Got news? Stark religious numbers

Catholic_Gift_Idea_NunIf you backed up a few years, or even a decade or two, one of the subjects that religion writers in the mainstream press used to debate could be summed up in this question: “Are religion columns a good thing?”

You see, when most journalists hear the phrase “religion column,” they still think of two things. First, they think of religion pages, those gray ghettos back in the Saturday metro sections where, in most daily newspapers, slightly old wire-service copy went to die. Second, and even worse, they think of religion columns as those strange monstrosities in which a low-level reporter or clerk was asked to type up tiny news bites based on all of the press releases that religious congregations sent in the previous week (so that they wouldn’t have to support real news by purchasing advertisements).

The real issue, however, centered on the fact that many mainstream editors used religion pages and columns as excuses to keep religion news and trends out of the main news pages. In other words, religion writers assumed that as long as there were religion columns/pages, there would never be serious religion news on A1 or the metro front.

I always asked, “Why not both? Why not mainstream the coverage and have a religion page?” My assumption was that there would always be religion news that the religion-beat specialist understood was important, but that editors just “didn’t get.” It was nice, I thought, to have a niche in the newspaper in which a religion specialist could print that kind of news. This option wasn’t perfect, but it helped you get some important information into circulation.

Take, for example, meetings of the U.S. Catholic bishops. You know that, whenever they meet, the big headlines are going to be about whatever statement they issue that has something to do with (a) politics, (b) sex or, even better, (c) politics about sex. Trust me: This is the physics of daily journalism.

So what happens if the the bishops discuss other issues that — if viewed through the lens of doctrine or tradition, rather than politics — are actually quite important or even, pray tell, earthshaking? That’s when you need a religion column really, really bad.

This is why I am glad that veteran Godbeat scribe Julia Duin (who took second in the 2009 Religion Reporter of the Year Award competition from the mainstream Religion Newswriters Association) has a regular column over at the Washington Times.

While catching up with my reading after an almost completely wifi-free Thanksgiving, I came across a perfect example of how she uses her columns to get crucial information into the newspaper. In this case, I ran into a column about the recent survey: “Recent Vocations to Religious Life” (click here for .pdf) done by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research. This was discussed during the recent U.S. Catholic bishops’ meetings in Baltimore. Go ahead. Try to find additional coverage of the contents in the secular press.

Why do I think this is so important? I realize that I have, as Bible Belt people say, “gone to preachin’,” but let’s look at two very newsy passages in this analysis column:

Compared to the 1960s, when there were 23,000 priests, 12,500 brothers (monks) and about 180,000 sisters (nuns), the religious population has decreased by 65 percent. … Today there are about 13,000 priests in religious orders, 5,000 brothers and 59,000 sisters. Seventy-five percent of men and more than 90 percent of the women are at least 60 years old. Of those who are younger than 60, the majority are in their 50s, with only 1 percent younger than 40.

(That 1 percent, I am guessing, belongs to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, now numbering more than 250 women, who limit their candidate pool to women 30 and younger. They’ve got 23 postulants this year alone; the largest number of new nuns in training in the country. Which may be why I’m getting fundraising letters from them asking for money to feed, house and train these women.)

nuns for choiceWhat in the world?

After reading that information, a reporter should be asking a logical question: What happened to the support networks that used to support young women and men who were considering entering religious life?

Brace yourselves. The executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference delivered more stunning news:

“When asked to rate the encouragement they received when they first considered entering their religious institutes,” Brother Bednarczyk told the bishops, “newer entrants ranked family members (parents, brothers and sisters), people in the parish and diocesan priests as giving the least encouragement when they first considered entering their religious institute.”

I’ll repeat that. The people from whom the emerging sister or brother expects to get the most encouragement when considering their radical vocation offer the least. Broken down, 30 percent said they were “very much encouraged” by parents, 22 percent were “very much encouraged” by siblings, 31 percent were “very much encouraged” by fellow parishioners and only 17 percent were “very much encouraged” by diocesan priests.

