Fewer children? Then fewer nuns …

Time for a quick dip into my GetReligion guilt file to look at a Religion New Service story that intrigued several readers who felt slapped by the headline it inspired at USA Today, which was, “Parents discourage daughters who would be nuns.”

What struck me about this story was a rare mainstream press reference to what I am convinced is one of the most powerful realities in Catholic life today. More on that in a second. Here’s the top of the report:

If she had listened to her parents, Sister Jenn Graus might never have professed vows last month to join the Congregation of St. Joseph.

Though lifelong Catholics, Graus’ parents had met few nuns or sisters near their home in Sterling Heights, Mich., and assumed most were cloistered in remote convents. They were uneasy when Graus, 27, told them about her religious calling. Would they ever see her again? Would the college education they scrimped and saved for go to waste?

“They had to overcome a lot of apprehension,” Graus said. Gradually, her parents warmed to her vocational aspirations after Graus told them that, yes, she would be allowed to visit home, and no, she would not have to give up her teaching career.

Now, there are several stories that loom over this one. First and foremost, the story seeks to address what it calls a “season of demographic decline” among Catholic female religious orders. That’s putting it mildly.

And another issue must be mentioned, which is that many Catholic orders are in decline, while a few others are booming (see this interesting NPR report). To state the obvious, there seems to be a theological component to this part of the story and, yes, the Vatican seems to think that too. The RNS report briefly mentions this angle.

But the heart of this story is found, literally, much closer to home:

More than half of the women who professed final vows to join a religious order in 2010 said a parent or family member had discouraged their religious calling, according to a survey conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Only 26% of the surveyed sisters said their mother encouraged them to consider religious life, and just 16% said their father cheered their choice, according to the report, which was released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. … A more extensive survey conducted by the Chicago-based National Religious Vocation Conference in 2009 produced similar results.

Here is the specific reference that caught my attention.

Sometimes parents object because they want grandchildren, or fear losing a daughter.

They want grandchildren? That would be a factor only if the parents themselves have no other children or have, let’s say, only one other child. This implies a major change in the past half century or so in the very shape and size of the Catholic family here in American and in the Western world.

Sure enough, near the end of the story the reader is told:

At one time, having a nun or priest in the family was a source of pride for Catholics. Folklore even held that it would help parents and siblings gain a spot in heaven.

But smaller families, changing cultural norms, a lack of knowledge about religious life and the clergy sex abuse crisis all contributed to a general decline in the desirability and prestige of Catholic vocations. …

As the old saying goes, demographics are destiny.

So what we have here is a solid story on an important topic. It is also rather obvious that it contains evidence that a sequel is needed. How does one find sisters, nuns, brothers and priests in a Catholic culture that is nervous about large families? And is there a doctrinal component to that question, as well?

Print Friendly

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.

  • Jeff

    It is definitely a story worth exploring more. On the Orthodox side you see a similar phenomenon. There are monks and nuns who’s parents very strenuously objected to them joining the monastery. One case, in particular, the young man was the only son – so the family name essentially stopped with him. Children from larger families tend to be more supportive.

    Of course, it would be worth exploring the interplay between the number of children, the degree to which the parents are observant Catholic/Orthodox, and the objection to the child entering a monastery.

  • Jerry

    This ties in with a broader trend about religion itself. There was a quote in the story, “Honestly, entering religious life is countercultural in so many ways,” which may have alluded to religion dying out as was trumpeted in the media recently http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/03/23/losing-religion-study-finds-religion-extinct-parts-world/?test=latestnews being one example.

    So I wish the story had gone a bit deeper in that direction. Or perhaps there’s ample room for a followup (in an ideal world, of course).

  • Julia

    An element that’s missing: there’s been a sea change in what opportunities are possible for Catholic poor, working class, and farm families.

    My small-town Kansas father had about 10 aunts and uncles who were teaching sisters, brothers and priests – mostly Benedictines. Then he had about 20 cousins and second cousins who were Benedictines, Jesuits and Sisters of St Joseph. They all had free schooling after entering their orders. Two women spent most of their careers teaching and caring for Thalidomide children in Japan; one woman was a college president, two Jesuits taught in British Honduras, one Jesuit was a physics professor, some Benedictines were also college professors, etc. etc.

    However, during the Depression his own 3 sisters, who were somewhat younger, were able to be schooled at a Benedictine boarding high school, b/c of the relatives who taught there, and then won scholarships to became “civilian” nurses. He & his brothers also stayed civilians due to scholarships and the GI bill.

