Vocations to Women’s Religious Orders

Vocations to Women’s Religious Orders August 7, 2012

A very interesting article and commentary has just appeared at America Magazine and I want to begin by thanking them for keeping me from making a fool of myself.  For a while I have been thinking about writing about the LCWR crisis, and my mind kept circling around the “fact” that orders associated with the LCWR had a dearth of vocations, whereas communities associated with the CMSWR were “overflowing” with new vocations.    Thankfully, I was never able to decide what this fact meant.

And this was a very good thing:  the facts, it seems are wrong.  In an article posted today at America,  Mary Johnson and Patricia Wittberg look at the actual vocation data for women’s religious orders in the US.   Their key conclusion is that neither the LCWR orders nor CMSWR orders are overwhelmed with vocations and that internally they are both showing a great deal of variation.  Some of their data:

One of the most striking findings regarding new entrants is that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences of women religious in the U.S. in recent years. As of 2009, L.C.W.R. institutes reported 73 candidates/postulants, 117 novices and 317 sisters in temporary vows/commitment. C.M.S.W.R. institutes reported 73 candidates/postulants, 158 novices and 304 sisters in temporary vows/commitment. (There are 150 nuns in formation in U.S. monasteries.)

A sizable proportion of L.C.W.R. and C.M.S.W.R. institutes have no one in formation at the present time (32 percent and 26 percent respectively). This, of course, does not preclude these institutes having new membership in the future.

The median number of entrants to L.C.W.R. institutes is one, which means that half of the responding L.C.W.R. institutes had no more than one woman in initial formation in 2009. The corresponding median number of entrants for C.M.S.W.R. institutes is four, which means that half of C.M.S.W.R. institutes had four or fewer in initial formation in 2009. Since there are far fewer C.M.S.W.R. member institutes than L.C.W.R. institutes, the key finding here is that only a very small number of institutes are attracting more than a handful of entrants.

The authors frame the vocations crisis in a very different fashion:  the second author has presented evidence that fewer young Catholic women are practicing their faith.    This, they feel, lies at the heart of the question of vocations to all religious communities:

Since a significant number of young adult Catholic women have fallen away from religious practice, religious institutes have the challenge of trying to recruit women who are also struggling with their deep ambivalence about the church. This is an issue that belongs to the entire church, not just to religious institutes. Given the tension regarding the church and young women, attention must be given to those places that hold the promise of new life. To that end, questions need to be posed: What will religious institutes have to do in order to build and sustain more multicultural communities and institutes that look like the youth and young adults of the church in this country?

Fr. James Martin provides thoughtful commentary on this new article; in particular, he points out how widespread the false assumptions about vocations have been in the recent discussion about the LCWR.

Having been spared embarrassment, I am still at a loss as to what to say about the LCWR crisis.  But in light of the final comment, I am drawn back to a post I made earlier:  by the decline in vocations and religious practice, what are women trying to say to the Church?  Women’s ordination is clearly a sore spot:  I know more than a few women who  accept it and generally don’t talk about it (“religious submission of the will”) but are still find the arguments for the ban unconvincing.  But this is about more than women’s ordination, I think, and I don’t want this discussion to get bogged down on this one question.  I am more concerned by the broader issues:  what is being said?

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  • Smith

    Interesting article. I wish the study showed a better demographic make-up between the two groups of sisters – particularly the age of postulants/novices and so on. You were spared embarrassment, let me risk some of my own. I assume the LCWR attracts far older demographics than the CMSWR, not that there is anything inherently wrong with that. What does it all mean? Not sure, I would hazard to say that the CMSWR will become a much more prominent part of who the sisters are in this country, but this is all guess work.

    I think women’s ordination ultimately has little to do with it. Any attempt to make it related in any general sense is forcing it a bit much, but certainly there are specific cases where a woman might be sending a “message” (kinda like the tree falling in the forest sort of message). The religious life and the priestly life are linked, but are two separate vocations. Part of the decline is simply due to the numbers having be so unusually high, they were bound to decline. Couple that with much of the cultural changes (sexual revolution, loss of Catholic identity, even community?) and theological changes over the last forty years it isn’t surprising far fewer women and men choose to live the religious life. By theological changes I think in terms of an increased individualism among Catholics (sometimes good, many times bad). Why live in a religious community? Can’t we be just perfectly holy and happy as a married person? I just don’t think the Church has done an adequate job explaining to the laity why the religious life is a valuable option.

    • Smith writes, “By theological changes I think in terms of an increased individualism among Catholics (sometimes good, many times bad). Why live in a religious community? Can’t we be just perfectly holy and happy as a married person?”

