Why fewer nuns?

Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia greet each other after a Mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville, Tenn., in this 2007 file photo. (CNS/Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register)

(CNS/Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register)

Today’s Vatican Letter by Cindy Wooden is on why the number of women religious has dropped sharply over the last 50 years. What do you think? Is it that many religious misunderstood the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, as one priest in the story says? Or is it something else since, as another priest says, the numbers actually started dropping in the 1930s?

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16 Responses to Why fewer nuns?

  1. Jared Olar says:

    My sense is that it’s both. We have to avoid post hoc fallacies, of course, but it’s undeniable that not only have religious vocations (and priestly vocations for that matter) declined over the past several decades, starting well before Vatican II, but also in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II I think there was a big spike in religious and priests leaving their vocations. The problem isn’t just about fewer new vocations, but about a good number of old vocations that were lost. That’s why the religious orders that had staffed the parish schools all of a sudden around 1970 no longer had enough numbers to serve as the sole or nearly sole staff of schools: not just from the pre-Vatican II decline in vocations, but from the departure of large numbers of religious who, one must suppose, had been thrown off their equilibrium during the chaos and confusion that erupted following Vatican II. I don’t think these phenomena are independent of each other, though, since the culture indeed had been changing for some time prior to the Council making it harder for women to see the point of consecrated life and seriously consider whether or not God was calling them to it.

  2. Sabrina says:

    Economics play a huge (and strangely unremarked part) of the decline in vocations. During periods of affluence, vocations take a header. 1960s in the United States is the perfect example, but certainly not the only one.
    So, it isn’t any surprise that the majority of vocations in recent years have been from developing nations or from immigrant groups within developed nations. The only surprise is that we don’t factor economics in our analysis of the vocations decline at all.

  3. jerome says:

    The declining of priestly and religious vocation is due to the effects of vatican II council. A evil council dominated by Mason. Wake up Catholics, its time for us to go back to our roots(the tradition of the catholic church).Its time for us to regain the latin tridintine mass which was destroyed in the year 1960s. put on your mind that the new mass initiated by a heretic paul VI is not pure catholic because he invited 6 protestant minister to dratf the new mass. Hail to the traditionalist catholics.

  4. John D. Horton says:

    The research that I have conducted on the topic indicates that women religious became unhinged from their theological and spriritual dimension because of a mis-reading and mis-application of the Vatican II document on religious life. While this also affect priests and men religious, they always had the work of saying the Mass and/or the physical appearance of an “alterus Christus” to make it through the theological storm. Following Vatican II women religious more than any other group turned to “alternative spiritualities” as a means of personal and spiritual growth. Beginning with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles, they turned to pop psychology and other non-Catholic sources for spiritual inspiration. IHM sisters required all novices to immerse themselves in Carl Jung’s self-actualization psychology which is diametrically opposed to the idea of sacrifice and service. Based on the Jungian analysis, the life of a sister was worthless and the sisters left once this was pointed out to them.

  5. Joe Esparza says:

    The reason, in my opinion is MINISTRY OF THE LAITY.
    Before Vatican II women (and men) had limited opportunities for service in the Church, religious life and priesthood. Vatican II opened up the Church to the possibility of service in the Church while remaining a Catholic layperson. The vocation of the laity is therefore enhanced with respect the clergy and religious. No doubt there is a place for religious women and men, but congregations must do better at exhibiting the prophetic witness of their vocations.

  6. Perhaps the fire went out of the visible Church in the USA when the Bishops became more concerned about protecting their tax exempt status than standing up to the State. Women like relationships and fire, not bureaucracy. We need to rekindle the fire by freeing the Church. See http://www.gs76.org.

  7. Colleen says:

    I once checked out the web page for the sisters who had taught me in the 50’s. It showed a group of women, who looked like any group of women, who were having a candel passing ceremony and talked about the fun they were having. No mention of spirituality. We had such a ceremony in our college dorm to announce engagements! My question would be why would I need to join such a group unless I was single and lonely. I don’t remember exactally how old I was, but I remember telling “my Sister” that I wanted to be a nun. She responded with quite uncharateristic sharpness, “NO YOU DON”T” At the time I took it to mean I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I finally thought that maybe she was sorry for her decision.

  8. Maryann says:

    I think that the Holy Spirit is now working in the Church ( as she has always been) to inspire new forms of consecrated life. The fact that the laity now are more theologically educated and are given more prominent roles in church service has nothing to do with it. Our life as religious is not about what we do. We are not defined by what we do but by our exclusive commitment to Jesus Christ through the Constitutions of our Congregation. Perhaps new forms of religious life wil emerge.

  9. Mara says:

    For many Catholics who were born after the SVC, we met many sisters who were not happy with their vocations. Most were either angry, resentful and outright bitter towards the institutional church. While there are some Catholics who support women’s ordination, I fear it. If these women ever became our priests they would just pass on their bitterness to their congregations like they alreay have in their bible studies, RCIA programs, hospitals and unviersities.

    On another level, I find it interesting that these sisters will have postings about saving plastic bottles on their websites but will say absolutely nothing about saving lives – unborn lives. Why are they so indifferent to the cause of the unborn?

