More Nuns for Britain, But Fewer for the U.S.

More Nuns for Britain, But Fewer for the U.S. April 22, 2015

Backpacking nuns attending the Beatification of Pope John Paul II in May 2011 (Photo:  Kathy Schiffer)
Backpacking nuns attending the Beatification of Pope John Paul II in May 2011 (Photo: Kathy Schiffer)

Why are more women attracted to religious life in Britain, while the number of new vocations continues to decline here in the United States? According to new statistics just released in the United Kingdom, the number of vocations to women’s religious orders in Britain has tripled over what it was only five years ago.  And in 2004, there were only seven women who entered British convents, taking the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.


According to The Guardian:

Figures released on Thursday show that the number of women taking holy vows has reached a 25-year high, with 45 women doing so last year. Church officials claim the increase suggested there was a “gap in the market for meaning in our culture” that the religious life offered. In 2004, only seven women opted to become nuns, but this has risen steadily over the past decade, the Catholic church said, to 15 in 2009 and 45 in 2014. According to church figures, 14 of those who entered convents this year were aged 30 or under.

This year’s British novices, according to the report, are frequently women who have lived in the world and who find themselves in their late 20s, 30s or 40s making a conscious and hard choice to enter religious life.  Often, the women are most attracted to religious orders which have as their charism service to the poor. The UK’s Daily Express quotes Sister Cathy Jones, religious life vocations promoter at the National Office for Vocation, who explains:

“It’s significant that in recent years many religious congregations have grown in confidence in proposing their way of life. “They have offered taster weekends and participated in youth festivals, enabling potential ‘discerners’ to easily encounter religious and take the first steps to find out more about religious life. “Another key reason for this increase is the growth of a culture of vocation in the church.  “Young Catholics are asking themselves ‘What is God’s plan for my life?’  There has been a nine-fold increase in the number of active religious sisters in apostolic orders and a fourfold increase in the number of enclosed sisters in cloistered convents in England and Wales.”

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Meanwhile, here in the United States the number of women religious continues to decline dramatically.  A few orders–such as the Nashville Dominicans and the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist–show dramatic growth; but this doesn’t make up for the decline among older, larger and more liberal orders.


According to CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, women religious in the U.S. declined in the four years from 2010 to 2014 by more than 13 percent.  In 2010, there were 57,544 sisters in America; by 2014, that number had fallen to only 49,883. And the decline is even more dramatic when one looks back and compares the present day vocations crisis to the boom days of the 1960s–as in 1965, when there were nearly 180,000 American nuns. Certainly, in part, the decrease reflects the aging population of women who entered the convent in the 1960s or ’70s or even earlier, and who are dying or entering their senior years as retired religious. And increased secularization within the Church and the wider culture is yet another reason.


Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, writing in the Review of Religious Research in 2000, cite several factors, among them that secular social changes have reduced the attractiveness of the role of nun as a career option for young Catholic women.  Stark and Finke also cite the radical revisions in religious roles adopted by the Second Vatican Council.


But there is so much work to be done–so many souls who need education and health care and social services.  What can we do to stem the tide, to reverse the course and encourage more young women to pursue religious life? For starters, let us pray.

Father you call each one of us by name and ask us to follow you.

Bless your church by raising up dedicated and generous leaders from our families and friends who will serve your people as Sisters, Priests, Brothers, Deacons, and Lay Ministers.

Inspire us as we grow to know you, and open our hearts to hear your call.

We ask this in Jesus name



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