Lies, Damned Lies, and Sister-tistics–UPDATED

[Mea culpa UPDATE: Although I stand by the substance of this post, I recognize that I was out of line in the cheap shots I took at Fr Jim Martin's public persona. I have edited those out of this post, and deleted comments that found in my post an occasion of the sin of ad hominem attacks. I still disagree with Fr Martin's support of the LCWR against the CDF, but making it personal was inexcusable. Please go here for my fuller apology and further thoughts, and help keep me honest as we go forward together.]

Mark Twain’s famous observation (attributed by him to Disraeli, but there’s no certainty about authorship) that there are three methods of twisting truth—lies, damned lies, and statistics—comes to mind whenever folks want to use numbers to whack one another about the head—or, more genially, to advance an agenda. Yesterday’s hallooing, by Fr James Martin and other supporters of the LCWR in its opposition to Vatican oversight, of an America article on US women’s vocation statistics would have Twain (and my freshman research methods professor) chortling. The study presented in the article attempts to refute the notion that LCWR-represented institutes are losing vocations while non-LCWR communities are gaining them. Here’s Fr Martin on the “reality check” the study purports to provide:

Here is a preview of a new study on women religious that shows–contrary to popular opinion, and despite what almost every commentator has said–that “almost equal” numbers of women are entering both more “traditional” and “progressive” orders. This contradicts the received wisdom that orders represented by the LCWR are receiving zero vocations.

Well, no. It does no such thing, actually. The study, which draws on data from the Catholic Directory and from a 2009 joint survey conducted by CARA and the National Religious Vocation Conference, does indicate that for 2009, LCWR communities and those represented by the more traditional Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) had roughly equal numbers of women in three vocational status categories: candidates/postulants, novices, and sisters in temporary vows/commitments. But equal raw numbers don’t mean women are playing “6 of 1, half a dozen of the other” when it comes to the style of religious life to which they are responding. I am by no means accusing Fr Martin or others who read the data his way of being liars, let alone damned liars. It’s more a case of (forgive the Merchant reference, but I’m into my fourth week of watching performances) “Mark you, Bassanio, the  devil can cite scripture to his purpose.”

Percentage wise, the more traditional communities are frankly outdrawing those represented by the LCWR. The CMSWR, according to its website, represents about 100 communities; the LCWR, according to its, more than 15 times that number. If the appeal to vocations were truly equal, LCWR communities would have 15 times the number of sisters in formation. Even if the numbers are viewed in light of the 4-to-1 ratio of LCWR to CMSWR respondents to the study survey, they’re not evidence of equality: LCWR communities should have 4 times the number of women in formation.

The way America and Fr Martin read the study also leaves out other key information. The raw numbers don’t reflect women in formation in monastic orders (approximately 150 in 2009) or in new religious institutes (no numbers provided), both of which represent generally more traditional patterns of religious life than do communities represented by the LCWR.

There are other problems with data, such as a failure to provide information about the age of women in formation. The survey lumps all women in formation into an amorphous group, calling them “the youngest generation of US religious women,” but that youth is a factor of lack of seniority in religious life, not individual age. Are both traditional and progressive religious communities attracting young candidates, who really are the future of religious life? The study also notes that progressive communities have slightly more women in the third category—sisters in temporary vows/commitments—and interprets this to mean progressive communities have a better “stick rate” after the novitiate. This misrepresents, however, the tendency of progressive groups to have many more members in lifelong temporary vows/commitments than do traditional communities.

I—along with many others—made these points last night on Fr Martin’s Facebook page. (And got our knuckles rapped, some to the point of having their comments deleted and being unfriended, by Fr Martin for daring to do it.) To bolster his position, Fr Martin included a link on Facebook to a page at the NRVC website, noting that it contained (emphasis mine) “more myth busters about religious life.” The study, however, only busts the myth that progressive communities are as viable and attractive to women entering religious life today as the traditional communities are.

Myth #3: Conservative/traditional communities are the only communities attracting new members.
Fact: Religious institutes that have a focused mission, who live in community, who have regular prayer and sacramental life, and who wear a habit show a higher proportion of newer members. The study indicates that men and women are also drawn to other types of religious life.
Myth #6: Younger religious are not interested in traditional devotional practices.
Fact: Newer members have ranked highly daily Mass as very important to them.Their prayer style also expresses a strong preference for Liturgy of the Hours, faith-sharing, nonliturgical common prayer, Eucharistic adoration, and common rosary and meditation.

[UPDATE: I misread Fr Martin's post. He was acknowledging that the NRVC data did not support his initial reading of the data, and indeed does demonstrate a trend toward more traditional forma of religious life. In the heat of, well, being Irish, I fell afoul of the very misreading I accused him of.]