      I think that’s a good point. There has been a blurring of lines between differing vocations in the Church since V2. If we’re all the same then why make lifelong, binding, restrictive commitments rather than leaving all our options open?

  • Kurt

    The vocations to women’s monastic communities is encouraging. The monastic presence in the Church (both male and female) is so very important.

    Vowed women in the active apostolate is a fairly recent movement in the Church, mostly starting with the French Revolution. We may want to consider that it is something that served the Church extremely well from that time until now but accept that its historical era might now be largely over. Movements in the Church come and go, and this might be the time it substantially recedes, at least in this part of the Christian world.

    Of course, many new forms of service to the Church have arisen for women since the Council. Pastoral assistants (overwhelmingly women), commissioned missionaries, catechists, women without vows who minister in Catholics schools, hospitals, and social service organizations, young women living in Catholic intentional communities (a new concept for me and a surprise that there are several in a stone’s throw from my home) and (and I mean this seriously) the apostolate of the deacon’s wife. Of course we also have a handful of laywomen serving as diocesan chancellors as well, unheard of a short time ago.

    Add up the American laywomen in these apostolates and it challenges the assertion that women are not responding to the Church. We just need to see it differently.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      All valid points, but it does need to be balanced against the overall decline in religious participation by younger Catholic women, as discussed in the link I provided.

  • Peter John

    “As of 2009, L.C.W.R. institutes reported 73 candidates/postulants, 117 novices and 317 sisters in temporary vows/commitment. C.M.S.W.R. institutes reported 73 candidates/postulants, 158 novices and 304 sisters in temporary vows/commitment. (There are 150 nuns in formation in U.S. monasteries.)”

    This excerpt makes it sound like they are attracting about the same number of vocations. But isn’t the LCWR a much, much larger group than the CMSWR? What are the number of vocations per the total size of each group? This would still mean that the new vocations to the LCWR won’t necessarily decelerate its decline and could indicate that the CMSWR is growing rapidly even though the overall numbers are about the same. Right? Also, there are some relatively orthodox orders in the LCWR, so most of those vocations in the LCWR still could be going to the more traditional groups within the LCWR. So I don’t really think that particular article proves a whole lot with how the numbers are being presented.

    • Thales

      I had the exact same query as Peter. From the article, the LCWR is 2/3 of all religious institutes (or 67%), while the CMSWR is only 14% (1% belong in both groups, and the rest are in neither group).

      If my calculations are correct, that means there is 4 1/2 times more LCWR groups than CMSWR groups and that there are 4 1/2 times more candidates in CMSWR groups than in LCWR groups, relative to the number of groups.

  • Melody

    I am glad to read that someone has actually done some statistics on this subject. I have been reading the “multitude of young, happy women entering the habit-wearing orders with the traditional lifestyles; v.s. the dying remnants of the orders who took Vatican II too seriously” meme for awhile now, and I have long suspected that there was more to it than the too-facile analysis which has been going around. For one thing, I find it insulting to both groups. There is a “Stepford nun” vibe to the description of the sweet young obedient sisters who are supposedly swelling the ranks of the vibrant new orders. A disclaimer: I have never known a nun who was a Stepford type; either lately or back in the olden days when I was growing up. The CMWSR may eventually prove to be the dominant organization; but people are going to get a surprise. Those women are also quite capable of independent thought, and the Spirit may be leading some of those orders down roads yet untraveled.
    Regarding your question, “…what are women trying to say to the Church?” I think some of them are saying that they feel marginalized, that their voices are not listened to, that the Church views them as a problem rather than a resource. I’m not saying that this is an accurate perception; but it is going to have to be addressed in a serious and thoughtful way in order to stop the decline of young women practicing their faith.

  • Chris Sullivan

    This article seems to put its finger on one important root issue:

    In the mid-1990s, surveys began to indicate that, while older Catholic women in the United States were indeed more religious than Catholic men of their age, the Catholic women of Generation X (born between 1962 and 1980) barely equaled their male counterparts in regular Mass attendance and were significantly more likely than the men to profess heterodox opinions on women’s ordination, on the sinfulness of homosexual acts and premarital sex and on whether one could be a good Catholic without going to Mass.

    More recent data (2002-8) from the annual General Social Survey indicate that the reduced religiosity of American Catholic women extends to the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1995), as well. Millennial Catholic women are even more disaffected than Gen X women are. This is evident when they are compared with Catholic men in the same age ranges. Both genders of millennial and Gen X Catholics are much less devout and much less orthodox than their elders, and many practice their religion infrequently if at all. But the decline is steeper among women. Millennial Catholic women are slightly more likely than Catholic men their age to say that they never attend Mass (the first generation of American Catholic women for whom this is so), and the women are significantly more likely to hold heterodox positions on whether the pope is infallible and whether homosexual activity is always wrong. None of the millennial Catholic women in the survey expressed complete confidence in churches and religious organizations.