    The closer to today you get in time, the more possible it was for Catholic children to get educations and get off the farm and out of the factories without entering religious life. Among my 30+ first cousins on that side of the family, nobody entered religious life, although we are 90% still practicing Catholics.

    Think about it. Not that long ago, women had to give up their jobs when they got married. Then it was when they got pregnant. Those life events were not barriers for Catholic sisters. Now, lay women have all kinds of interesting occupations and can continue them the same as men. And men (as well as women)can go to college on government loans. That was not true until some time in the early 20th century.

    So – it wasn’t just the most religious who became nuns and priests, it was the smart ones who would stagnate if they stayed on the farm or in the factory. Entering the convent or seminary was a doubly proud thing for the family. These were the gifted young people.

    Oxford and Cambridge in England were staffed mostly by Catholic priests and then Anglican priests until sometime in the 1800s. The same for Catholic grade schools, high schools and universities in this country. A married man couldn’t have supported a family on what teachers and professors were paid. With government support, loans and subsidies, teaching now pays a living wage, and men are even grade school teachers.

    Hospitals are yet another story. They were originally run by monks and sisters. Two of my father’s cousins were medical technologists – in my generation, two of us became medical technologists without entering the convent and didn’t have to quit when we had children. Religious women have headed Catholic hospitals for hundreds of years. That has only become possible for “civilian” women in my lifetime.

    Don’t get me wrong. Entering a religious order to teach or do hospital work was not just a career choice. Both were seen as Christian vocations as well as careers not possible otherwise for most Catholic young people. That’s not true any more.

  • Brad G

    I am currently a student at Benedictine College. During high school, I heavily discerned a vocation to the priesthood. My mom opposed this when she first heard about it and I didn’t even tell my dad for fear of what he would do and think. It wasn’t until I dragged them to a diaconate for a seminarian who grew up in my parish that they really began to understand that call. Afterward they opened to it more. I ended up hearing the call from God to come to Benedictine, but I am still seriously discerning all calls.

    A couple weeks ago, Benedictine hosted one of our priests at the monastery named Fr. Matthew Habinger, the former president of Human Life International (to read more about him, see this: http://www.nfpoutreach.org/Habiger.htm). He mentioned in his talk on contraception that it had a large part to play in the vocations crisis. During the Q&A, I asked him about that connection. How, besides preventing future priests and nuns coming into existence, does it affect the vocations crisis? His answer was quite profound. He told us that parents who contracept do not give themselves totally to each other in love. That spirit is pervasive in the homes and the children pick up on that unconsciously. They grow up not knowing what a total self gift is like and, because of that, when the time comes to choose the path that they are to take, don’t know how to give of themselves entirely in a religious vocation. They don’t understand giving one’s self entirely to another and so they don’t know how to do so for the Church. Very interesting to consider.

  • http://www.siena.org Sherry Weddell

    Just a historical FYI. The huge number of nuns that we think of as “traditional” are a very recent phenomena – in terms of the Church’s 2,000 year history. Throughout Christian history, priests always outnumbered sisters by a large margin. It all changed in the 19th century.

    In the 19th century, God called forth a new missionary wave of active women religious who transformed the landscape of Catholicism. The small armies of habited sisters in every parish that we think of as exceedingly traditional (ala The Bells of St. Mary’s) are only about 130 years old.

    The determination to create a new kind of Catholic by catechizing all children – which was produced by the crisis of the Reformation – demanded a whole new labor force. It came first in the form of informal groups of devout lay women who lived in community but didn’t take religious vows. This was because the Church had insisted since the late 13th century that women formally recognized as religious had to live in cloisters. But educating millions of children all over the world and paying for the cost of such a staggering new initiative, required that sisters be able to work outside the cloister

    When, in 1749, the Vatican quietly changed its 500 year old insistence that women religious had to be enclosed, the stage was set for a transformation of the Church’s life. The emergency of the French Revolution and the need to resurrect the Church’s life in France in the early 19th century was the catalyst. By the late 19th century, the number of women religious outnumbered priests and male religious for the first time in history and utterly transformed the Catholic landscape.