[UPDATE: This paragraph edited to remove sinful snark.] I have defended Fr Martin in the past against charges of being deliberately disingenuous, and I can’t do that anymore. From the beginning of the LCWR-CDF contretemps, Fr Martin has anointed himself the progressive sisters’ champion. His I Support the Sisters Twitter campaign went viral. He promoted the Nuns on the Bus tour. And earlier this week he posted an encomium of outgoing LCWR president Sr Pat Farrell that challenged readers outright to dare to call her a Bad Catholic.

[UPDATE: Also edited to remove snark.] Again, these opinions are all his prerogative. But I wish he’d do a better job of owning up to what he’s standing up for. His support of “the dear sisters” against the Big Bad Boys of Rome is the popular position, and it will not be taken from him. I’d just be happier if he’d admit it is his position, instead of deflecting disagreement by implying that “politicizing” this whole thing is a sin and speaking for Rome is divisive and you can’t criticize the LCWR unless you’ve walked in Sr Farrell’s admittedly well-worn sandals of service.

To practice what I preach, I’ll say I am cheering for the excesses and errors represented by some of the LCWR leadership to be corrected so that religious women both active and contemplative can get about the work and prayer God calls them to. And I believe that sisters who want to do that apart from and in defiance of Rome are not “bad Catholics,” but simply not Catholics at all. That does not mean they are not heroically virtuous servants of God, and cannot continue being such in some other way of life or denomination.

But back to the numbers. There are a couple of areas in which they do not lie—one that should give us all joy, and one that should give us all pause. We can rejoice that women are continuing to answer the call to religious life, in diverse ways and, as the study notes, representing a more diverse ethnic and cultural profile than in earlier times. That’s proof that the Spirit is at work, and we needn’t haggle over whose team has a deeper rookie bench. Our joy might be tempered, however, at the fact that the numbers of vocations, while growing, are still terribly small. Fully half of the LCWR congregations had zero vocations in 2009—so the received wisdom Fr Martin laments is no real exaggeration. Even the more traditional congregations averaged 4 for 2009, so while the percentage weighs in their favor, the raw numbers are still pretty raw.

Maybe we’d best be about what the members of the LCWR claim to be doing at their meeting this week—prayerfully discerning the future of religious life for women. If we can agree to leave aside the skewing of statistics to prove our partisan points—or at the very least admit that’s what we’re doing when we do it—we might get somewhere, and not have to waste all that time unfriending one another.

Because in all of this, there’s really only one damned lie, and that’s that the Church and the world have no need of women strong, courageous, prophetic, and humble enough to consecrate their lives to Christ.

  • Jeff Miller

    Can you even remember an order under the LCWR umbrella that has announced a new foundation? I can’t recall one, but I can think of several orders not part of LCWR that have established new foundations.

  • Christopher Cleveland

    Finally some truth! Thank you for this well written entry.
    The keynote speaker for the LCWR gathering displays all the reasons they are in trouble
    with vocations and the Vatican.
    Mary, Rosa Mystica pray for us.

  • Hester Mofet

    Joanne, thanks for posting about this. I’ve really had it with Fr. Martin’s “pious-twaddle-veil” that barely obscures his bird-flipping-eye-poke to anything that resembles authority in the church. Shame on him for inferring that Catholicity is known by deeds alone. JEESH-uit, he knows better!

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  • Linda

    Interesting post. I had the same reaction after reading the article in America. I was a little surprised that the authors didn’t mention the rather large discrepancy between the ratio of LCWR and CMSWR vocations, especially since they pointed out a number of other key findings. It’s also puzzling that the differences in ages of LCWR new recruits and CMSWR new recruits weren’t mentioned in the article. Btw, if you read the actual study, which the NRVC has a link to on its website, page 32 gives the age distribution for those in initial formation with the LCWR and CMSWR. 85% of new recruits to the CMSWR are under 40 compared to 44% of LCWR new recruits. Even more telling are the women in the 20-29 age bracket: 51% of those in initial formation with the CMSWR fall are 20-29 compared to only 15% of those in initial formation with the LCWR.

  • Kathy Schiffer

    Thank you for saying what we all know, Joanne.

  • Frank Weathers

    If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” —Ronald Coase
    Torture is just not something Catholics can support, in any way, shape, or form. :)

  • HermitofBardstown

    You are a bit on the bulldog side. Where is your peace?

    • Romulus

      “E in la sua volonta e nostra pace”

      Our peace is in his will.


      Peace is produced by the Truth !