Years from now, decades or centuries even, people who care about the Church of Rome will look back at this trend and say: “What in the world was going on? What happened?”

Answer that question and you have a story that should be on A1, or a series of stories that belong on A1. As for me, I am glad that Duin was able to use her column — mixing hard facts with her own analysis — to put at least a small spotlight on these sobering numbers.

This is what religion columns are all about. Here’s hoping her editors let her dig deeper, because there is hard news in those statistics.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Thank you for spreading the word on this article. (As an aside, I seem to recall that St. Jerome once had some strong words for what an aspiring monk should do if his parents refuse to let him join a monastery. Anyone have that quote handy?)

  • Jerry

    (the other Jerry:-)

    This is, to me, a very important story that speaks to the future of not only Catholicism in the US but organized religion as well. I hope we do see more stories digging deeper in this area.

  • Erin Manning

    That 1% is somewhat accounted for by the Nashville Dominicans, but there are some other amazing orders which have begun to attract vocations. The convent where my sister made her final profession this past August is one; they can hardly build fast enough to have space for all their new postulants:

    What these thriving orders have in common is a traditional faith, old-fashioned practices such as the rosary and other forms of prayer, the wearing of a traditional religious habit, and the like. The only orders which are growing in America, both of priests/religious brothers and of religious sisters, follow this same pattern of traditionalism, not the trendy heterodoxy of the last forty years.

    That’s a story I’d love to see the mainstream media explore!

  • Jerry N

    The first Jerry to comment was me. Sorry for dropping the traditional initial!

  • dalea

    Does the number refer to all priests or just those in religious orders? The article uses both definitions. In statistics there are three basic concepts: mean, median and mode. The reporter uses mode the most, which seems odd. Of the 13,000 priests, only 3,250 are under 60. Since only 1% (of all priests or only those under 60?) are under 40, we are left with the stunning number of 130 priests under 40 in the USA. This means that annually for the last 15 years, there have not been 10 priests ordained per year. Which means that since there are more than 10 dioceses in the US, most go years with no ordinations. Which I don’t think is the case. They are not churning out priests, but do manage 1 or 2 a year. There is a problem with the numbers presented in the article.

  • tmatt

    The study quoted is about religious orders.

    Check out the .pdf

  • Dave

    … those gray ghettos back in the Saturday metro sections where, in most daily newspapers, slightly old wire-service copy went to die.

    Good show, I needed a laugh today.

    Perhaps the prelates see potential brothers and sisters as a strain on already distressed resources.

  • dalea

    With WindowsVista, pdf. is always an adventure. Looking at the report, I find there is much I just don’t understand. This is written in very dense Catholic terminology.

    Per the chart on page 26, for every member under 40 there are 10 over 90. Page 27 breaks this down by gender, the number of women over 90 skews the figures. Page 30 sets out the decade of birth for those now entering, only 2% are teenagers. Page 33 shows an ethnic breakdown; huge increase in Hispanics. Page 45 gives an age breakdown on new entrants: 57% are over 40, which is surprising. Page 46 defines generations in terms of US RCC history, which gives a very different breakdown than secular ones. There are 135 pages of analysis and 271 pages are devoted to comments from those taking the survey. Very competant and thorough survey.

  • dalea

    Did a quick search (controlF) of the document. Using traditional brings up a variety of comments, many negative on the subject. Conservative brings up mostly negative comments on some ‘fringe’ young members. Also a rather poignent one concerning a bishop who has shifted funds to a new conservative order of nuns leaving the order that had taught for decades financially imperiled.

    There were a couple of comments about the tension between gay and straight members.

    The comments are fascinating and I highly reccomend at least skimming them.

  • Julia


    Haven’t looked through the survey yet, but it might help to know that all nuns, sisters, brothers and monks are members of religious orders, and are colloquially known as religious. Priests who are not diocesan priests are also religious, and take additional vows not required of diocesan priests.

