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James Martin, S.J.August 07, 2012

Here is a preview of a interesting new study on women religious sponsored by two prestigious Catholic organizations that shows--contrary to popular opinion, and despite what a great many commentator have said--that "almost equal" numbers of women are entering both more "traditional" and "progressive" religious orders.  The article, just posted online at America, is called, "Reality Check."

This contradicts the received wisdom that those religious orders represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) are receiving absolutely no new vocations, and that those who are members of the Congregation of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) are being flooded with applicants.  This trope is repeated frequently by many commentators, even those favorably disposed to the LCWR.  The authors of the study, however, write in one of their most interesting conclusions: "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.)"

But popular opinion certainly would argue otherwise.  George Weigel, for example, in an article in First Things called "Two Sisters, Two Views," opined, “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.”  But "utter failure" is inaccurate, as the study shows.

Many other observers pass on the received wisdom that orders represented by the LCWR are receiving no vocations whatsoever.  The supposed absence of any vocations is sometimes used not only as a kind of “proof” that these orders should be allowed to die, but also as a reason for the Vatican's investigation of women's religious life.  The logic is sometimes expressed as follows: If you were living your lives faithfully, then your way of life will be attractive to other women; but since you are not attractive to other women, then you are not living your lives faithfully.  Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist, made a similar point in an article entitled, "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?"  in which he wrote: "Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. By contrast, the more vibrant sisters’ groups, leading semi-cloistered lives, wearing full habits, etc., are seen to be the wave of the future."

The findings above are part of a much larger study on women's religious orders sponsored by the National Religious Vocation Conference and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.  The authors are Mary Johnson, SND de N., a professor of sociology and religious studies at Emmanuel College in Boston, Mass., and Patricia Wittberg, S.C., a professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. 

Let's be clear: overall the vocational news is not good. No women’s religious orders—of any stripe—are receiving more than a handful of vocations, as the new study shows.  And to be a little more precise, it should also be noted that the LCWR represents a greater number of orders (80% versus the 20% represented by the CMSWR) so the CMSWR orders are attracting proportionally larger numbers.  But not in absolute numbers, which is the usual comment that one hears from pundits, church officials and even sisters.  Overall, of all the women entering religious orders these days, roughly half choose progressive groups, and roughly half choose traditional groups.  (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.)  Incidentally, the LCWR orders count a slightly higher numbers of sisters in "temporary vows/commitment," that is, a greater number of sisters who have persevered after their novitiate and early formation, which may indicate a greater "staying power" among these orders. 

As the authors conclude, “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.”

In any event, the entire article by Sisters Mary Johnson and Patricia Wittberg deserves a thoughtful read.  And more information on the complete study, which includes some other popular misconceptions, is on the website of the National Religious Vocations Conference here.  But at the very least, let's set aside this false notion of the more progressive orders having absolutely zero vocations, and floods of women entering the more traditional orders.  Instead, let's pray for more vocations to every kind of women's religious order, all of whom bless the church in their own way.

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Daniel Kane
11 years 10 months ago
The following is true based on the article (1) The number ofabsolute  vocations to LCWR and CMSWR related orders are nearly equal. (2) CMSWR while being 1/5 the size of LCWR attracts the same number of vocations. (4) If numbers mean anything - and everyone is talking about the numbers; LCWR related orders should have 4000+ vocations, not 1000. It is a fair conclusion to state that LCWR orders are in decline and coupled with the intervention, would (and legitimately should) scare off canidates, parents and spiritual directors at least in the near term.

