Reality Check: A fact-based assessment of U.S. religious life

The announcement last April of the results of the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has provoked strong reactions inside and outside the Catholic Church in the United States. In the process, some commentators have made assertions about the demographics of religious life in the United States that are not based in fact. Regrettably, such misinformed statements create dichotomies that not only mask the complexity of religious reality, but are patently false. In an article entitled “The Sisters: Two Views,” published in June on the Ethics and Public Policy Center Web site, for example, George Weigel wrote: “In any case, there can be no denying that the ‘renewal’ of women’s religious life led by the L.C.W.R. and its affiliated orders has utterly failed to attract new vocations. The L.C.W.R. orders are dying, while several religious orders that disaffiliated from the L.C.W.R. are growing.”

We believe that the church and the U.S. public deserve an accurate picture, devoid of distortions, ideology and fatalism, of the complex demographics of religious institutes. These demographics are among the most serious issues facing religious life throughout the universal church. A discussion of them demands the greatest precision and sensitivity for the sake of the future of individual institutes, each of which has been entrusted by the Holy Spirit with a unique charism and mission, and which prayerfully deals with issues of revitalization in their general chapters and other deliberative bodies. Precision and sensitivity are also demanded for the sake of the contributions that institutes of women religious continue to make to the church and society, both nationally and internationally.

The information on religious life we report here comes from U.S. data published in the Official Catholic Directory, statistics for the church worldwide published in the Statistical Yearbook of the Church and a 2009 study of religious institutes in the U.S. conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University and commissioned by the National Religious Vocation Conference.

By the Numbers

As of 2009, there were 729,371 sisters, 54,229 brothers and 135,051 religious priests in the world. These overall figures, however, mask a wide variation: some countries have experienced a decline in recent years, while in other countries the number of religious has increased.

CARA statistics for the United States show 55,944 sisters, 4,606 brothers and 12,629 religious priests in 2010. As commentators note, there has been a decline in the total number of religious in the United States since the peak in 1965. But the difficulty with that commonly cited starting point is that it denotes an exceptional period in U.S. Catholic history (the 1950s and 1960s). Never, before or since, have numbers serving in vowed and ordained ministry been as high. A longer view, say across the entire 20th century, shows just how unusual that 20-year period was. 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.

While the reasons for this unusual growth have been much discussed, the reasons for the drop off after 1965 are more speculative. What we find interesting in the most current research on religious life are those aspects of the generational data that are usually not mentioned. These data, from the recent N.R.V.C./CARA study of recent vocations to religious life, show that simplistic generalizations mask complex realities. We are just beginning to explore some of the key factors about what attracts women to and dissuades them from religious life today.

Behind the Numbers

The N.R.V.C./CARA study surveyed all religious institutes that are based in the United States and received completed responses from about two-thirds of them; these responses, however, account for well over 80 percent of all women and men religious in the United States. Among responding institutes of women religious, L.C.W.R. members are two-thirds of all respondents, institutes belonging to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (C.M.S.W.R.) are 14 percent and 1 percent belong to both groups. The remaining fifth are contemplative monasteries or newly formed religious institutes ineligible for membership in either leadership conference.

1.) 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.)

2.) Another key finding is that the youngest generation of religious women looks increasingly similar to the youngest generation of adults in the church. The sisters and nuns in initial formation today are 61 percent white; 16 percent Latina; 16 percent Asian/Pacific Islander; 6 percent African American and 1 percent other.

3.) 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.

4.) 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. It is this very small group of institutes, however, that is attracting the most media attention. Few are paying attention to the fine work of N.R.V.C. and the religious institutes from both leadership conferences that have initiated new vocation programs, which have galvanized the energy of the institutes and hold the promise of further growth in the near future.

5.) The vast majority of both L.C.W.R. and C.M.S.W.R. institutes do not have large numbers of new entrants. Instead of focusing a media spotlight on a few institutes and generalizing inaccurately from them, it is essential to probe what is happening across the entire spectrum of institutes to understand the full complexity of religious life in the United States today.

Adding it up

The ecology of religious life in the United States, with more than a thousand sisters in formation programs in institutes of women religious, deserves a nonideological analysis. And the diversity of charisms of the hundreds of religious institutes in this country needs to be acknowledged as a profound gift to the church. The new generations of Catholics who have come to religious life in recent years bring all that shaped them—their experience of God, the church, religion and spirituality, family, ethnicity, education, occupational and professional life and more. The analysis of their discernment of a vocation to religious life is anything but simple.