    In Ireland, for instance, there were only 120 women religious in 1800. If you think of the total number of priests and sisters together as the Catholic “workforce”, sisters only made up 6% of the total at the beginning of the 19th century. By 1851, women religious made up 38% of the combined body of priests/nuns. And by 1901, women religious were 70%. In the US, there were 4 sisters for every priest by 1900.

    In our era, the “workforce for the apostolate” as the Vatican terms it, has changed again dramatically over the past 30 years. Today, the “workforce” according to Vatican reckoning, has not only 174% larger than in 1978, it is also over 70% lay. (vs. 89% priests and religious in 1978).

  • John Penta

    Sherry, interesting stats. However, it’d be nice if you linked to sources?

  • Marty Corcoran

    Reminisce of the days when there was an abundance of nuns, especially in catholic schools as lots of us remember. Times have changed. Women have more opportunities now.

    Nuns as teachers was part of an era when women did not have many career opportunities except teaching. Becoming a nun was a way out of a rough family or typical narrow expectations of those days.
    The sisters in my catholic school were part of the cheap labor that provided great education for many of us adults, but it leaves a phony impression to some that we don’t need to pay teachers reasonable wages now. We can’t recreate the times were becoming an nun was an enticing opportunity, its not anymore at least for most modern western countries. I’m guessing nuns are flourishing in third world countries where it is still a better life than most women can expect.
    Nuns played an important role in educating many baby boomers. Today it costs real money to educate.

  • http://www.siena.org Sherry Weddell


    The sources are multiple: John Allen, the Vatican, CARA, the Catholic Encyclopedia and some really obscure scholarly studies of the history of women’s religious communities, etc. I did the research myself. I was quoting from a blog post I did over at Intentional Disciples.

  • Susan aka IC

    The booming Catholic order Sisters for Life (NY) say in their promotional literature that a huge percentage of their sisters and postulants come from large families. Sorry that I don’t have the lit in front of me, but I do remember being struck by that connection.

  • Sr. Maria

    I highly disagree with the comments that allege religious vocations are only career opportunities and ways out of a lifetime of drugery. I have been the vocation directress of our Community for 10 years, and women join for a relationship, not for a career.
    There are a number of women I have worked with who feel they can’t consider religious life because of all the opportunities out there for them, but with these women I honestly don’t feel their lack of discernment stems from more options, but from a feeling of pressure to be useful and to accomplish something, and not seeing with eyes of faith the “usefulness” of religious life. People today tend to find their worth in what they do, not who they are. This is what escalates the abortion and euthanasia mentalities.
    What I see is the smaller family is definitely a factor. We’re dealing with ideologies here. When people have the mentality that “I only want” one or two children, they are sending a selfish message, one that focuses on what I want rather than being open to what God wants. Please note I’m looking at those who plan for one or two children, not those who are unable to have children.
    Women are taught by society, relatives and other factors that if they don’t do everything men do they are not worth as much. It is a dangerous thing to look at the beautiful mystery of child bearing as something that holds a woman back. Back from what? Is a career of more value than a family? Where are women to find their identity? In the nature God gave them, or in what they can accomplish?
    I’m not saying all women should be barefoot and pregnant; I’m just sharing some mentalities that we need to guard against. There are many big issues that tie together, and we need to work on all of them as a society. When we foster more trust in God, ask Him what He wants of us, give our lives to Him in whatever vocation and live according to His plan, THEN we’ll see improvements in all of the problems of our society.
    And guess what? It’s already starting to happen. Our youth are impressive, and more and more of them are recognizing the emptiness of worldly values. JP II and Benedict XVI are working wonders. Pray! There’s lots of reason for hope!

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    We are requesting a URL to the info, not mere words.

  • http://vocationblog.com Leon Suprenant

    I’m the father of an 18 year-old daughter who happily entered a Catholic religious community last fall. This summer, she and 18 of her classmates will be entering novitiate. There is a rebirth of religious life happening, but it will take time for the numbers to turn around because of the still disproportionate number of much older sisters. I can surely affirm it’s a doctrinal matter–both for those entering religious life as well as for the parents, whose faith and lifestyle have a huge influence on their children.

    What struck me in this post was the closing comment about promoting vocations in a “culture nervous about large families.” Large families have alway been considered a sign of hope and divine blessing. Ours is largely a “culture of death” lacking in supernatural hope.

    More simply put, if the family is without a living faith and doesn’t esteem religious life (or priesthood or even having more kids), then it’s not fertile soil for vocations. That’s why we need a “new evangelization.”