    A similar decline has not occurred among young Protestant women. According to the General Social Surveys, millennial Protestant females remain slightly more likely than their male counterparts to attend religious services weekly and less likely to say that they never attend. These women are significantly more likely than the men of their generation—and even more likely than older Protestant women—to say that they have a great deal of confidence in organized religion.


    It proposes a helpful response:

    Women could be ordained as deaconesses and, with the appropriate change to canon law, could even be appointed cardinals—ideas that have been discussed for decades.

    God Bless

    • Smith

      I see no evidence, hardly even a logical connection that women of these generations even care about the Church opening up to deaconesses or having female cardinals. These are not the root of their spiritual apathy, nor is it going to be the solution. To think otherwise is missing the point.

      • dominic1955

        Same here. Outside of the dizzying heights of the celluloid tower, I don’t think anyone cares about deaconesses or woman cardinals. If you ask someone in a loaded fashion, they might say they want them but have no idea what they are asking for.

        Spiritual apathy is right. We are not going to fix the problem by giving into minority pressure groups and marring the witness of the Church by its ancient tradition.

  • Paul Connors

    The statistics presented in the America article fail to give a full picture of the comparison of LCWR with CMSWR.

    Although it is true that at the current time the LCWR is attracting about the same absolute number of new entrants as the CMSWR, that has to be balanced with the fact that the LCWR currently has about five times as many nuns.

    That means that the CMSWR is growing much faster than the LCWR — nun for nun they are growing about five times faster.

    The LCWR also has significant problems with its age distribution. From the CARA report: “A little more than half of the candidates in CMSWR institutes, compared to about one in six candidates in LCWR institutes, are under age 30. In LCWR institutes, more than half are age 40 and older, compared to one in seven in CMSWR institutes.”

    James Martin S.J.: “In 1900, the United States had almost 50,000 sisters. According to the Official Catholic Directory, the number of sisters peaked at 181,421 in 1965. This was an astounding increase of 265 percent in just 65 years.”

    But why is that “outstanding”? The number of sisters proportionally followed the increase in the USA Catholic population over that same time period, which itself followed the general increase in US population, in a very rapidly growing country.

    James Martin S.J.:[In an attempt to compare LCWR and CMSWR] “To take a homey example, imagine a town with 80 Toyota dealerships and 20 Honda dealerships, where 300 people buy Toyotas and 300 buy Hondas. The conclusion would be that Toyotas and Hondas are equally popular, not that Toyota needs to go out of business.”

    Nope. In the real world, a business would very quickly surmise that, all things being equal, Hondas are in fact appealing to a larger fraction of the general population, and would strongly suspect that even more Hondas would be sold if the number of Honda dealerships were increased. (Because, yet again, the fact that two competing items may sell the same absolute number at a particular point in time does nothing to show whether the underlying situation isn’t going to change rapidly in time.)

    • Smith

      I missed those details about age, thanks.

  • dominic1955

    In the circles I’ve run in, I’ve seen plenty of women that were interested in the religious life. Some stayed, some discerned out. All of them, probably needless to say, were very much “think with the Church” Catholics. It is not a surprise that one who actively tries to cooperate with the graces bestowed by God in a strong spiritual life are the ones who can tune out the noise of the world to hear the Holy Spirit invite them to give the religious life a chance. Is it any surprise that our young people (women and men), being inundated with the cares of the world, do not consider any sort of relgious vocation and rarely take marriage seriously as a vocation? Why would people want to do something radically Catholic when they’ve imbibed the ways of the world and are basically Catholic in name only? To me, its not a surprise. The last thing we need to do is go chasing the will-o-the-wisp of “authenticity” or whatever the buzzword is today to try to get these people back. The Church looks incredibly lame when it tries to be self-consciously relevant. Its like an old grandma trying to dress like her 18 year old granddaughter. The older woman should have years, wisdom, knowledge, and respectability the moral authority of which is lost if its thrown away to try to chase the mostly dubious fads of a younger and usually much less wise generation.

    As to the LCWR and CMSWR, those are the organizations of the superiors, they aren’t necessarily representatives of the whole orders. I also know orders or houses of orders of religious who have their superiors as members of the LCWR yet are not anywhere near tothe same astral plane as Barbara Marx Hubbard. I can see why these kinds of houses still can attract vocations-they are still living their vocations regardless of their leadership associations.