Their choice of a religious institute, like religious life itself, does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, the church backdrop against which these demographics are displayed is complex and often conflicted. An analysis of the multiple environments in which religious life is embedded is essential in order to trace interactions that have contributed to the current state of vocations to religious institutes in this and other nations. Most critical in this regard is Sister Patricia Wittberg’s analysis of data that point to fewer younger U.S. Catholic women practicing their faith (America, 2/20/12). 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? What structural and cultural changes will have to take place to ensure a future for new generations of religious whose cultural mix will look very different from the dominant generations in religious life today? And what is the responsibility of the wider church to the vocation efforts of religious institutes?

Jesuit scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was sociologically astute when he said, “The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason to hope.” We believe that the figures we report here show that there is both hope and challenge in the full complexity of religious life in the United States today.

Robert Killoren
4 years 8 months ago
Where is the notion that being Catholic is all about dogma and orthodoxy? I've always thought that Matthew 25 made it clear what side Jesus was on. 
Maryfran Strumble
4 years 8 months ago

It would have been interesting to see the authors of this article break down the average ages of those entering the two groups, since many of the conservative articles I’ve come across on the LCWR controversy have focused more on the claim that the LCWR communities lack young recruits, not zero recruits. I get the impression that the CMSWR is attracting many more young women, while the LCWR recruits mainly older women who are looking for new opportunities later in life.



Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 7 months ago
I think both are necessary in the Church. I seriously considered religious life as a young adult in my 20s. I was drawn to a community affiliated with CMSWR. Part of the attraction was the charism, and part was that it was a young order. I prayerfully, though to be honest at the time a little sadly, discerned that my calling was marriage. 5 years later I met my husband and we have a lovely marriage. However, my husband does have cancer and has had it since we were engaged, and so I do often think about what might "come next." I would very much be interested in the possibility of giving up everything and entering religious life once our two children are grown and independent (when I will be in probably my mid 50s). With advances in medicine and longer lifespans we have far fewer young widows than in the past, so its not something we think about much, but widowhood was (I think?) a consecrated state in the early church, and I would love to see, in the modern church, more options for women who have lost their husbands to live and devote themselves to God and others in community.
Theresa Noble
4 years 8 months ago
If the CMSWR communities are only 14% of the total religious communities then it is a bit misleading to say that it is striking that the number of total women in formation is about the same between the LCWR and CMSWR. What exactly is striking about that? In addition, I would be interested in seeing those numbers minus the 1% of communities who belong to both. I would also be interesting in seeing those numbers in terms of how many include LCWR communities that wear habits. The same criticism applies to point #3.

It also is key to note like the previous commenter that younger women are joining communities with the habit - more likely CMSWR -  and in the study they noted that they were attracted to communities that showed fidelity to the Church. That is a key point that was conveniently not mentioned in this article. Where the younger women are going is key.

No matter how we massage the numbers, they do not look good for the future of many LCWR communities. Rather than trying to blame the Church for Her pesky teachings, maybe the LCWR communities that are not receiving vocations should look interiorly. Women who are attracted to a vocation are attracted to a life of faithfulness to Christ. That is lived out in fidelity to Jesus Christ present in the Church.
Daniel Kane
4 years 8 months ago
While the absolute number of vocations are nearly equal, LCWR represents 80% of the  orders. CMSWR represents 20%. Stated differently, LCWR is 400% larger than LCWR and attracts the same number of vocations as CMSWR. If there were true parity in the mystery of the vocational call to religious life, LWCR would net 4 times the vocations. What the authors do not do is explain why there is a huge discrepancy between the ratio of LCWR and CMSWR vocations.
4 years 8 months ago
The 1950s and 1960s were certainly an exceptional period in U.S. Catholic history with large numbers entering the priesthood and religious life. However, I would be interested in seeing a two graphs showing number of Catholics per priest and number of Catholics per sister for the 20th century. In 1900, when there were 50,000 sisters, there were a lot fewer Catholics.
TC Mauro
4 years 8 months ago
What a very misleading article, really downright dishonest in the way it misrepresents its conclusions about the numbers of vocations in each organization. LCWR accounts for 67% of the respondents, CMSWR accounts for 14%, and some orders, like the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who have five novices and eight women in temporary vows, are members are both. Were they eliminated from the conclusions drawn here? I expect better than this from America Magazine and from the way it represents things in social media.
Daniel Kane
4 years 8 months ago
Understand that this is a magazine and not a journal so academic, scientific and statistical standards do not apply. This is not a study (in the academic sense) of anything. It is mostly a selected reviw of data couched in the perspective of the author. It would be interesting to view the data in a tabular format but such a table would be contrary to the biases of the author and editors. The unstated conclusion is in part "14% of the religious orders attract over half of the vocations".
4 years 8 months ago
Daniel Kane makes a good point. The numbers, at first blush, are impressive and surprising.  