  • Jo Ann

    As a Director of Lifelong Faith Formation at my parish (which includes a school), I am constantly gnawing on the polemic of educating in the faith, touching both the mind as well as the heart, but in the end it is the Holy Spirit who draws us all to discipleship. As the Catholic Church is seen to be more and more counter-cultural by our young people (like my own 22 year old daughter), they take pride in their attempt to be courageous witnesses of the faith. Towards that end, the young women discerning a religious vocation are thus being drawn to more traditional orders, particularly those who wear the habit, because it is part and parcel of being a visual witness to their vocation. (That is one reason why I am so happy that you broke down the statistics for me — I knew there was something wrong there, but didn’t have time to work it out myself, so thanks, Joanne.)
    My personal view is that the most vital role women religious can serve in is education. Our Catholic schools have lost a lot by not having our children see their teachers so in love with the Lord that they have given Him their lives (as in, omg, did you know that Sister is MARRIED to Jesus?!!!). Teaching is the one area that women religious really influence the faith life, character, and the lived moral values of the next generation. In my opinion, there is no other area that needs Sisters more. I pray for their return to our schools every day.

  • Frances

    At last! A woman who can see behind the veil and the titles and status of some. More of this and we will see the true Church emerging yet once again, which she will, stronger than ever. A timely article on all accounts, and with it a fresh breeze of the Holy Spirit. God bless.

  • Craig

    Good article. May Mary, Mother Of Clergy, guide us all.

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  • Billy

    When you say the are “simply not Catholics at all,” you mean their actions don’t line up with Church teaching at all, rather than that there was some defect in their baptism or confirmation, right?

    • joannemcportland

      Yes. I mean that outright rejection of (not respectful disagreement with the expression of, or prayerful challenge of abuse of) legitimate canonical authority is by nature unCatholic.

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  • Catherine

    As a young (22 years old) woman who intends to enter religious life in a year (a “traditional” order with, gasp, habits!), I have to reaffirm, based on what I’ve seen in my life, that more vocations are going to more “traditional” orders. I’ve seen literally dozens of my friends join the *traditional* Dominicans, Franciscans, Sisters of Life, and others of those types of orders that are faithful to their charism. I will be entering with one of the orders I just mentioned and I know that out of my friends and the people I knew at the big public University I just graduated from there are another dozen or so students who will be entering consecrated (priesthood and other forms of religious life) life soon after me. None are joining the “non-traditional” orders.
    Just wanted to let you all know and give even more klout to the argument that those orders and organizations that are faithful are drawing many, many more vocations than not.

  • Qualis Rex

    Hello Joanne, first-time commenter here, and I can say I agree with every point you made (save your “mea-culpas” since I was not privee to your previous comments, but I’ll have to take your word : ). I am a traditional Catholic and grew up in a very progressive “Catholic” household, meaning I am 1 of 3 people left in my entire extended family that has remained Catholic, even nominally. Even my aunt, who is nominally a nun in an LWCR order and receives a monthly stipend to live in her own appartment, drive her own car, get the latest iMac everytime one comes out is no longer a practicing Catholic (God is now “universe” and we cannot judge any belief-system, unless it is patriarchal…then that’s bad). I guess it’s a cliche’ to say Fr Martin is merely defending “his base” and the old gaurd that emerged from the 60s and 70s with him, but the cliche’ doesn’t make it any less true, does it? Once again, good post. I will definitely continue reading here. And please don’t be too hard on yourself for the comments; it sounds like “dialogue” (i.e. the rallying cry for dissidents) wasn’t Fr Martin’s forte either.

  • Charles Collins

    As for the original survey, one huge problem is that it relies on data from the Kenedy Directory, which is notoriously unreliable, especially on year-to-year statistics. Often, dioceses and religious orders will “clean up” numbers from year to year. A visit to the stats of random US dioceses at often paint an interesting picture. The numbers are just not accurate.

  • Outismekteinei

    Do you mean to refer to the Church as a “denomination?”

    • joannemcportland

      Not theologically, of course, but just as handy shorthand to distinguish other flavors of Christianity.

      • Elizabeth D

        It is more typical to use “denomination” to refer in a neutral way to the different protestant/heretic groups, Catholics should be careful not to give an impression that Catholicism is just one of many variously-named branches of Christianity. No, Catholicism is the fullness of the Christian religion, the one Church founded by Jesus on the rock Peter.

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  • Fr. Jay Finelli

    Most vocations to these communities are 50+ while vocations to the traditional, faithful communities are 18+. That speaks for itself. We know that among those LCWR communities, there are some very good, faithful and devout women, but no young woman in her right mind wants to join a Religious Community that doesn’t have an outward identity (habit) and solid Catholic spiritual life. And, my final point. The young, vibrant, traditional communities look so happy! Enough said.

