From time to time, your GetReligionistas are accused — accurately, I might add — of whining about the fact that many religion stories in the mainstream media are too short, too shallow or have too many holes in them, world without end. Amen.
We’re all journalists, or have worked in the mainstream, so we know that this is a cheap shot. Reporters can write all kinds of interesting things when given the time and the space to touch all the information bases that they want to touch.
However, here’s a Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun report that is so good and so timely, that I have to point out that it really doesn’t seem to take seriously a question that is actually asked in the text of the story itself. Here’s the top of the feature by Scott Calvert, from my neck of the woods, Catonsville, Md.:
As incense smoke danced in the sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows, Anthonia Nwoga knelt in the hushed chapel for the long-awaited moment. It took but a few seconds. Off came the white veil she had worn for the last year. On went a black one that she may keep for life.
Taking the black veil this week signified Nwoga’s first profession of vows — a key step toward a permanent commitment to the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation’s oldest religious order of African American women, founded in Baltimore 180 years ago.
For this Roman Catholic congregation, Our Lady of Mount Providence, based since 1961 in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville, Nwoga’s decision brings a dose of hope at a time of declining numbers at religious orders. In the last year and a half, 10 elderly sisters have died. But Nwoga is one of only a few to don the black veil in recent years.
A few lines later, we find out an interesting fact. Nwoga is, in a sense, not an African American at all. She is a Nigerian who is taking her vows here in America — in a rite led by a priest from Nigeria, to underscore the same point. And there is a hint at the hole in the story.
You see, there is nothing all that unusual about women and men taking Catholic vows in Africa, one of the regions in the world in which Catholicism is booming — a fact noted in many of those stories about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Africa, at least those not focusing on the politics of condoms.
This leads to the question that is asked, sort of, in this story as well as the question that is not asked.
Sisters attribute the declining interest in religious orders to forces such as rising materialism and wider opportunities for women to take part in church life without becoming nuns.
As recently as the 1960s, as many as 18 young women entered annual classes at the Oblate Sisters of Providence. At its peak, the order had about 300 members. Today, it’s down to 80 or so. The order remains mostly African American, but it has long had members from Latin America as well. There have also been white members — such as Sister John Francis Schilling, president of St. Frances.
Nwoga is the order’s third Nigerian-born member, and she thinks there might be a need to seek new sisters in Africa.
So, the implied question is this: Why are Catholic orders on the decline in American Catholicism (and in Europe, while we are at it)? The flip side of that question is obvious: Why are Catholic orders growing in Africa and in some other parts of the world, especially in the Southern Cone?
Read the Sun story carefully and tell me if you see any information that truly helps answer these questions. The references to materialism and a wider range of ministries for women are, of course, highly relevant. But is that all there is? Are there other demographic and/or doctrinal issues at play?
Photo: A look into the past, from the history page of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.