But on closer examination, shouldn't the LCWR figures be a lot higher?  The fact that they aren't indicates that CMSWR, despite its relative small size, is astonishingly robust.  

What does that say about vocations to the religious life today?  

And what does it say about where young women today are drawn to serve Christ?  
Liam Dudley
4 years 8 months ago
If success at attracting vocations is "almost equal", based on the number of 73 postulants in CMR orders, one would expect 292 postulants in LCWR orders since LCWR is 4 times bigger than CMR. Such is not the case, by far. Taking your figures another way, if LCWR attracts 73 postulants, for things to be "almost equal", CMR need only attract 18 vocations. Again, such is not the case, by far. I think by your own numbers, you demonstrate that the attractiveness of the orders in each group is not at all "equal".
4 years 8 months ago
It doesn't really matter much who is attracting proportionately more or fewer women to their orders. The bottom line is that the total to both the neo-traditional orders and the long-existing orders is about 150. And if patterns hold, that number will drop by half by the time the women reach final vows.  

The key information is given in these points from the report:

About 1/3 of the orders who belong to LCWR do not have even one woman in formation at the present time. The median number of entrants to LCWR institutes is one - meaning that half of the responding orders had no more than one woman in initial formation. This will cause a round of "I told you so" glee in some quarters, as seen in the comments here.

But keep reading.  The median number of entrants to CMSWR orders is four. Given all the hype about how attractive and fast-growing these neo-traditional orders are to young women, one would not expect to learn that more than 1/4 of the CMSWR orders also do not have a single candidate in initital formation, and that with a median of four candidates in initial formation, it means that half of these 'fast-growing' traditional orders have fewer than four candidates.  Once the attrition kicks in in a few years, they may be left with two or fewer. This cannot be described as "robust" growth.

There is hardly a tidal wave of young women seeking a religious vocation in either the LCWR orders OR in the CMSWR orders. 

So, while the CMSWR orders may have proportionately more candidates/institute, they are still very, very few in number and a significant proportion of these orders have no candidates at all.  And given that half  of all the women who still do seek to join a religious order of women are choosing non-CMSWR orders, what will happen when many of the LCWR orders cease to exist, as so many in the church seem to be fervently praying for? 

Be careful what you wish for.

It is obvious that women's religious life is simply not very attractive to more than a tiny handful of women/year in the United States, whether to the orders who embraced changes after Vatican II or the new orders who prefer the religious lifestyle of the era before Vatican II.  Neither seem to be very attractive to very many women, when you come right down to it. There are many reasons why this might be the case but this is not the forum to discuss that. 

Many of the orders represented by LCWR may disappear or consolidate in some way in the coming years. Since they represent 80% of the current population of religious sisters and attract 50% of new candidates, their disappearance will create a big gap.

So the reality is this - it is also very clear that the neo-traditional orders are not attracting anywhere near enough candidates to fill the gap that will be created during the next 20 or so years when the vast majority of those 55,000 sisters now alive go to their eternal reward. 

Theresa Noble
4 years 8 months ago
Here is a response to this article from a young woman in religious formation:
4 years 8 months ago
If we are considering young people today, I can attest that many of them are very disenchanted with the current Church governance and the inequality shown to women of all stripes.  Until the Church opens its patriarchical, hierarchical modes of governance to women who are drawn to equality in leadership within communities and dialogic modes of problem solving, we will have very few women stepping up to join any order under such oppressive church authority. 
David Haschka
4 years 8 months ago
 "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
Judith Birgen
4 years 8 months ago
Nice little piece of work by two my favorite sister sociologists! I would like to point out that if the authors were trying to misrepresent the distribution of women in initial formation, they would not have presented the data in such a way as to make it clear that half of the women in formation are from LCWR communities and half from CMSWR communities. I find their most significant observation to be that the total number of those in formation as compared to the total membership of women's religious congregations will result in a continued diminishment of women religious.

Quite interesting is the observation that the numbers in initial formation come from relatively few congregations on both sides of the divide. I would be interested in knowing if there is some compilation of "best practices" that could assist vocation directors in encouraging women to consider religious life.

I would also be curious if there is some correlation between numbers entering and numbers staying. For example, do congretations with more entrants tend to keep a larger percentage of those entering than those with fewer entrants? Does peer support help women persevere in formation?

