The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) will hold its annual meeting this week (August 12-16) in Nashville–and they’ve got some difficult issues to discuss. Michael Lipka, writing for the Pew Research Center, reports that the meeting comes at a time when the LCWR continues to draw scrutiny from the Vatican, while the number of women religious continues its dramatic decline. Lipka explains:
While the church’s specific concerns with the nuns are complex, a few major areas were highlighted in a 2012 Vatican document, which said the LCWR was “silent on the right to life from conception to natural death” and that Roman Catholic views on the family and human sexuality “are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching.” The document also raised concerns about “radical feminist themes” at programs sponsored by the LCWR, and cited addresses at LCWR assemblies that “manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors.”
I wrote about the group in May 2014, when they selected a notoriously dissident nun, Elizabeth Johnson, to receive the LCWR’s highest award. The USCCB Committee on Doctrine had earlier reviewed Sister Johnson’s book and found it to contain “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium.”
At that time Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reprimanded the group, reminding them that the LCWR is “a canonical entity dependent on the Holy See,” and must comply with the Vatican-mandated plans for reform which were issued in April 2014. That plan included a stipulation that the sisters obtain Vatican pre-approval for any speakers at their programs and assemblies–a stipulation which was ignored as the LCWR selected their Outstanding Leader for 2014. After the LCWR leadership was called on the carpet, they issued a statement calling the meeting “a movement toward honest and authentic conversation.” But many folks, watching the continuing manipulation on the part of the LCWR, think that’s the organization’s Newspeak for “We’re going to keep talking until the Vatican sees it our way.”
I told that story in an August 9 follow-up, including comments by sociologist Ann Hendershott, who likened the sisters to “recalcitrant teenagers, taunting their teachers.” Hendershott recognized the selection of Sister Johnson as a slap in the face of Vatican authority, saying:
“The choice of Sr. Johnson as honoree was clearly calculated to demonstrate the LCWR’s contempt for the teaching authority of the bishops…. Honoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson—a theologian who has devoted her career to denouncing as a “tool of patriarchal oppression” the traditional masculine language for God, including God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—was itself a statement of resistance.”
In addition to Vatican scrutiny, nuns also face a big challenge in their dwindling ranks. The total number of nuns, also called religious sisters, in the United States has fallen from roughly 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014 – a 72% drop over those 50 years –according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. While the total number of priests (diocesan and religious) also has fallen over that period, it has done so at a much slower rate (from about 59,000 to 38,000, a 35% drop).
Globally, the number of nuns also is declining, but not nearly as fast as it is in the U.S. In 1970, U.S. nuns represented about 16% of the world’s religious sisters; now, American nuns are about 7% of the global total (just over 700,000), also according to CARA.
There are many possible causes for this decline–not least among them increasing secularism and a consumerist society in which fewer women are willing to sacrifice for the common good.
I think, though, that one factor has to be this: that women are not attracted to a religious community which holds the Church’s leaders in disdain, seeks to change what the Church has constantly taught, and holds onto tired feminist saws which regard priests (and all men) as the enemy.
In contrast to the LCWR with its declining numbers, orders whose leaders belong instead to the conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious are thriving, attracting smiling young women, proudly wearing the habit and seeking to serve Christ in their lives.