What does 2016 hold for US women religious?

Several news stories about women religious—including a high-profile report on vocation numbers—were not entirely as they appeared in 2015.

On the surface, news in 2015 about United States women religious appeared to be far more positive than in previous years:

• The Vatican’s unprecedented apostolic visitation of women’s religious orders had concluded amicably in late 2014, and in 2015 none of the dire predictions about a Vatican takeover of orders proved to be true.

• The doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), also initiated in 2009, ended April 16 with release of a joint final report endorsed by both parties. LCWR officers enjoyed a friendly audience with Pope Francis that same day.

• A new report summarizing recent studies of women religious tried to relieve concerns that sisters are disappearing from the Catholic Church in the United States.

However, a more in-depth analysis of these events reveals that the picture is not as rosy as one might assume from reading the popular press, and while sisters will continue to serve the Church, their influence in the near future will likely diminish along with their numbers.

Consider, for example, the apostolic visitation of US women religious initiated by then-prefect of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), Cardinal Franc Rodé, and approved by Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Rodé, himself a member of a religious order—the Vincentians—had expressed concern about declining vocations, the “quality of life” among sisters, some “irregularities or deficiencies in the lives of American women religious” and a “secularist mentality” in some orders.

Over the years, many sisters had asked for a visitation because of concern over changes to their orders’ ministries and way of life, theological dissent, liturgical abuses, and questionable stewardship of the orders’ finances.

While some sisters welcomed the visitation, others publicly and vehemently criticized the Vatican initiative. Some leaders refused to submit required information about their orders. Some even took steps to separate their canonical congregations from their civil corporations to shield their orders’ assets, as detailed in the 2014 book, Power of Sisterhood: Women Religious Tell the Story of the Apostolic Visitation (University Press of America, 2014), edited by Margaret Cain McCarthy and Mary Ann Zollmann, BVM, the latter having served as president of the LCWR from 2001 to 2004.

Nevertheless, visitation teams of sisters headed by the apostolic delegate, Mother Mary Clare Millea—a Connecticut sister who is superior general of the international Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus—went ahead with visits to about 100 orders. The solicitous and respectful implementation of the visits during 2010 proved the critics wrong, but some sisters did not feel free to be open with the visitors, for some were warned by their superiors not to say anything negative about their order. Some superiors even held debriefing meetings in which sisters were supposed to report on their interactions with the visitors, a clear violation of the confidential nature of an apostolic visitation.

New personnel at CICLSAL, after Cardinal Rodé retired in January, 2011, fueled the resistance by expressing concerns about the visitation and demonstrating a lack of understanding about the motivations for the initiative.

When Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz, new prefect of CICLSAL, presided over a December 2014 press conference that released the final report of the apostolic visitation, he clearly seemed relieved that the whole process had come to an end. News reports played up the report’s praise for the work of sisters but ignored parts of the report that cautioned that “the very existence” of some orders is threatened. The report also indicated that some religious orders were not providing good theological and spiritual training to their members, were not using proper liturgical and common prayer practices, were not living the common life prescribed for religious institutes, and were practicing some spiritualities and ministries not fully in harmony with Catholic teaching.

Some individual sisters have observed a few positive reforms in their orders prompted by the visitation, but since reports on individual orders were not made public, it is impossible to know how many religious orders actually implemented recommended reforms or whether the Vatican has any intention of supervising implementation. Cardinal Aviz also acknowledged that some religious orders did not cooperate with the visitation or submit the required information, so the Vatican really did not gain a full picture of the state of religious life for women religious.

Likewise, the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR ended on a congenial note, with the production of new statutes for the LCWR stating that the organization is “centered on Christ and faithful to the teachings of the Church.” However, many questions remain about actual implementation of reforms, for the final report did not clarify how or whether the LCWR would implement the specific reforms mandated by the CDF or how it would create necessary new formation programs for members.

Additionally, doctrinal oversight of LCWR publications has been left to the LCWR itself, as has the choice of topics and speakers for LCWR meetings and assemblies. The August 2015 LCWR assembly revealed a more circumspect public face for the LCWR, but in her presidential address the outgoing LCWR president—Sister Sharon Holland of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary—characterized the doctrinal assessment essentially as a misunderstanding between Church leaders and the LCWR and as a “cultural chasm” between the two parties.

