Lies, Damned Lies, and Sister-tistics–UPDATED

Lies, Damned Lies, and Sister-tistics–UPDATED August 8, 2012


[Mea culpa UPDATE: Although I stand by the substance of this post, I recognize that I was out of line in the cheap shots I took at Fr Jim Martin’s public persona. I have edited those out of this post, and deleted comments that found in my post an occasion of the sin of ad hominem attacks. I still disagree with Fr Martin’s support of the LCWR against the CDF, but making it personal was inexcusable. Please go here for my fuller apology and further thoughts, and help keep me honest as we go forward together.]

Mark Twain’s famous observation (attributed by him to Disraeli, but there’s no certainty about authorship) that there are three methods of twisting truth—lies, damned lies, and statistics—comes to mind whenever folks want to use numbers to whack one another about the head—or, more genially, to advance an agenda. Yesterday’s hallooing, by Fr James Martin and other supporters of the LCWR in its opposition to Vatican oversight, of an America article on US women’s vocation statistics would have Twain (and my freshman research methods professor) chortling. The study presented in the article attempts to refute the notion that LCWR-represented institutes are losing vocations while non-LCWR communities are gaining them. Here’s Fr Martin on the “reality check” the study purports to provide:

Here is a preview of a new study on women religious that shows–contrary to popular opinion, and despite what almost every commentator has said–that “almost equal” numbers of women are entering both more “traditional” and “progressive” orders. This contradicts the received wisdom that orders represented by the LCWR are receiving zero vocations.

Well, no. It does no such thing, actually. The study, which draws on data from the Catholic Directory and from a 2009 joint survey conducted by CARA and the National Religious Vocation Conference, does indicate that for 2009, LCWR communities and those represented by the more traditional Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) had roughly equal numbers of women in three vocational status categories: candidates/postulants, novices, and sisters in temporary vows/commitments. But equal raw numbers don’t mean women are playing “6 of 1, half a dozen of the other” when it comes to the style of religious life to which they are responding. I am by no means accusing Fr Martin or others who read the data his way of being liars, let alone damned liars. It’s more a case of (forgive the Merchant reference, but I’m into my fourth week of watching performances) “Mark you, Bassanio, the  devil can cite scripture to his purpose.”

Percentage wise, the more traditional communities are frankly outdrawing those represented by the LCWR. The CMSWR, according to its website, represents about 100 communities; the LCWR, according to its, more than 15 times that number. If the appeal to vocations were truly equal, LCWR communities would have 15 times the number of sisters in formation. Even if the numbers are viewed in light of the 4-to-1 ratio of LCWR to CMSWR respondents to the study survey, they’re not evidence of equality: LCWR communities should have 4 times the number of women in formation.

The way America and Fr Martin read the study also leaves out other key information. The raw numbers don’t reflect women in formation in monastic orders (approximately 150 in 2009) or in new religious institutes (no numbers provided), both of which represent generally more traditional patterns of religious life than do communities represented by the LCWR.

There are other problems with data, such as a failure to provide information about the age of women in formation. The survey lumps all women in formation into an amorphous group, calling them “the youngest generation of US religious women,” but that youth is a factor of lack of seniority in religious life, not individual age. Are both traditional and progressive religious communities attracting young candidates, who really are the future of religious life? The study also notes that progressive communities have slightly more women in the third category—sisters in temporary vows/commitments—and interprets this to mean progressive communities have a better “stick rate” after the novitiate. This misrepresents, however, the tendency of progressive groups to have many more members in lifelong temporary vows/commitments than do traditional communities.

I—along with many others—made these points last night on Fr Martin’s Facebook page. (And got our knuckles rapped, some to the point of having their comments deleted and being unfriended, by Fr Martin for daring to do it.) To bolster his position, Fr Martin included a link on Facebook to a page at the NRVC website, noting that it contained (emphasis mine) “more myth busters about religious life.” The study, however, only busts the myth that progressive communities are as viable and attractive to women entering religious life today as the traditional communities are.

Myth #3: Conservative/traditional communities are the only communities attracting new members.
Fact: Religious institutes that have a focused mission, who live in community, who have regular prayer and sacramental life, and who wear a habit show a higher proportion of newer members. The study indicates that men and women are also drawn to other types of religious life.
Myth #6: Younger religious are not interested in traditional devotional practices.
Fact: Newer members have ranked highly daily Mass as very important to them.Their prayer style also expresses a strong preference for Liturgy of the Hours, faith-sharing, nonliturgical common prayer, Eucharistic adoration, and common rosary and meditation.

[UPDATE: I misread Fr Martin’s post. He was acknowledging that the NRVC data did not support his initial reading of the data, and indeed does demonstrate a trend toward more traditional forma of religious life. In the heat of, well, being Irish, I fell afoul of the very misreading I accused him of.]

[UPDATE: This paragraph edited to remove sinful snark.] I have defended Fr Martin in the past against charges of being deliberately disingenuous, and I can’t do that anymore. From the beginning of the LCWR-CDF contretemps, Fr Martin has anointed himself the progressive sisters’ champion. His I Support the Sisters Twitter campaign went viral. He promoted the Nuns on the Bus tour. And earlier this week he posted an encomium of outgoing LCWR president Sr Pat Farrell that challenged readers outright to dare to call her a Bad Catholic.

[UPDATE: Also edited to remove snark.] Again, these opinions are all his prerogative. But I wish he’d do a better job of owning up to what he’s standing up for. His support of “the dear sisters” against the Big Bad Boys of Rome is the popular position, and it will not be taken from him. I’d just be happier if he’d admit it is his position, instead of deflecting disagreement by implying that “politicizing” this whole thing is a sin and speaking for Rome is divisive and you can’t criticize the LCWR unless you’ve walked in Sr Farrell’s admittedly well-worn sandals of service.

To practice what I preach, I’ll say I am cheering for the excesses and errors represented by some of the LCWR leadership to be corrected so that religious women both active and contemplative can get about the work and prayer God calls them to. And I believe that sisters who want to do that apart from and in defiance of Rome are not “bad Catholics,” but simply not Catholics at all. That does not mean they are not heroically virtuous servants of God, and cannot continue being such in some other way of life or denomination.

But back to the numbers. There are a couple of areas in which they do not lie—one that should give us all joy, and one that should give us all pause. We can rejoice that women are continuing to answer the call to religious life, in diverse ways and, as the study notes, representing a more diverse ethnic and cultural profile than in earlier times. That’s proof that the Spirit is at work, and we needn’t haggle over whose team has a deeper rookie bench. Our joy might be tempered, however, at the fact that the numbers of vocations, while growing, are still terribly small. Fully half of the LCWR congregations had zero vocations in 2009—so the received wisdom Fr Martin laments is no real exaggeration. Even the more traditional congregations averaged 4 for 2009, so while the percentage weighs in their favor, the raw numbers are still pretty raw.

Maybe we’d best be about what the members of the LCWR claim to be doing at their meeting this week—prayerfully discerning the future of religious life for women. If we can agree to leave aside the skewing of statistics to prove our partisan points—or at the very least admit that’s what we’re doing when we do it—we might get somewhere, and not have to waste all that time unfriending one another.

Because in all of this, there’s really only one damned lie, and that’s that the Church and the world have no need of women strong, courageous, prophetic, and humble enough to consecrate their lives to Christ.

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