TIME for some media “nun-sense”!

TIME magazine’s ridiculous solution for the sister shortage: do the same stuff that led to 50,000 women leaving religious life between 1966 and 1976

“Over the past five years, Roman Catholic communities around the country have experienced a curious phenomenon: more women, most in their 20s and 30s, are trying on that veil. Convents in Nashville, Tenn.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and New York City all admitted at least 15 entrants over the past year and fielded hundreds of inquiries.” — “Today’s Nun Has A Veil–And A Blog” (Nov 13, 2006) by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen and Tracy Samantha Schmidt

“Nuns are an endangered species. They are dying and not being replaced.” — “The Great Nunquisition: Why the Vatican Is Cracking Down on Sisters” (Aug 31, 2014) by Jo Piazza

The quotes above have something interesting in common: they were both published in TIME magazine. The 2006 article did not try to hide the puzzlement caused by the surge of young, orthodox-minded women entering orders that emphasize the traditional features of the religious life: “Over the past five years, Roman Catholic communities around the country have experienced a curious phenomenon: more women, most in their 20s and 30s, are trying on that veil.” 

The article published yesterday, however, doesn’t have time for young, orthodox-minded sisters: “Today’s nuns are simply too progressive for the Vatican. The Vatican chooses not to celebrate nuns and it chooses not to empower them.” The author recounts talking to a young woman who had been “discerning to be a Catholic sister, but changed her mind before she took perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.”

I asked her why and the answer was very simple and yet disheartening.

“I want to work for an employer that values what I do.”

She plans to work for an NGO. She wanted to be of service to the world, but she also wanted to feel empowered in her job.

The young lady might want to use some of that dubious empowerment to pull up Pope Francis’ remark that the Church needs to be a Mother, not a “well-organized NGO with a bunch of pastoral plans…” Not that the author has much use for Francis: “Pope Francis has been hailed as a progressive icon. Yet on the subject of women in the Church, he remains loyal to a long-held and antiquated stance: he doesn’t think women should become priests.” (Shocking: the pope is Catholic and holds true to Catholic teaching. Go figure. The faith that secular media outlets place in their ability to change and correct the mind of popes is truly tremendous—and frighteningly absurd.)

Ah, antiquated. Without any sense of the ironic juxtiposition, the TIME piece then states: “Nuns are dying out because their population is aging and young women are not joining their ranks in the numbers they once did.” Funny how the Faith continues but people die. That’s something to ponder, isn’t it? Perhaps the author should have spent more time trying to connect the dots rather than score cheap and superficial political points.

In a May 2011 CWR piece, Ann Carey, author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013), wrote:

A new study of recent vocations to religious life in the United States has found that most new vocations are going to orders that practice more traditional forms of religious life. Some have expressed surprise at this, because orders that have discarded many of those traditions sometimes claim that way of life does not appeal to the young. Other people, however, have noticed this trend toward traditional religious life for 20 years, and now there is empirical data to prove it.

The study, “Recent Vocations to Religious Life: A Report for the National Religious Vocation Conference,” was conducted by the well-respected Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University and published in August 2009. The study concluded:

The most successful institutes in terms of attracting and retaining new members at this time are those that follow a more traditional style of religious life in which members live together in community and participate in daily Eucharist, pray the Divine Office, and engage in devotional practices together. They also wear a religious habit, work together in common apostolates, and are explicit about their fidelity to the Church and the teachings of the Magisterium. All of these characteristics are especially attractive to the young people who are entering religious life today.

To hear TIME tell the story, the nuns were a thriving tribe of progressive, egalitarian social workers who had prospered greatly prior to the late 1960s, when the mean, old, nasty men in the dread Vatican savagely began squelching the power of tolerance and the joy of open-mindedness that had previously fueled the super, post-religious Women Who Transcended Dogma and Doctrinal Bounds. Actually, to be fair, the TIME article doesn’t even bother to provide any historical context (who needs history or context? Boring!), being content to lay blame on the men who allegedly cling to their priesthood and power like crazed babies grasping empty bottles:

The Vatican doesn’t celebrate these women. In fact, it has done the very opposite. Attacks on American nuns have been happening since 2008, when the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life initiated an “Apostolic Visitation,” a euphemism for investigation, of the nuns. …

If Catholic nuns are to survive in this country, something has to give. The Vatican needs to treat the nuns with more respect. The rules will have to evolve. Women will need to be given more power and leadership roles in the church.

Which presents another problem, with direct ties to the historical context: the piece talks about “nuns” as if they are a monolithic body, all straining against the rigid, authoritarian bonds of their Vatican masters. That, of course, is complete nonsense. As Carey noted, in a CWR interview about her study of the women religious in the U.S., there are two very different groups. The first she calls “change-oriented”

because the leaders of these orders want to change the nature of religious life. These orders have about 80 percent of the sisters in the United States, and their leaders tend to belong to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—the LCWR.