To suggest that the numbers are "nearly equal" is a tad disingenuous.
C Walter Mattingly
11 years 10 months ago
@ Jim Belna (#9),
I would especially like to call attention to your second point, that the LWCR, far and away the largest organization of the two mentioned in Father Martin's essay, is a mix of traditional and liberal groups as well as others in the middle. For example, some orders wear habits, live at least in part in community, and participate in the March for Life; some others may not not wear habits, live exclusively outside of the community of sisters, and join Sister Farley in her march to the abortion centers in support of elective abortions, etc. Others, and this may have something to do with declining numbers of sisters in this group, have marched out the door of the Church to establish a "post-Christian" society, one in which they need no longer concern themselves with having to edit or circumvent unwelcome words of Christ such as His definition of marriage and the like. Without such a further breakdown, the numbers are far less valuable than they could be. Without it, Fr Martin's words that "overall, the news is not good," may not lead to a useful insight into whether all the news is uniformly not good, or whether the news is very bad indeed for one group and improving for the other. And that is the crucial point to be identified.

Perhaps the best future course of action for our sisters, and priests and the rest of us for that matter, is to attempt to fulfill not one, but both of the great commandments. While those sisters who spend virtually all their time praying in cloisted convents certainly meet an aspect of these commandments, as well as those who spend virtually all their time administering to their neighbors needs but little time in personal or communal prayer or the sacramental life of the Church may be commended for that portion, but it may be that the religious orders enfold those two commandments into a religious whole which thrive.
Bill Taylor
11 years 10 months ago
Brian Hall gave us some interesting tools to look at these statistics. To oversimplify, he lists four "world views" or "phases of consciousness" that a person might pass through in the course of a lifetime. The majority of people pass through the first two phases. In the first phase, the world is a frightening mystery and the values most characterstic of this phase of consciousness is a search for survival and security. Every child passes through this phase and many never leave it. It is here at the loss of heaven and the fear of hell applies, and many churches appeal to that need. The Catholic Church stressed survival and security for most of its history. 

In the second phase of consciousness, survival is assured and the world is now a problem and we work together to solve it. The institution plays a huge role here. People have a place depending on their skills. Credentials are important. The authority structure is a hierarchy. The Church is clearly here. The majority of Catholics are in phase one or phase two.

Vatican II brought us into a new phase of consciousness. The world is a project and we are aware of options, conscious of our freedom, and become our own best resources. The Vatican Council opened the door, but the hierarchy is mostly incapable of leading the Church into that new place. Many lay people have gone there, but of all the people who have entered this part of life most strongly, it is the women religious of the LCWR. 

The "traditional" orders appeal to the young women who are either in phase one (security) or phase two (institution). This is where the vast majority of Catholics are. This means that the conservative orders have a much larger base than the more liberal orders whose concern is the world as a project, with personal freedom and risky enterprises at the forefront.  

Ergo, the conservative sisters, drawing from a much larger population base, are not doing nearly as well as the LCWR, drawing from those Catholics who see beyond security and the hard limits imposed by the institution.  
Liam Dudley
11 years 10 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".  
Thomas Rooney OFS
11 years 10 months ago
Daniel Kane writes:

"To suggest that the numbers are "nearly equal" is a tad disingenuous."

I disagree.  The numbers are right on the mark.  The title of the article states nothing but the truth.  In my opinion, the broader (and more troubling) point of the article is that neither organization is producing nearly enough vocations to sustain themselves in the longer run. 

Given the incredible past contributions of religious sisters and nuns in this country and elsewhere, I believe this is going to lessen and wound the Church in America grievously in the years to come.
Jeanne Linconnue
11 years 10 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 women in formation at the present time. And 1/4 of the ''fast-growing'' neo-traditional orders also have not even one woman in formation at the present time. (2009 figures)

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.  But, even among the ''fast-growing'' neo-traditional orders, the median is only four women in formation - so half of the CMSWR institutes have fewer than four in initial formation.

This is hardly a tidal wave of young women seeking a religious vocation in either the LCWR orders OR in the CMSWR orders.  Given all the hype about how attractive and fast-growing these neo-traditional orders are to young women, one would not expect more than 1/4 of them to have not a single candidate in initital formation, and 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.

So, while the CMSWR orders may have proportionately more candidates, they are still very, very few in number and a signficant proportion of these orders have no candidates at all.  And given that half the women who 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 are fervently praying for?