Assembly keynote speaker Father Stephen Bevans of the Society of the Divine Word characterized two of the most vocal critics of the assessment and the apostolic visitation—Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister and Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM—as “contemporary prophets.” He also claimed that the treatment of sisters by Church leaders in the past decade had led to dark “despair.” Quoting from current LCWR president Sister of St. Joseph Marcia Allen, he characterized the ministry of consecrated persons as “invariably in tension with the prevailing institutional reality.”

Thus, it seems that real reform of the LCWR is tenuous, but the Vatican likely concluded that the organization’s influence is diminishing anyway, for the orders still affiliated with LCWR have a higher median age than orders affiliated with the more traditional superiors’ conference, the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR). The 2014-2015 LCWR Annual Report acknowledged “the reality of our smaller and older membership”; according to that report, in 2007 there were 1,538 LCWR members from 363 “units” (sisters on leadership teams in orders or provinces of orders). In 2015, those numbers were 1,374 members in 308 “units.”

On top of the confusion about the characteristics of religious life, the ambiguity over the need for reform, and the often-strained relationship with the Magisterium that continue to trouble religious institutes of women, huge financial and demographic challenges loom.

Actuarial projections prepared for the US Bishops’ Religious Retirement Office predict an annual increase in care costs for sisters of 5 percent, but an increase in Social Security of only 2.5 percent. That office also reports that religious orders are experiencing unfunded retirement liability in the billions of dollars, for most orders have far more retired sisters than younger, working sisters.

The median age of sisters is reported by the retirement office to be 72, so it is apparent that religious orders of women will continue to lose sisters by the thousands for the next several years, for only 1,200 sisters are in formation in these orders. Indeed, the number of sisters has dropped by about 2,000 every year since 1990, when there were 102,504 sisters in the US, more than twice as many as today. That death rate is bound to accelerate, given the median age.

A new report issued in December 2015, “Understanding US Catholic Sisters Today,” commissioned by the organization Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, compiled data from recent studies of religious. The report opened by noting that the number of Catholic sisters today is approximately the same as the number of sisters a century ago and that the large numbers of sisters in the mid-20th century (180,000 at its peak in 1965) “represent an anomaly in the history of US women’s religious life rather than a standard to which sisters could or should return.”

The report concedes that such raw numbers should be qualified by other statistics such as population, but it claims that this comparison “helps to diffuse the pessimism that often surrounds discussions of religious life.”

However, even the most math-challenged person can recognize that it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of women’s religious orders when the number of sisters—50,000—in our current Catholic population of nearly 80 million is the same number as in 1900, when the US Catholic Church had a mere 10.7 million members. If we had the same percentage of sisters today as in 1900, there would be nearly 400,000 sisters!

Of course, times have changed: Catholic families are now smaller, and women have many more career options and educational opportunities than did women in 1900 and even in 1965. Likewise, orders have become more selective in accepting candidates, for not every woman who applies to a religious order is properly motivated or even well suited for that particular way of life.

Additionally, women have more opportunities to serve the Church as laity than we had before 1965, and cultural changes have produced a younger generation reluctant to make commitments. Thus, a slower growth in vocations should not be unexpected, and it would be unrealistic to expect the same ratio of sisters to the Catholic population the US Church enjoyed in 1900.

However, the attempt to put a happy face on the present situation seems to be an effort to justify the unauthorized changes that so many women’s orders implemented after Vatican II. Many sisters were more influenced by the cultural revolution of the 1960s than by the actual teachings of Vatican II. Radical reformers took their orders far beyond the reforms mandated by the Council, changing the very nature of religious life.

Perfectae Caritatis, the Vatican II document on the renewal of religious life, encouraged the very close connection of religious orders to the Church, not the free style adopted by many women’s orders: “All institutes should share in the life of the Church, adapting as their own and implementing in accordance with their own characteristics the Church’s undertakings and aims in matters biblical, liturgical, dogmatic, pastoral, ecumenical, missionary, and social.”

That same document told religious orders to recognize and preserve the spirit and goals of the orders’ founders, as well as the orders’ sound traditions, in light of the contemporary needs of mankind and the Church. Instead, many women’s orders simply discarded their goals, traditions, communal lifestyle, and traditional ministries. It is no wonder vocations to these groups vanished.