  • Julia

    OK I saw a chart with the following categories:


    Here’s what I think I know, in order of knowledge:

    - Eremites are hermits.

    - Contemplatives spend most of their time in prayer and are generally separated from the public.

    - Monastics live in community and perform various kinds of work to be self-sufficient.

    - Apostolics have a mission that deals with the outside world – teaching, hospital work, etc.

    - Conventuals are the less-strict Franciscans??

    - Evangelicals – don’t know. Maybe their focus is conversions?

  • dalea


    If you are having trouble following this, imagine how I must find the subject. This is very confusing. When we have a perfectly usable English word like hermit, why use Eremites which does not even look like an English word?

  • Michael Pettinger


    Thanks for helping to break down the numbers. About the language: “Hermit” and “eremite” (an English word, check Merriam Webster) are both ultimately derived from the Greek “erémités,” one who practices solitude.

    Frustration is understandable, but remember that the Catholic Church has a 2,000 year history and spans every continent. The choice of words is often dictated by a long practice and a certain desire to use words recognizable to Catholics from all over the world.

    Between them, speakers of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese might come close to constituting a majority of the world’s Catholics, and they all call a hermit “eremita.”

    Sorry to get all nerdy….

  • Julia


    What Michael Pettinger said.

    My philharmonic chorale sang a Robert Frost poem set to music that included “eremite” – Choose Something Like a Star. the word was quoted from a poem by Keats.

    It gives us strangely little aid,
    But does tell something in the end.
    And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
    Not even stooping from its sphere,
    It asks a little of us here.

    Keats wrote “Bright Star” in 1819 and revised it in 1820

    Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite


    Hermit,usually with a religious connotation. Emphasizing the star’s sleeplessness is part of the characterization of the star’s non-humanness, which makes it an impossible goal for a human being to aspire to.


    You also can’t understand classic poetry or mythology or Shakespeare or many other things without a knowledge of the history of words. [I say this as a lawyer who had to learn many obscure words and phrases and their meanings in Latin and English]

  • Julia

    Should have added that the document was for internal use. When I’m trying to decipher internal documents from insurance companies or the military, I have to figure out what the words they use mean. That’s not out of the ordinary.

  • dalea

    Well, the document is not addressed to speakers of Portugese, Spanish or Italian. It is addressed to those who speak English. And to expect readers and the religion beat reporter to bring a panapoly of word history and so forth invites confusion. When I brought this up previously, I received a lecture on my need to have a better understanding of 13th century words. I feel a large part of the problems with religious reporting is the RCC’s insistance on using a highly idiosyncratic vocabular. It is only Julia’s posts that made it clear that the story was about orders. The reporter did not make this distinction.

    Aren’t their nuns who are part of a diocese like priests?

  • dalea

    I do accounting, a field where departing from common practice is suppossed to bring heavy penalties down on you very quickly. When it does not, we get a mess like the current economy. My background is very different from yours Julia.

  • Julia

    Aren’t there nuns who are part of a diocese like priests?

    I think there are cases where a bishop might approve a small, new group as an experiment and then it has to get approval in Rome as an official order. Nuns and sisters are not the same, by the way. Orders are like the Jesuits or the Benedictines or the Sisters of St Joseph. They have world-wide or national or regional geographical territories and may be divided further into smaller provinces. Their relationship to bishops is different from diocesan priests. There is a head of each order with authority separate from the authority of the bishop. There’s lots more to know about all the different groups that would take an entire book to explain.

    The study was done for the bishops. It was not presented as a press release. The people who paid for the study and read it at the semi-annual conference understood what it was all about.

    Go to a lawyers’ meeting. You will run into a lot of esoteric lingo. Same with engineers, accountants, baseball players, global warming climatologists, bacteriologists, etc. Specialized language saves time and the professional people in the discussions all know the terms. Additionally, these terms frequently have very precise meanings that regular language cannot accomodate.