These change-oriented orders claim to be “birthing new forms” of religious life with a sociological rather than ecclesial focus. Many of them profess a mission of liberating oppressed people and caring for the earth. Most of these orders have distanced themselves from the Catholic Church in terms of relations with the hierarchy, liturgical practices, and even on some theological/doctrinal matters.

The orders of sisters in this category are in worse shape than in 1997 because their ties to the Church have become strained and fragile, and their identity has become blurred. In many cases, community life is nonexistent except in retirement homes, and prayer often is an individual practice. Many change-oriented orders also have severe financial problems, for their median age is well into the 70s, so they have far fewer working sisters than retired sisters. With a large elderly population, their numbers are dropping rapidly, and the few new vocations they do get tend to be middle-aged women.

To provide further context: between 1966 and 1976, some 50,000—yes, 50,000—nuns left the convents. Who was to blame? Monsignor George A. Kelly, in his 1979 study, The Battle For the American Church, notes that some sisters laid the blame on the “chauvinist hiearchy of the Church” as well as on “affluence, and increased opportunities for women in the modern world.” He quotes a former sister who blamed “the neglect of prayer and the interior life, not structural faults in the Church or oppressive authorities.” Kelly writes: “It is unquestionably true that the greatest losses appear to have occured in afluent countries and in orders of women making the greatest effort to modernize. The most ‘advanced’ communities were attracting almost no one”—sound familiar?—”and exuses that refomrs were not yet radical enough seem inadequate.”

There was also betrayal by superiors, who sold their souls to pursue a deeply secular and politicized vision of the Church and the salvation of the world. The atheist sociologist Hugh McCleod, in his study, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (Oxford, 2007), noted, “Ecclesiastical radicals tended also to be political radicals, enthused by the prospects for social revolution both at home and abroad, and increasingly inspired by the emerging Liberation Theology in Latin America. More generally they were out to challenge ‘structures’ and especially ‘authority structures’, ‘hierarchies,’ ‘elites,’ and anything ‘top-down,’ or with any hint of the ‘closed,’ the ‘exclusivist,’ or the ‘triumphalist.’ And they believed that a new Catholic Church could be established, truly based on the gospel, and free from all such traits.”

And, in short, that has been going on since the late 1960s, especially among the leadership of the LCWR, which is, as Carey rightly notes, “post-Christian” in every possible way.

The second group of women religous are young and growing:

The second category I call “classic” religious orders because they live that classic definition of vowed, total, permanent commitment to Christ and his Church, and they share a common life with regular common prayer. These orders have about 20 percent of US sisters, and their leaders tend to belong to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the other group of sister leaders.

These classic orders are in a stronger condition than 1997, for they have maintained their identity through close ties with the Church, a corporate apostolate, and life and prayer in community. Many of them have grown in the last 16 years. Consequently, they have a lower median age due to their success in attracting young women to join them, so many of them have more sisters working than retired. Recent studies prove that young people are more attracted to the classic orders because of their orthodoxy, distinctive religious lifestyle, and the quality of their prayer life, which usually includes practices such as chanted office and regular hours of Eucharistic adoration.

The nuns, TIME assures readers, “are awesome.” Of course, the nuns being praised are those—surprise!—who closely adhere to the same political and cultural beliefs of TIME magazine and who see the Church as either outdated or unnecessary, or both. Again, even Francis, holds to “a long-held and antiquated stance”. Yes, it’s called the deposit of faith, and it has come down to us, not through executive orders and political platforms, but via Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, gifted to the Church by Christ himself. As Francis has also noted, “The Successor of Peter, yesterday, today and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of that faith which God has given as a light for humanity’s path.”

The great irony, to me, is that TIME magazine thinks the answer to the decline in the number of nuns is to embrace even more tightly the same vapid, transitory trendiness that was at the heart of the massive desertion of orders and convents in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The poverty involved is not just spiritual, but also intellectual and factual. Now that some time has passed, it is become evident that women (and men) are not attracted to religious orders because they mimic political parties or pursue work that has little or no reference to the eternal; after all, they can always join (or found!) an NGO if that is what they want. No, they must respond to the call of Christ. In the words of Perfectae Caritatis, the Vatican II document on the adaption and renewal of religious life:

The purpose of the religious life is to help the members follow Christ and be united to God through the profession of the evangelical counsels. It should be constantly kept in mind, therefore, that even the best adjustments made in accordance with the needs of our age will be ineffectual unless they are animated by a renewal of spirit. This must take precedence over even the active ministry. …  Let all religious, therefore, rooted in faith and filled with love for God and neighbor, love of the cross and the hope of future glory, spread the good news of Christ throughout the whole world so that their witness may be seen by all and our Father in heaven may be glorified (Matt. 5:16). 

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About Carl E. Olson 1230 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.