Be careful what you wish for.

It is clear 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 the reality is - the neo-traditional orders are clearly 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.

james belna
11 years 10 months ago
Is this how they analyze survey data at Wharton? Let's list just a few of the potential problems:

1) The survey results are based on a 66% response rate from identified religious congregations. In other words, one-third of communities did not provide any data, and the authors of the survey have no idea how many vocations they may have generated.

2) The survey uses LCWR as a proxy for progressive communities, but within LCWR there are some communities that are more progessive than others, and some that are relatively traditional. It would be helpful to know where on that spectrum the LCWR vocations fall, but the study doesn't tell us that.

3) The raw numbers of new vocations are meaningless. A large dying congregation with several hundred mostly aged members is not going to survive by adding one or two new postulants, while a couple of new vocations can be very significant to a small growing congregation with a dozen young members. 

4) The claim that ''no religious orders - of any stripe - are receiving more than a handful of vocations'' is true only as to LCWR, which according to the survey had only 8% of member orders with 6-to-10 women in intital formation, and only 1% with more than 10. By contrast, the corresponding numbers for CMSWR are 15% and 28% respectively. When you consider that the CMSWR orders tend to be newer and smaller than LCWR, there is an enormous difference in vocation growth between the two groups.

5) It is easy to find a substantial number of traditional orders, such as the Nashville Dominicans, that are growing and often have more new vocations than they can handle. To my knowledge, there is not a single LCWR community that is attracting enough vocations to survive for more than a decade or so.    
6) Let's make your ''homey example'' a little more accurate. There are 80 Buick dealers and 20 Honda dealers in town. 300 customers, most of them senior citizens, buy an average of 4 cars from each Buick dealer. 300 other customers, most of them young and affluent, are on a waiting list to get the latest Honda SUV, and they cluster at a small handful of dealers who cater to their particular needs. They know what they want and they are not going to settle for anything less. That is precisely what is happening with vocations today, but you are free to put your money on the ''Buick'' congregations if you want to. I am betting on the ''Hondas''.
David Pasinski
11 years 10 months ago
George Weigel's figures and evaluations are always suspect to me. He appears to be so ideologically driven and so completely smitten by JPII that he lost all objectivity - although he did twist himself into pretzel about the Pope's opposition to the Iraq war.

At any rate, since when fidelity or success defined by the numbers of vocations? Sure, it would be great if many women responded and that were interpreted as a sign of the Spitirt endorsing what the current orders  and congregations do and stand for, but whatever the future hlds for them, they have done well, fought the fight, run the race, and KEEP the faith... that's enough a success. 
Anne Chapman
11 years 10 months ago
Since there are far fewer CMSWR orders than LCWR-affiliated orders, as individual orders they may be growing ''faster'' than the individual orders in the LCWR because roughly the same number of women are divided among greater or fewer numbers of orders in each group. But this data does show that of women attracted to religious life, they are pretty much equally split between those seeking the old-style, behind-the convent-walls, wearing-a-habit orders, and those seeking to join the more outward-to-the-world oriented orders whose primary mission is to live and work with ''the least of these'' where the populations they serve live rather than behind a convent wall.

Different charisms. Is there not room for both?  But, it does seem that with so few entering or in formation at all (and what is the retention rate? I have read that it is quite low in both the new ''traditional'' orders and the ''old'' Vatican II orders), that ALL religious orders are dying, both the older, most established orders, and the newer traditionally-oriented orders. And maybe that's not a bad thing. Maybe it is leading to the birth of something new that will be more attractive to more women (and maybe men) - maybe evolving towards more ''associates'', more ''third'' order participants, etc. Change is not always a bad thing.
Gerelyn Hollingsworth
11 years 10 months ago
I haven't gotten the impression that ''floods'' of women are entering the handful of recently created ''traditional orders''.  Certainly a few are.  Those Catholics who seem to despise the members of the truly traditional orders have exaggerated the numbers entering the new orders, but real numbers are impossible to learn.