The Council did call for eliminating obsolete rules and practices, particularly those that made it more difficult for religious to practice their apostolate. However, it did not advocate the wholesale revamping of religious life that occurred in many women’s orders to the point where it is now often difficult to distinguish the life of a sister from that of a lay person.  Nor did it condone religious dissenting from Church doctrine or ignoring liturgical law—all issues that the apostolic visitation and the doctrinal assessment tried to address.

By discarding traditional ministries, diluting community life and prayer, and withdrawing from their institutions (which for most orders were their main source of new vocations), many orders of sisters consequently lost their identities as religious institutes. As a result, young women have voted with their feet.

The “Understanding US Catholic Sisters Today” report did recognize this identity problem: “Unless religious institutes develop an identity that can be easily and clearly articulated to the outside world, both in Catholic settings and in the wider culture (i.e., portrayals in the media), they will not attract many new members. Furthermore, if women’s religious institutes do not define themselves clearly, they risk letting themselves be defined by others, which may, in turn, increase polarization and further reduce the attractiveness of religious life among potential members.”

Happily, some religious orders of women did manage to navigate Vatican II renewal and update themselves and their apostolates without losing their identities or the classic style of religious life. While actual numbers have not been compiled for current demographics, anecdotal evidence indicates that these orders are more successful in attracting new vocations than diverse orders.

The “Understanding US Catholic Sisters Today” report claims the more diverse orders—most of whose leaders belong to the LCWR and represent about 85 percent of sisters—are receiving the same number of new entrants as the orders living the classic style of religious life, most of which are affiliated with the other women superior’s conference, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), whose members lead about 15 percent of sisters.

However, the data on which the report bases this conclusion is incomplete. The report cites as its source the 2014 book New Generations of Catholic Sisters. That book based its claim on data from a 2009 study of women religious by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

That CARA study, “Recent Vocations to Religious Life,” gathered much interesting data, but the information on which type of order was receiving most of the new vocations was incomplete. Only about half of the CMSWR units responded to the study, compared to about 80 percent of the LCWR units.

Also, CMSWR has some members who lead groups (called associations of the faithful) that are living a religious lifestyle and working toward becoming religious orders. These fledgling groups need to become well established, have their constitutions approved, and reach a reasonable number of members—about 40—before they can get the canonical status of a religious order. The new vocations to these associations of the faithful often are not counted in surveys of religious orders, so there is no complete, current data on actual numbers of new vocations and which type of order they are choosing.

Even with incomplete data on numbers in formation, it is clear which orders have a brighter future when half of the new vocations that were reported went to orders with only 15 percent of the sister population.

That 2009 CARA report said as much in its executive summary: “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.” 

So, while all evidence suggests that some of the orders offering this classic style of religious life are going to continue to attract new vocations, the US Catholic Church probably will not see tens of thousands of sisters again in the near future. With a median age in the 70s, the number of sisters will continue to drop precipitously, and some of the most prominent orders will eventually disappear or be amalgamated into other orders in an effort to care for the elderly.

Likewise, motherhouses, convents, schools, and hospitals will continue to be sold because the buildings have become too large for the shrinking population to administer and too expensive to maintain when retired sisters grossly outnumber working sisters. Many of those buildings already have been repurposed for purely secular uses, as has this writer’s former high school. This historically significant building, which also served as a convent for the sisters, now contains apartments, offices, and elegant reception halls.

This loss of ecclesial properties is also a blow to the laity, whose ancestors sacrificed from their meager immigrant earnings to build schools and hospitals and to finance convents to house the sisters who taught their children, nursed the sick, mothered the orphans, and brought the faith to the unchurched.

The good news is there still are young women who feel called to serve the Church in the particular vocation of religious life, not out of nostalgia, but because they recognize the beauty and joy of this vocation as it is lived in the classic orders. Like the sisters of the 20th century who played such a vital role in building up the Catholic Church in the United States, they are less concerned about statistics than about embracing the vows to follow Jesus Christ.

If the witness of these sisters can become more visible, the first half of this century could experience a growth in the sisterhood similar to that of the 20th century. However, whether 21st-century sisters number in the thousands or the tens of thousands, their predecessors have proven that sisters can work miracles when they respond to the Holy Spirit moving in our world, and this contemporary world is desperately in need of miracles. 

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About Ann Carey 17 Articles
Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013).