal environment (mother's role, adolescent sociabilities, spiritual filiations or family relationships with religious men and women) and emotional experiences. If religious vocations are affected by the congregational revolution of the nineteenth century as well as by the crisis of recruitment that has been observable in the Church since the Second World War, they are also the result of well-studied family strategies for the modern era (Jacobson Schutte, 2011 ; Irigoyen López, 2007), gender strategies highlighted for the nineteenth century, sociosexual strategies (Tricou, 2018) and racial strategies (Tricou 2019), both of which sociologists have recently studied, but of which historians have taken little account. In this respect, the comparison with professional vocations or other forms of vocation in the Church may prove fruitful: does one become a nurse rather than a sister of charity in the interwar period? More recently, are men getting married while engaging in the Church until they are called deacons? What are the renunciations and desires that are expressed at the time of entry into religion? In other words, to what extent do the secular and spiritual dispositions and aspirations of individuals find, in the Church and in secular society, places of possible realization, and in what form? To what extent do these arrangements contribute to explaining the quantitative variations of religious vocations, the legitimate forms of religious life but also the evolution and plurality of the meanings attributed to the word "vocation"? 

Organization and submission procedures

The conference will be held at the University of Artois, in Arras, on 4 and 5 June 2020. 

It is organized in partnership between the EA 4027 CREHS, Université d’Artois and the Centre d’Histoire du XIXe siècle, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne et Sorbonne Université, with the support of the axis « Genre et Europe » of Labex EHNE, as well as the Association Française d’Histoire Religieuse Contemporaine and the Association Française de Sciences Sociales des Religions.

Proposals for papers (about 3500 characters) must, in addition to a title, specify the approach, methodology and sources mobilized and/or the field of investigation. They can be part of one or more of the axes. They must be accompanied by a short academic biography of the author, and may be written in French or English. 

The committee will value the work of early career researchers and unpublished research, as well as the exploration of new fields or archives, in order to encourage discussion of research in progress. Presentations will last 25 minutes, and a significant amount of time will be allowed for discussion. 

Proposals should be sent to colloque.vocationseurope@gmail.com

before 20 December 2019.

They will then be reviewed by the scientific committee and a response will be given to participants at the end of January 2020. 

Organising committee

  • Inès Anrich (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne),
  • Anne Jusseaume (Université d’Artois),
  • Josselin Tricou (INSERM)

Scientific committee

  • Laurent Amiotte-Suchet (Université de Lausanne),
  • Céline Béraud (EHESS),
  • Jacques-Olivier Boudon (Sorbonne Université),
  • Philippe Boutry (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne),
  • Patrick Cabanel (EPHE), Pura Fernández (CSIC),
  • Isabelle Jonveaux (Université de Graz),
  • Christophe Leduc (Université d’Artois),
  • Isabelle Poutrin (Université de Reims),
  • Rebecca Rogers (Université Paris Descartes),
  • Mathilde Rossigneux-Méheust (Université Lyon 2),
  • Charles Suaud (Université de Nantes),
  • Fabrice Virgili (CNRS)


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Josselin Tricou, « Refaire des “taupes” : gouverner le silence des prêtres homosexuels à l’heure du mariage gay », Sociologie, n°9, 2018, p. 131-150

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Josselin Tricou, Des soutanes et des hommes. Subjectivation genrée et politiques de la masculinité au sein du clergé catholique français depuis les années 1980, Thèse de doctorat en science politique-études de genre, Université Paris 8, sous la direction d’Eric Fassin, 2019


  • Arras, France (62)


  • Friday, December 20, 2019


  • vocation, vie religieuse, droit, imaginaire, littérature, archive


  • Inès Anrich
    courriel : colloque [dot] vocationseurope [at] gmail [dot] com

Information source

  • Inès Anrich
    courriel : colloque [dot] vocationseurope [at] gmail [dot] com

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« How do you get into religion? », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, November 25, 2019, https://calenda.org/707887

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