    • Melody

      “The young, vibrant, traditional communities look so happy! ” I hope they are always happy, I wish the best for them. But if I may make a comparison with married life; most newlywed and engaged people look happy too. If they don’t, there is something wrong. However we know that there are times of sunshine and shadow in all of our lives. If some of the older sisters don’t look so fresh and happy, the years may have taken their toll.
      As for which orders will thrive and grow, and which ones will fade away; time will decide. And actually I think that’s fine, that’s what has always happened, if we look at history. And sometimes there are surprises. People tend to think of the more traditional orders as nice and safe and predictable; not upsetting any applecarts. But God may lead them on roads yet untravelled; that also has happened in the past.
      The timing of the present brouhaha with the CDC and the LCWR is puzzling; it would be more understandable if it had happened 30 years ago. Now it’s like trying to stuff toothpaste back in the tube.

      • Melody

        “CDC”…. sorry, I meant CDF.

    • Robert Stevens

      Indeed; the future for LCWR is not bright at all.

  • midwestlady

    Actually none of the congregations, institutes or orders are getting very many new entrants. This is the thing that most people don’t realize, or many don’t want to talk about. There’s a lot of wishful thinking here. The fact of the matter is that we no longer need hordes of sisters to teach school or do nursing chores, and so God sees to our needs and not our wants–we’re not getting them.

  • Hponder

    Notwithstanding, ” argumentum ad populum” is a poor argument to begin with.  There is plenty scriptural authority to cite why the Church has a duty first to our God, and then the Flock (1 Peter 5:2) to adhere to God’s  requirments. We all know what path  this world is on (Matthew 17:3).

    I pray for our Holy Father and all the faithful in these amazing times.

  • suburbanbanshee

    And of course there’s nothing wrong with older vocations, widows entering religious life, etc. What’s wrong is when nobody else is entering, unless an order is specifically set up to be for only older vocations and widows. (And even then you’d kinda wonder, because there are a lot of young widows.)

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  • Diane at Te Deum

    Thanks, Joanne, for your objective analysis.

  • Lionel Sheen

    Eye opener….. How can we make this article go viral…. After i read that both Councils are receiving the same amount of vocations; i smelled a fish, so continued reading other blogs and came to this. Yes, the new vocations should atleast be in the ratio 20(CMSWR):80(LCWR being 80%) that is 1:4 . LCWR is dying and the Gamaliel principle is being proved once again…

  • Tancred

    The LCWRs have negative population growth. I think their decline is irreversible and we should see some real changes in the face of religious life very quickly as the grim reaper does his work.

  • nick

    Nice review. Did anyone look for orders belonging to more than one organization? I know of one conservative religious community that belongs to multiple organizations in much the same way I belong to a number of professional organizations.

    I think there may be double counting if the study assumed a nonoverlapping data set between multiple groups. If that is the case then the under lying data, forget the analysis, is questionable.


  • HermitofBardstown

    I am horrified by every comment on this page. What difference does it make if progressive or traditional. Are you serving Christ? Or are you flogging your blog by pandering? Where is Christ in this? Nowhere I can see.

    • joannemcportland

      Oh, Hermitofardstown, you should see the ones I DIDN’T publish. I left yours as a tonic to keep me honest, but you obviously don’t think a blogger can have that quality. I’m sorry you don’t think holding an opinion is commensurate with serving Christ, but this is my calling: I follow it poorly, but as best I can. And the only thing I flog regularly is my own ego, with the help of my commenters. If what I write provokes such grief in you, please save yourself the stress. Don’t read me. Just keep me in your prayers, as I do you in mine.

  • Theresa

    Here is a take on this study and all that has resulted from the CARA study from a young woman in religious formation:

  • sjay

    Although the reports on the initial study were seriously flawed in not mentioning and analyzing the significance of the differing base sizes of the respective groups, some are going to the other extreme by not acknowledging that large percentage increases are common for small populations in certain types of population growth and that as the base number increases the rate of increase will decline as the low hanging fruit are snapped up. This is similar to the mistake that abortion advocates have made in imagining that eventually all Catholic women will have had abortions based on the current rate of abortion. There is some upward limit, certainly less than the overall number of women in society, on both the number of women who would be interested in joining a religious order either conservative or liberal or would ever consider having an abortion. Towards the upper limits, the factors necessary to trigger the choice are likely to be harder to achieve, than at the lower end. It is likely that the more conservative orders are further from their upper limits than the more liberal orders but as they increase in overall number their percentage increases will decline.

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