About that nuns on the Internet story

Time to catch up with a recent story that got buried in all of the coverage of President Barack Obama’s evolution on the definition of marriage and Mitt Romney’s adventures in Moral Majority territory.

When I started reading this Associated Press report, I found it rather liberating. It was nice to read a story about Catholic nuns that was unrelated to the whole uproar about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Vatican’s attempt to pull that organization’s leaders out of the world of beyond-Jesus experimentation. It was good to read another story about how Catholic religious are coping with recruiting issues in the digital age.

BIDDEFORD, Maine (AP) – When Sister Elaine Lachance devoted herself to a religious life straight out of high school in 1959, her religious order had more than a dozen convents in the U.S. with nearly 260 sisters.

Today, the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec, based in Canada, has just five convents in Maine and Massachusetts with 56 sisters. The youngest is 64 years old, and it’s been more than 20 years since a new member joined.

Rather than leave the future of the convents to prayer and chance, Lachance has turned to the Internet. She’s using social media and blogging to attract women who feel the calling to serve God and their community.

However, as I kept reading the story I had second thoughts.

Things were fine as long as the focus stayed on this one order and its challenges. The problems, for me, began when the AP team tried to broaden the scope of the story to look at the current crisis facing nuns, in general.

The number of nuns and sisters has plunged through the decades as more career opportunities for women opened, parochial schools closed and sisterhood became less visible. … In the U.S., the count has fallen from about 180,000 in 1965 to 55,000 last year, a drop of nearly 70 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In 2009, their median age was 73, with 91 percent of them 60 and older.

GetReligion readers who are active Catholics will immediately spot the key issue and, unfortunately, it does have something to do with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

It appears that the team behind this story does not seem to realize that, in addition to that large body on the progressive side of the spectrum, conservative Catholics have formed their own network for religious orders that are dedicated to more traditional, even contemplative, forms of religious life. That group is called the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which was founded in 1992.

To understand what is happening, the AP really needed to answer some basic questions: Are some orders declining, while others are growing? Are some orders declining at a more rapid rate than others? In particular, I wanted to know if the numbers in that 2009 CARA study can be tweaked to separate the LCWR orders from the CMSWR orders.

In other words, the story assumes that all of these religious orders face the same challenges and the same bleak prospects. That may not be the case.

This does not mean that the hook for this story — the fact that some orders are using the Internet to seek recruits — isn’t invalid. This is a timely subject for a news feature, and the AP report contains some fascinating details:

… (T)here’s been an uptick among women showing an interest in pursuing a religious life, said Patrice Tuohy of the National Religious Vocation Council, a Chicago-based group representing vocation directors for religious organizations. The NRVC launched a website called VocationMatch.com seven years ago that links young people interested in leading religious lives to religious communities. The site gets about 6,000 inquiries a year. The Internet is useful for such questions because it offers instant information and is anonymous, Tuohy said. …

Audra Turnbull, 23, turned to the Internet when she felt the calling in college. Inside the chapel at Quincy University in Quincy, Ill., she pulled out her laptop, Googled “nuns” and found a website called A Nun’s Life. In time, she checked out dozens of other websites, YouTube videos and social media before getting touch with a motherhouse in Monroe, Mich., where she plans to join the ministry.

Those tools are invaluable for “nunnabes” — wannabe nuns — like her, she said.

“It’s hard to find nuns these days to talk to them,” she said. “So a sister being interviewed or giving ministry on YouTube has been huge because you put yourself in that place and visualize what you want to be doing.”

Turnbull expects to become a sister in two to three years. She’s also created a blog of her own called The Awkward Catholic, which takes readers through the process of entering religious life.

Read it all and check out some of the links.

Again, let me stress that this is a valid story on a fascinating topic. The problem is that it omitted one additional fact that readers needed to know in order to understand the current realities — the fact that not all of these orders are in decline. Some are growing. As Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink stated in her now infamous 2007 keynote address (.pdf here) at a national LCWR assembly:

“They are putting on the habit, or continuing to wear the habit with zest. … Some would critique that they are the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed. But they are flourishing. Young adults are finding in these communities a living image of their romantic view of Religious Life. They are entering. And they are staying. …”

In other words, this AP story needed one or two more voices, to capture another point of view on this crisis.

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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.

  • Matt

    “It was nice to read a story about Catholic nuns that was unrelated to the whole uproar about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Vatican’s attempt to pull that organization’s leaders out of the world of beyond-Jesus experimentation.”

    Right, because that was exactly what the whole LCWR controversy was about. That one speech by Laurie Brinker. Good thing those hippie nuns got what was coming to them.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    You’re joking, right? How can you say that (a) after reading some of the serious coverage and, especially, (b) reading the contents of the actual Vatican doc.

    The Brink address was crucial, but only one of a wide variety of issues cited in the report.

  • Matt

    Actually, I was reacting sarcastically to your comment. I felt like you were reducing the entire LCWR controversy to the whole “beyond-Jesus” thing. In reality it seems like a very complex subject that involves the sense that the nuns were being theologically too liberal, were focusing too much on social issues and remaining silent about abortion and homosexuality, were using language about “patriarchy” and criticizing the bishops too much and, yes, supporting health care reform. The fact that it might have been right-wing, American Cardinals behind some of this push also adds another element to the story. I would agree that the story has been poorly covered and focused on a simplistic narrative.