    Many progressive sisters today are some of the nation’s most aggressive dissenters in the church, and unless they get their way, they have vowed to make their voices heard. Where will that lead us?Read the statements from their Leadership Conference. Listen to their speakers. They say, “our intrepretation of SVC is this, and therefore this is what WE believe.” Most don’t even recognize the authority of their bishops in their personal lives, explaining that their commitment (it’s not a vow anymore) is to their progressive community and its leaders, not to the bishops or even to the Pope. They have developed their own “lituriges,” which in many cases replaces the celebration of mass, they have created their own theologies and have removed any reference to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In many ways, they have created another church. Have we ever wondered why so many educated Catholics are pro-choice? Well, who were their teachers, mentors and spiritual directors?

    Catholics need to read their statements, their websites, their postings. Talk to them. Do you own research. Find out for yourself.

    It’s all about power and this is why women don’t join these progressive communities.

  10. Mary Lou Deyak Voelk says:

    Change is not constant. Change happens if we like it or not. Isn’t it better to envision change, to ask the question, “Where are we going? What is our mission? How do we achieve getting there ?” I believe this is what happened to the decline of our religious life. The church became a “victim of change not a change agent”.

    Today’s knowledge has made deep strides into human needs, how to grow, how to love, how to nurture, how to volunteer, to spread love and kindness. A woman, a mother has deep and internalized instincts. Why cannot this same woman, married or single, have a “religious occupation” . We are wasting the talents of our catholic woman (and men) by restricting them to “either or” i.e. you are a religious or not a religious. As a wife, mother and professional public school teacher, I believe I am a “religious” . I do not need to belong to a particular group recognized by the Catholic church. As a lay person, I believe I have as much to give as any “ordained” person of the church. I do not need that title. My entire daily life is one of spreading kindness, love, and most of all, being a role model for those I come in contact with, even if it is tough love. Working in the inner city gives you much insight! And I continually strive to keep my life fresh and new through reading, studying and praying.

    The church, I believe, has become “stuck”; a closed society never works; tightening the leash will not do it in today’s society. The woman has been given a subservient role in the church, and it appears the one mission of the church is to keep the woman at check. The church needs to changed their mission; how to use the talents of women even if it means being a priest.
    What is the church afraid of?

  11. Nick Beal says:

    I’m struck by the total lack of any real presentation of the arguments of the book that is used to open this article. The entire article is a list of denials that misreadings of Vatican 2 is the primary culprit for decreasing nuns. This article is obviously not intended to explore the arguments of the book. I would have to imagine that Ms. Wooden would have me take away that nothing is really knowable about why there is less interest in vocations among Catholic women – except for one certainty, that it isn’t because of misapplication of the declarations of Vatican 2. Couldn’t Ms. Wooden have included even one reasonable quote of a less progressive voice? (For instance the Dominican Sisters of St.Cecilia pictured with the article might have been worth a quote)

  12. Pat says:

    Many things have come about since Vatican II. I am both a pre- and post-Vatican II Catholic. The IHM sisters taught me in elementary and high school where they were joined by the SSJ’s, the RSM’s, and the SHCJ’s, all of whom were in habit. Not to downplay the spiritual aspect of religious life, but there is such a thing as marketing. What better marketing for your chosen life style than a religious habit. When we saw sisters on the street, we knew that they were sisters, and we smartened up immediately. It may not be the answer, but it in congregations that are still in habit, vocations are on the rise.

  13. Thelma L. says:

    I was a religious and left because at that time I experienced ridicule from senior sisters. We were a young batch, serious about gaining knowledge. We participated eagerly in classes on Liturgy and the Scripture. We asked questions and discussed ideas. I remember a senior sister telling me that when they were junior sisters, they kept quiet most of the time. I also told her if one had nothing to say, it’s best to keep quiet. This is only one example. There were many similar instances. I decided I wasn’t virtuous enough to live with such people all my life.
    My situation does not explain why there are fewer religious. I believe, many women have found other ways to serve God and the church. The changing times offer alternative ways to serve.

  14. Duane Lamers says:

    Some religious congregations are dying out, but others are flourishing, such as Mother Angelica’s Poor Clares and the Sisters of Mary at Ann Arbor, Michigan. The average age of the latter sisters is 20-something, and it is a relatively new and quickly growing congregation. Meanwhile, not far down the road from these sisters we have the Adrian Dominican sisters with an average age somewhere above Medicare!
    Perhaps having a “mission statement” that is relevant to the ideals of community life and not so concerned with politically liberal agendas has something to do with it. No “perhaps” about it in my mind.

  15. Katherine says:

    I think we might come to terms with the idea that the historical era of vowed women in the active apostolate is ending, having started with the French Revolution. It had a good run and served its time. It will still exist in a reduced form. And monastic communities are essential to the church. But the modern experiment with vowed women working in the world is closing.

  16. I would like to comment on Jerome’s letter about calling the pope evil. What’s wrong with inviting the Protestant to help in translating the Mass to languages which are understandable. I don’t say Latin and traditional liturgies are obsolete but they are to be renewed also. Not the change in its form or matter but to make it more understandable if spoken in our own dialect. Inculturation integrating ones culture to other cultures. That also happens to the liturgy we have after the Vatican II. Priests and sisters who get out of the religious vocation are the ones with problems in themselves. Changes and renewals are just irritants but they are just challenges whether one is faithful to his/her vocation and to the original religion the Catholic. Please stop condeming or else you are being condemned yourself.

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