Great work, sisters. Keep up the research.
Vincent Gaitley
4 years 8 months ago
What is really astonishing is the number of sisters compared to priests worldwide. It would be interesting to see a matrix displaying the orders, recruits, members, ages, and regional origins of the sisters and the priests.  
Andre Lee
3 years ago
Regarding the claim that the 20-year period between 1950 and 1970 saw an unusual number of vocations, the authors bring up that in 1900 there were 50,000 women religious. But at the time, the Catholic population was a fraction of what it is now, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the total American population. The ratio of women religious to lay people in the Catholic church--a better indicator of what the authors wish to analyze, namely, whether religious life has seen a collapse in recent decades--in fact did drop precipitously in the last century, and in particular, after 1965. To say that we had 50,000 women religious in 1900, but 55,000 now, with the 1950s representing a glut in vocations, ignores the exponential growth of the Catholic population in the United States. Religious communities, especially those in the LCWR, have seen precipitous declines in membership even across a larger time sample, when controlling for overall Catholic population growth in the U.S. The second claim made by the authors--that LCWR and CMSWR post comparable numbers of new vocations, thus negating the argument made that CMSWR is growing, is similarly incorrect. CMSWR make up less than 20 percent of the women religious in the US; LCWR make up nearly 80 percent. The fact that CMSWR communities match LCWR communities in gross number of vocations while constituting a much smaller population of women religious SUPPORTS the notion that CMSWR communities are growing, while LCWR communities are shrinking. This is borne out by the fact that the LCWR membership is older on average, and that the total membership is in fact shrinking, while CMSWR membership is younger, and membership is growing.
Ronnie Floyd
2 years 7 months ago
A reality check to the reality check. Yes, statistics can be flubbed but you need to admit that it is a little dishonest to say: >>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.<< When the fact is that the LCWR represents the vast majority of religious communities 80%, and thus on average, as you admit latter there are more women going into the individual member communities of the CMSWR. Receiving equal numbers of vocations for the next decade LCWR will shrink while CMSWR will grow, and that is without accounting for the fact that as CMSWR grows its exposure in the Church will also grow, multiplying its potential for vocations, all the while LCWRs potential impact decreases. My diocese has no (VISIBLE) religious presence, but we are petitioning Nashville to come up here, to a new vineyard untapped for vocations by and large. This fact is clearly seen in a little factoid you omitted, namely the average age of a LCWR member compared with a CMSWR. LCWR members on average are 73 and aging... CMSWR is 35...AND FALLING! Also, LCWR, represents the established communities whose "lack" of vocations is rarely a result of the lack of resources or space, in contrast some CMSWR communities are brand new and unable to accommodate new members because their houses are full. This was my experience at a little Carmel, sold off by its former order so that its members could retire to a nursing home, and bought by a Traditional group of Carmelites who after restoring the chapel and replacing the grill is now at or near capacity and looking for a new home and funds to expand. I know of at least two other CMSWR orders that are experiencing this same problem, can you think of one LCWR group? (*With the exception of the communities who are members of both groups, a fact not considered.) So...the experiential reality is that by and large Weigel's description is correct, corresponding with reality on the ground!
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 7 months ago
Many (not all, but many) of the CMSWR communities are also newer communities that weren't around when the older sisters were entering religious life, so it is not surprising that their average age is young. Also, many CMSWR communities do not accept women older than 30, while many LCWR communities do. The sisters writing the article did mention that CMSWR communities were getting a mean of more sisters per community than LCWR communities, so they weren't masking anything. But I think their larger point was that, of the Catholic women who choose religious life, about half choose LCWR communities and the other half choose CMSWR communities. So among the women choosing religious life themselves, there is no "conservative" or "liberal" wave. The picture is more complicated. Women choose communities because of that community's spirit and charism, because of the witness of particular sisters - for spiritual reasons, for love of God in that vocation. Not to be part of a political wave making a statement. I have worked with sisters from communities with both affiliations, and I have incredible respect for all of them. It is a beautiful vocation.
Michael Barberi
2 years 7 months ago
After all the debated statistics, it is not clear that the number of women candidates entering religious life, regardless of whether they enter LCWR or CMSWR institutes, are offsetting expected attrition (deaths) and (most importantly) overall need (women religious as percent of the Catholic population). With the LCWR accounting for 80% of all women religious, it will take many decades and a profound increase in the number of women candidates entering CMSWR institutes (representing 20% of women religious) to reverse the current distribution of women religious. I pray and hope for more women to enter religious life in the generations to come.

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