As LCWR Plans Its Big Meeting, the Number of Nuns Continues to Decline

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.”

Michael Lipka also noted the LCWR’s dwindling numbers, citing reports from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA):Nuns

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.

Sisters of MaryIn 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.

Sisters of Mary 2The Nashville Dominicans and the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist struggle to house all of their new postulants.

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  • Elijah fan

    Yea….Dominican young nuns…wonderful smiles. The kind face of a young Dominican nun with her first graders in the playground brought me back to God as a teenager. Her smile did that…not apologetics…her smile. She ended a spiritual questioning period with her joy at being with little ones.

    • fredx2

      One thing I have noticed is that these more conservative nuns are smiling all the time. They radiate a joy that is, well, supernatural. Everytime I see them, they seem to be having fun with life.
      Contrast this with the rather sour LCWR Types, who seem to be mad at the fact they belong to the Catholic church.

    • That was a nice comment. God bless that Dominican Nun and you.

  • richard_fossey

    This phrase, from Kathy’s post, says it all:

    “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.”

    I am familiar with a relatively young order of Franciscan sisters (founded in the 1970s) that has had no trouble attracting vocations. But these sisters wear the habit, they are engaged in working for social justice, and they are absolutely faithful to Church teaching–particularly the Church’s teaching on the dignity of life.
    The LCWR is helping to destroy Catholic vocations. Personally, I don’t think the Vatican has been firm enough with this group of renegades.

  • fredx2

    The most troubling aspect of the LCWR is their…dishonesty. They do things that they know are against church teaching,and then when called on it, pretend they have no idea what anyone is talking about.

    They pretend that they are “just exploring new ideas” when in fact they know that they are openly advocating a course that will lead others away from Catholicism. When called on it, they constantly play the “Oh, I am just a poor woman and the boys are picking on me” card. So weak, so dishonest.

    They keep telling the media they represent 80% of all nuns, but in fact, they represent only their small group of around 1500 nuns or so. Do we believe that the CEO’s of Ford and Chrysler represent all their workers and can be presumed to speak for them? No, and we have no reason to believe the LCWR represents anyone but themselves.

    They keep telling the media that they spend all day helping the poor, but in fact the materials that the organization puts out have to do with the career advancement of their members, how to be a leader of a large organization, etc. Almost none of it has to do with the poor. They are intensely interested in being feminist theologians, though. And fighting for power in the church. That is the one subject they love. And by feminist theologians, I mean the type that subordinates the bible to whatever political ideas they have. Politics is number one for these ladies.

    Time they allowed a new generation of leaders into the LCWR, the type that are Catholic, want to be Catholic, and don’t think that their 60’s style activism is the most important thing.

  • captcrisis

    Nuns are about service. Bishops are about power (and these days they have very little moral authority). Not much doubt as to where Jesus would come down on this issue. Patheos’s “Catholic Channel” would be strange territory to Him.

    I recommend a recent post on the “Young Adult Catholics” website, a place which actually expresses the majority opinion of young Catholics. The post is called, “On Staying” . . . “in a church that, as often as not, is a stumbling block for justice-seekers.” These young Catholics had been invited to speak before a group of nuns:

    “One of my fellow panelists said she stayed because teachings about birth control, sexuality, and women are not the whole story. There is still Jesus, the sacraments, the saints, and our rich tradition of social thought, not to mention the prophetic witness of vowed religious communities like the one that invited us.”

    • kathyschiffer

      Bishops are about service, too. Sorry, I can’t let you slip in that nonsequitur on this thread without challenge.

      You think your fellow panelist, the cafeteria Catholic who rejects the Church teachings on birth control and sexuality (and who misunderstands Church teachings on women), is more qualified than are Christ’s chosen vicars to tell you about Catholicism? [head shaking]

      • captcrisis

        “Christ’s chosen vicars”? Are the bishops always right? Was the Inquisition right? The condemnation of Jews? The prohibition against the earth revolving around the sun? You represent an extreme version of Catholicism. And your blog is misnamed. There are no “seasons of grace” here. For true grace, look to the sisters, who live lives of self-denial and spend their daily hours in service. You certainly should NOT look to bishops, who spend no time in direct service, who arrogate to themselves all the power in the Church, who coddle pedophiles (or used to, until outsiders starting suing and depleting their bank accounts), who don’t listen to women, and who are out of touch with the overwhelming majority of Catholics.

        Look around you next Sunday. Hardly anyone in the pews agrees with you. 98% do not follow Humanae Vitae. A considerable majority accepts women priests, and gay marriage. All the more so if the Catholics are young. And birth control. This is your Church’s future. Whose Church is this anyway?

        • kathyschiffer

          It’s Christ’s church.

          • captcrisis

            We’re agreed on that. Who knows, in 30 years (say), what the situation will be? Sometimes I’d love to get into a time machine and go there. But usually I tell myself, it’s not for us to know.

    • oregon nurse

      Feminist nuns are ALL about power, about wresting it from the clergy. So that kind of shoots down your perjorative. Some are willing to deny God the FATHER and God the SON and the all male priesthood because they offend their gender politics and that is their idol.

      • captcrisis

        Group A has all the power. Group B has none. Group A is now bullying Group B. And you say that Group B is all about power. Odd.

        • Catholic Knight

          The point was not that the nuns have or do not have power. It is that the feminist nuns desire power at the cost of what the Church teaches. They would rather have the gates of hell overcome the Church than to recognize basic truths that cannot be changed.

          • Old_Abuelo

            “Basic truth” is love and justice. Discrimination against women is neither. To say that Jesus is behind this discrimination is simple idolatry, taking the ideas of men and ascribing them to God.

            Love and justice remain. What needs changing are teachings not rooted in love and justice. Just because a teaching (e.g. excluding women from being priests) has been there for two thousand years does not excuse or justify injustice.

            The real problem is for the institutional Church to find a way to distinguish between teachings that contradict love and justice — and which should be changed — and those that flow from love and justice. How can the Holy Spirit have allowed the Church to hold unloving and unjust teachings? Adults figure these things out; children need to be told. Maybe the Holy Spirit is treating the Magisterium as an adult.

            The Magisterium should follow the Holy Spirit’s example and treat members and communities of the Church as adults.
            The nuns take joy in the Gospel, and serve the poor and the outcast. They are the salt of the earth. They live the “basic truths” of love and justice.

  • My prayers that we can get more women into religious life. We have lost a lot by this decline. I remember being taught by nuns in catachism. Today my church has one nun attached to us and she’s around 80 years old. We are sending our child to Catholic School and my wife, who is not Catholic, had hoped the nuns would straighten him ouot…lol. I had to tell her that there aren’t any at the school. My prayers for LCWR as well. I disagree with them, but I hope they can modify their views. I wish them well.

    • oregon nurse

      I’d like to see more communities of nuns organizing around teaching in Catholic schools, teaching the authentic faith. That would be like the leaven Jesus speaks of in Matthew 13.

      • Yes it would. May God answer our prayers.

  • The Pants Suit Nuns are disappearing even faster than their Bishop, George Soros, is from reality !!!