Inequality and the Altruistic Life: A Study of the Priestly Vocation Rate Articles uri icon

publication date

  • September 2015

start page

  • 575

end page

  • 595


  • 3


  • 54

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0021-8294

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1468-5906


  • This article takes the rate of new incorporations into the Catholic priesthood within national societies as a social fact revealing underlying societal tendencies of broad theoretical relevance extending well beyond the study of religion. Our emphasis lies on the impact of income inequality on the prevalence of altruistic life options. We examine cross-national and time-series variation in the priestly vocation rate as the empirical foundation to theorize social dynamics underpinning a life option that entails the renunciation of opportunities for individual material advantage alongside the commitment to serve a broader community. The article elaborates why we view the vocation rate as resting on a combination of piety and altruistic dispositions, and provides a theoretical rationale for expecting inequality to diminish this—and other—altruistic life options. We also examine the impact of other variables that have been theorized to influence the prevalence of Catholic clerical vocations and elaborate the broader theoretical relevance of our empirical findings.


  • altruism; priestly vocations; inequality; development; durkheim