    On another note. I just read Sister Brink’s 2007 address and I think that you are doing her a real disservice. Have you read it? I don’t find anywhere in it where she call for the nuns to move “beyond Jesus” as you claim in your May 7 article. She certainly quotes another sister as saying she has moved beyond Jesus (while keeping Him at the “core” of her being) but I don’t see her at all asking others to follow that path. In fact, the address seems like a call to seek reconciliation with the magisterium and the bishops (albeit a reconciliation that doesn’t give up what she sees as the nun’s rightful place at the table). And while she calls for ordaining women and gay people, that seems like a different matter.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Actually, the bishops praised the sisters for their work on social issues, but asked them to apply the same doctrines to abortion and other life issues. The health care debate — if you look at the timeline — came after the report was already researched and written.

    Yes, I have read the Brink address. I read it and covered it years ago and, in the earlier column, had more room to quote the context. I think the text speaks for itself and many, many have read it.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The ups and downs in numbers of various religious orders is, historically, one of the most important factors that affects the Catholic Church. For news people to ignore this is to miss probably one of the most important aspects of Catholic history and development.

    Religious orders of various types and kinds have risen and fallen in response to historical needs. When learned missionaries were needed to butress the Faith in the Middle Ages the Dominicans rose to meet the challenge. When the Church and society became overly materialistic,the Franciscans rose to emphasize the virtues of evangelical poverty. When the Reformation tore apart Western Christianity, the Jesuits rose as shock troops to defend the papacy. …

    Consequently a modern look at the various religious orders rising and falling in numbers is to get a glimpse today where decay has set in or, on the other hand, where historical needs are giving rise to new orders. …

  • Matt

    So Tmatt, does she or does she not call to move “beyond Jesus”?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Please read the context: http://www.tmatt.net/2009/04/27/painful-options-for-postmodern-nuns/

    She says that beyond-Jesus (essentially Universalism and, in some cases, with elements of neopaganism) is one of the options that some orders have chosen and that others may choose.

    She does not CALL FOR IT. She says that it has happened and is one option for what can happen.

    PS: I looked at the May 7 column again and you have a valid point. In trimming it I did remove context that was needed (and included in the earlier column I had written on that address). I have added two words that fix that. It was an editing mistake as the column was cut to length.

  • Julia

    sisterhood became less visible.

    The main reason was dispensing with recognizable garb.
    Military recruiters know that a sharp uniform out in civilian life is an advertisement for military life.

    I’m not sure that Sr Delores in the “Ghost at a Catholic Girls’ School” posted by Bobby Ross, Jr. would be recognized as a sister outside the context of her school. If she was out shopping or at a museum, nobody would immediately spot her as a sister. Out of sight, out of mind. The orders that are growing wear habits – that’s got to be helping them with recruitment.

  • Julia

    The Deacon’s point about religious orders coming into being for particular needs of the time is very important.

    In fact, Sr. Laurie Brink actually talked about an option of allowing an order to dissolve with dignity. She mentioned others who were floundering because their original purpose did not fit the times and they were unsuccessfully looking for a new purpose.

    When in grade school, I had the idea for a year or so to be a medical missionary and help cure folks of malaria in the Congo. A cousin of mine actually did do that – ran a hospital in Kyoto for Thalidomide babies of poor Korean families. That was before the Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders and any number of other NGOs. Don’t need to go to the convent any more for that kind of life.

    It would be interesting to see if there is a common mission in the orders doing well today.

  • Passing By

    Rather than leave the future of the convents to prayer and chance, Lachance has turned to the Internet

    When you start by contrasting prayer and action, you don’t get very far.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Julia, my guess from what I have observed, would be that religious orders which are doing well are emphasizing spirituality, orthodox Church doctrine and traditions as well as community living (as opposed to the modern “I did it my way” mentality) These orders are “signs of contradiction” or prophecy in our very materialistic, individualistic times. If such be the case this positive trend deserves more (or at least the same amount) of media coverage as the orders that are “deconstructing” and the problems this is causing for the Church.

  • Richard Mounts

    I think an interesting hook for a story is related to what a few commenters have hit near. I’m not sure it’s so much about habit-waring. Adherence to orthodoxy is more likely an attractive aspect. But an experience of mine makes me thnk it’s more.

    In 1997 and 1999 I attended conferences in Rome for professed Augustinians and lay affilliates. One issue that struck me was that cogregations of professed women which were growing, some even with waiting lists, were the congregations with one “occupation.” The communities where the members might choose of multiple “works” were not attracting new members in sufficient numbers to grow. At best their membership numbers were stagnent. For communties which could say, “We do this (one thing)” growth was no problem. Some of the gowing communities wore a habit of the older style, others a modified habit of something like a woman’s business suit, and still others a plain skirt, white blouse, and cross pin.

    For the orders of men, most were struggling to attract members. The one’s (like the Norbertines) who wore habits and had a more stuctured community life were growing.

    I think this supports the call for more nuanced reporting on how religious orders, Catholic and Protestant, are doing in their recruitment.