How many nuns in ALL are there?  (I've been commenting in a blog at Commonweal about this same thing today.)  I doubt VERY MUCH that the new study will give us that elusive figure.  For years we heard 89,000.  Absurd, of course.  Then, lately, it became 59,000.  Now, today, we see 57,000 and 55,000.  ABSURD.  The real number of women in American convents is, imho, between 15,000 and 20,000.  Maybe the investigation discovered the true number.  Will the Vatican reveal it?  Will the American bishops reveal it? 

''Let's be clear, overall the news is not good: No women’s religious orders—of any stripe—are receiving more than a handful of vocations.''

Why is that news not good?  The histories of women's congregations are full of examples of abuse by the bishops and priests who ruled them:  financial, spiritual, emotional, physical, etc., etc., etc.  After 150 years of abuse, why would anyone want to volunteer for it?  Catholic women and girls are aware of how the nuns are being treated, investigated, interrogated, reviled, derided, accused, etc., etc.  Why isn't it GOOD NEWS that the Catholic women of today are strong enough and resourceful enough to find another road to heaven?

In the orders I follow most closely (groups of liberal, educated women), the few who enter leave after a few years.  One reason could be that they are older than the high school graduates who once filled the postulant classes.  What an 18-year-old girl can become accustomed to is another story for a woman of 35 or 40.  The common life, as all religious know,   is a martyrdom.  

Maybe Mary Johnson and Patricia Wittberg will name names.  Provide us with a list of all nuns in all convents.  Provide us with real numbers.  How many members did each congregation receive in all throughout its entire history?  How many are in the graveyard?  How many left?  After how long?  How many are in the congregation today? 

11 years 10 months ago
Where are the Nashville Dominicans for the liberal side of the Church??  

Provide just one example of a thriving, growing and young community such as this one, please.

Amy Ho-Ohn
11 years 10 months ago
I think the question we're debating here is, "all other things being equal, do we expect vocations to be attracted in proportion to the size of the population attracting or in proportion to the size of the population attracted?"

Do vocations arise in response to the presence of attractive congregations? Or do vocations arise spontaneously and gravitate to the congregations they find attractive?

ISTM what is happening is that 20% of the religious orders are aligned with the spiritual sensibilities of 50% of the younger generation of Catholics. They're not inspiring vocations; they're just fishing in a relatively big pond.

The other 80% of the religious orders are aligned with the spiritual sensibilities of about 50% of the younger generation too. They're fishing in a big pond too. That's the news in this article; the pseudo-traditionalists like to peddle the meme that religion and feminism are incompatible; that "non-traditional" women and their male sympathizers are voluntarliy bequeathing the Church and her wealth to them (with maybe a little tiny bit of pushing in the direction of the door.)

The really astonishing news is that even in a Church which insults, demeans, ridicules, humiliates, disenfranchises, marginalizes and plots to expell the LCWR congregations, 50% of the younger generation of Catholics still finds their charisms and apostolates worth giving their lives to. 

Colin Donovan
11 years 10 months ago
Since Fr. Martin was so gracious as to dig out this information, it would be much appreciated if he could put a per capita number to the vocations, that is, new vocations per every professed member. The LCWR claims to represent the overwhelming majority of current women religious in the United States, which would logically inflate the aggregate number of vocations relative to the CMSWR. A per capita number would adjust for that statistical advantage.

My own experience, having taught theology to large groups of novices at the Motherhouse of the Nashville Dominicans for several years, and being very familiar with Mother Assumpta's community dervied from the Nashville OPs, as well as other "new" communities, is that relative to current membership these congregations are growing much faster.
Vince Killoran
11 years 10 months ago
I did follow the link provided by "Tmarie." What does "fidelity to the Church" mean? I think it must be code for something? Is it a way to claim that some women religious are better than others. . .

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