    However, I can also see why certain orders who have gone completely sideways are dying. Who wants to give up their lives to live what someone thought was faddishly relevant 40+ years ago and which is pretty much irrelevant today? The religious life will always be with us, especially the contemplative/monastic life but it will only survive in its traditional form. Some individual houses and orders will die out, but the life never will. Some of the active orders will likely completely die out, having outlived the usefulness of their sometimes nitch existence. Some will be replaced by newer forms of consecrated life that have a more intentionally Catholic ethos but no longer adopt the older active ways nor the rejection of those ways that came about in the ’60s.

  • Commoner

    It seems to me that most average people make their life choices based on practicality and what seems most viable to them in the longrun. As a young (ish? 40s–seems much younger than it used to) mother of six, I can understand why women in previous generations who did not perceive motherhood as being their “thing” might have found the convent a very viable choice. Especially in eras when being a single woman was not at all a respectable (or even practical–how do you support yourself?) choice.

    I don’t mean to downplay changes in spirituality because these are definitely important and play a role. However, I suspect that much of what has happened is simply that religious life does not make nearly as attractive a career option to both men and women as it once did. We live in a relatively wealthy society and have many choices about how we are going to support ourselves. Women can now choose just about any career they want, support themselves quite nicely, and choose whether or not to have children and just how many of them to have.

    Back in the days before “mutual submission and subjection” a la JPII was all the rage and before NFP became not only something to be used under dire circumstances but the next best thing since sliced bread, and “responsible parenting” is now a Catholic buzzword, the choices facing women were much starker. Let’s see……….I can get married, subject myself to a man in every way, either bear as many children as I can biologically (with a fairly high chance of dying in the process) or live a sexless existence (which generally equals unpleasant married conditions), and have no educational or career options OR I can join a convent, get some education, and actually have something kind of like a career, have no children of my own, and and perhaps even move up the ranks into a managerial kind of position. Moreover, the habit would (hopefully) protect me from much of the sexual harrassment that I would otherwise be subjected to working as a nurse, teacher, social aid worker, etc, in that era.

    I have no idea how many true and sincere callings to the priesthood and convent there were back then compared to today, but I suspect that the numbers of people entering both the priesthood and convents over the centuries reflect much less upon true vocations and much more upon practical life considerations and career choices. I certainly know that as a mother in those eras, if I had a daughter not at all inclined to have children of her own and interested in getting some education and working, being a nun might very well be a choice I would hope for her to make—-whether or not I thought there was some sort of real “vocation” to it in the sense of a calling from God. Nowadays, I would only want one of my daughters to consider the convent if she truly felt called. We have that luxury because we have many more life choices today.

    (I also feel convinced that part of the reason a lot of people are so unhappy nowadays is precisely because we have so many choices, but that is another subject altogether!)

  • Pinky

    I’m sure that vocations aren’t spread out evenly among the member communities. The CMSWR includes the Daughters of St. Paul, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the Missionaries of Charity. I don’t know the numbers, but I’d bet that those three groups are doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the total number of new sisters. (Does anyone know the breakdown by community?)

    I think it’s always been true in the history of the Church that some groups boom while most others stay level or become extinct.

  • Mack

    I don’t think the mere numbers can lead to a valid conclusion. For one thing, does mere membership in the LCWR mean that a congregation embraces the more radical ideology of some in that group? (as represented by their recent keynote speaker, Barbara Marx Hubbard, a “futurist” who is of the New Age mentality)? Using the 80/20 rule, probably about 20% of the congregations in the LCWR have 80% of the newer members. Of those congregations, who are they and what type of formation do they offer? If evidence can show they offer a thorough New Age spirituality a la Hubbard, then one might be able to draw the conclusion of the America article.
    But if, as I think more likely, they still believe in the Gospel, in Jesus Christ, and offer a formation based more on Catholic theology and spirituality, what does they say? That despite lifestyle differences (habit or place of residence, etc.) the Gospel ideal of the religious life as the following of Christ is still what draws women to religious life.
    The mere numbers don’t give any of the important data on which to base a valid conclusion. So I think the America article, while interesting, can’t be the basis for saying that the more radical agenda of the leadership of the LCWR is just as effective in drawing vocations as the more traditional approach.

    • Kurt

      Mack —

      You are totally right that having a particular person as a conference speaker does not offer any real evidence yet alone proof that each attendee or that each member organization of the conference, or even the conference itself holds the views of this speaker.

      That is the whole problem with the accusations against these good sisters. These are McCarthyistic style accusations against them. I expect next we will see them accused of an updated version of being “premature anti-fascists”.