  • Mike

    I’m intrigued by the photos at the top. Why no information about them? Presumably they show the same people at different times in their lives. But why the ordinary clothes? Did they leave their religious life or did they just stop wearing a religious habit? Or what?

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald

    Sister Maria: No one said that it was only about careers. Julia (commenter #3) made the point that, at a time when the ability of women to take up social roles apart from the conventional wife/mother position was limited, joining religious orders was one way that they could do something else. In the early 21st century, when the same constraints on women don’t exist in the same form or to nearly the same degree, women will not be joining religious orders to explore different life paths. Thus, the numbers of female religious will drop, as they have dropped. What’s controversial about that?

    “Women are taught by society, relatives and other factors that if they don’t do everything men do they are not worth as much. It is a dangerous thing to look at the beautiful mystery of child bearing as something that holds a woman back.”

    It _is_ something that holds women back when their social function is reduced to that of the traditional mother and wife pure and simple, with no outside complications or new combinations being acceptable. That’s why, in societies where women are forced to choose between being strictly compliant with traditional gender norms and being a mother and not being compliant with traditional gender norms and not being a mother, large numbers choose the latter option.

  • Mike

    I’ve seen stats that 80 or 90% of Catholics refuse to accept that artificial birth control is a serious sin. If the married ones are living in serious sin, how are their children going to find a religious vocation, if their parents are not living their married vocation?

  • http://www.siena.org Sherry Weddell

    Re the history of women’s active communities, I’ve been slowly and laboriously piecing the history together bit by bit over the past 8 years and I know of no simple on-line source for it.

    One source: The Transforming Power of Nuns, Mary Peckham Magray. The very brief summary from my notes:

    1299: papal bull Periculoso – called for total and complete cloister or religious women and their subjection to a single bishop. Periculoso was later incorporated into the Liber Sextus, a compilation of papal legislation.[2] Many of the specific requirements of Periculoso were often disobeyed in practice, and “Councils and bishops struggled manfully to put into force” its teachings for the next three centuries.[3] The decretal was first confirmed in 1309 by the encyclical Apostolicae sedis of Pope Clement V.[4]

    Three 16th century papal bulls were also promulgated to reinforce the basic principles of Periculoso: Circa pastoralis (1566) and Decori et honestati (1570) of Pope Pius V and Deo sacris (1572) of Pope Gregory XIII.[3] The Council of Trent (1563) in its final session reiterated the commandments of the decretal and added new and stiff sanctions for violators.[5] By the time of the Council, the decretals dictates had largely become synonymous with traditional conceptions of nunhood; for example, the Council referred to enclosure as the “primary obligation for nuns”.[1]

    The creation of tertiary or third orders by Dominicans and Franciscans, took simple, yearly vows, not solemn life-long ones and were not considered “true religious” and considered “laywomen” according to canon law and so could work outside the cloister.

    The Ursulines founded as an active order, were forced in 1612 to take solemn vows and be enclosed (so schools were inside the cloister) Implementation varied from place to place.

    St. Vincent de Paul’s group, the Daughters of Charity, took no solemn vows, wrote no constitutions, wore no particular habit. Sought Episcopal approval from Archbishop of Paris in 1665. Papal approval was given in 1688 but they were not recognized as religious formally. Given same legal status as tertiaries and regarded as “lay”.

    In 1749, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Mary Ward’s group which had been suppressed under Urban VIII) was formally recognized in a papal bull (Quavis Justo of Pope Benedict XIV) as religious. In the mid 18th century, the BVM’s had survived in Munich and the local archbishop tried to assert Episcopal control over them. He asked the Vatican to rule on whether or not the group was a “religious” organization because if it was, he demanded Episcopal jurisdiction.

    The Pope’s ruling gave them permission to remain unenclosed as religious and thereby ended the era of enforced enclosure. (Which had existed for 450 years from 1299 – 1749).

    The crisis of the French Revolution and the need to restart the Church in France and the many challenges of the 19th century – like the new demand for universal literacy and healthcare – provided a perfect opportunity for Catholic women to undertake new apostolic roles.

    Finally, in 1900, Leo XIII, in the apostolic constitution Conditae a Christo, formally recognized as an authentic form of Religious Life non-cloistered apostolic congregations.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Here http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,843279-1,00.html is a January 1967 Time Magazine article that speaks of the growing departure of nuns. This may point to one of the issues that have lead to the current situation.