    A reporter coming from the outside can either interview an expert about the study (or an article in JAMA) or search it out in books or other references.

    A brother of mine who is a newspaper reporter covers the courthouse beat in a large city. It took him years to get to the level of understanding he has now. Judges don’t stop the trial and explain things to the people in the audience. Juries are only given the instructions that have been argued and adopted at the end of the trial. Many things are not explained to them or anybody else outside the judge and lawyers. In fact, see My Cousin Vinnie to see how dumb lawyers feel (and are) when they start out.

    The terminology in that USCCB study is no more esoteric than you would run into at grand rounds at a teaching hospital or a conference of brain surgeons. Ever try to decipher insurance company codes? They are intended for internal use.

    I do accounting, a field where departing from common practice is suppossed to bring heavy penalties down on you very quickly.

    Accounting “common practice” would be Greek to me. My stock analyst son sends me papers on economics that I am finally starting to understand. I still have problems with credits and debits, and frequently get them backwards. I’m learning the new 990, re-structuring our chart of accounts and it’s torture, but the IRS has provided a 75 page instruction booklet. Same with the granting entities who each have their own terminology. There are places to find info on what Catholic terminology means, too. Google.

    Here’s some sources to start: – encyclopedia – US Conference of Catholic Bishops – libraries – canon law – Orthodox terminology – Catholic terminology

  • Julia


    I sent you a long reply with sources, but it disappeared.

    Short version:

    The technical language in the USCCB study is no more esoteric than something you would see at a conference of brain surgeons or engineers, or lawyers. Specialized terms have precise meanings that often cannot be accomodated with everyday English.

    I do accounting, a field where departing from common practice is suppossed to bring heavy penalties down on you very quickly

    I am struggling with the new 990 and I do the grant applications for a non-profit organization. Talk about idiosyncratic vocabulary. But there are places to find definitions and instructions. As far as accounting goes, I often get debits and credits backwards; many people do because the system doesn’t seem to follow everyday logic.

    If you are trying to read an article in JAMA, you are going to have to use a dictionary because the article was written for other physicians not the public. Try reading a Supreme Court brief – it took a law degree for me to understand what the heck one of them is all about.

    Most technical terminology in law, medicine and theology is derived from Latin terms. People are not born knowing those words and terms. You have to learn them, ask an expert or search out the meanings if you are reading professional documents.

    Press releases, talks to the public and writing directed to the guy in the pew is different. Still, I’m sure some of the lingo used by Mormons or Lutherans among themselves would probably not be very clear to me without checking out some definitions.

  • Michael Pettinger


    What Julia said, and more.

    You complain that the document is not directed to “Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese” — fair enough. But you also seem to assume that all English speakers share the same vocabulary. As Julia is pointing out, they do not. This document was directed to a group of people who would know what an “eremite” is. As we both pointed out, this is an English word — after all, both Julia and I recognized it and knew what it meant. We are both speakers of English. And neither of us is a Catholic cleric.

    Just to make it clear, I’m not trying to show off. It was only a year ago that I found out what a “lede” is. Journalists have their own exotic lingo too.

    The fact that people can live in the same country, at the same time, supposedly using the same language and still not understand each other is one of the reasons journalism exists.

    I’m an academic, not a journalist, but I think that one thing both our professions share is the job of translating the thoughts of one group to another. When my students complain that they cannot understand what a writer says, I tell them to grapple with the words that she uses. If those words seem strange to them, it is not the fault of the writer, who might not have had American undergraduates in mind when he or she was writing.

    And I also warn them against simply trying to substitute thoughts and categories that seem familiar and obvious to them for the thoughts and categories presented by the author. It is not their job to make writers think and sound like American undergraduates — it is the job of American undergraduates to understand what the author was thinking when he or she wrote.

    I appreciate the pressures of working under a deadline. We all live with pressure. But I rejoice when I have to learn something new. I invite you to rejoice as well. You now know what an eremite is!