The Most Serious Challenge to Vocations Today: What the Visitation Report Missed

The Apostolic Visitation Final Report has been awaited, variously, with expectation, fear, or indifference by both American women religious and the larger church. In our currently polarized ideological climate, some looked forward to a document that would expose the sisters’ waywardness and demand specific reforms. Others viewed such an outcome with deep dread. Still others were so alienated from any initiative emanating from the hierarchy that they had already resolved to ignore it completely.

The Report itself challenges the preconceptions of all three groups. On the one hand, it is uniformly positive in its commendation of American sisters and their leadership. While naming the serious threats to the very existence of many congregations—rising median age, few or no vocations, scattered ministries requiring many to live singly, difficulties in surfacing and training a younger cohort of members for leadership, financial difficulties—the Report contains no trace of some critics’ facile and simplistic attribution of these problems to the sisters’ supposed “radical feminism,” or their recalcitrant refusal to follow the magisterium.

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Those who had dreaded the Report, on the other hand, undoubtedly were pleasantly surprised both by its positive tone and by its frank acknowledgement (section 11, paragraph 3) of their fears. But the pressing problems of shrinking numbers, rising median ages, declining or non-existent leadership pools, and financial straits still remain and must be dealt with. The Report also contains observations regarding the desire of potential entrants to live communally and to be externally recognizable that will challenge many congregations. The Report advances six requests: that the sisters evaluate their initial and ongoing formation, their members’ actual practice of prayer, and the conformity of their spirituality and ministry to Catholic teaching; that they reflect on and strengthen their communal life; that they clearly define the difference between vowed and associate membership; and that they balance wise stewardship of their resources with a witness to poverty. It would be a serious mistake, I believe, for a congregation not to face fully the challenges which these requests require if they are to be taken seriously.

The most serious challenge to the future of religious life for women in the United States, however, was not addressed in this Report. This is the increasing alienation of American Catholic women in general from the church. As I have noted before (“A Lost Generation?” 2/20/12), the youngest generation of Catholic women in this country are less likely than their male age peers to go to Mass, less likely to agree with church teachings, and more likely to leave Catholicism altogether. This is the first generation for whom this is true—and it is true for Catholics only, not for Protestants. Obviously, if this alienation continues, few if any American Catholic women will be interested in entering religious life in the future. I was encouraged to read the Report’s recommendation that the Year of Consecrated be an opportunity to strengthen the bonds between the two conferences of women religious, and between the women religious and their bishops and pastors. The church has a vast treasury of spirituality and spiritual practices which many people today long for without knowing it.  Women, as the Report notes, make an “indispensable and unique contribution” to the life of the church which has not always been recognized in the past. Each will be impoverished without the other. It is my hope that the Report will contribute to the efforts of women religious in the United States to model the treasures of Catholicism to women, and the gifts and “indispensable contributions of women” to the Catholic Church.

Patricia Wittberg, S.C., is professor of sociology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, Ind.

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Walter Sandell
2 years 10 months ago
"...the youngest generation of Catholic women in this country are less likely than their male age peers to go to Mass, less likely to agree with church teachings, and more likely to leave Catholicism altogether. " Why remain in a church which bans women from ordained ministry?
Anne Chapman
2 years 10 months ago
Yes - the defection of young women from the Catholic church is one of the elephants in the room that the men in charge prefer to ignore. It's not just a matter of vocations to religious life, it's losing the future generation of the children of the women who are choosing not to marry in the church and choosing also, not to baptize their children in the Catholic church. A recent CARA report notes that not only have marriages in the church plummeted far below the drop in the general marriage rate, the numbers of infant baptisms are the lowest ever.
Jack Rakosky
2 years 10 months ago
Professor Wittberg has well documented in her research not only that religious orders have been the means of renewal in Catholicism but also that the nature of religious orders has changed from the model of the solitary life in the desert to the Benedictine rural villa model to the mendicant orders city model to the apostolic orders of recent years. John O’Malley has noted that these new models of religious life brought new models of ministry to the church. Since Vatican II has affirmed the call to holiness of all the laity, not simply religious, is it possible religious life will no longer serve its former role of being the engine of renewal, of new forms of ministry and spirituality? I would argue that religious life was so important because abstaining from family life, the acquisition of goods, and binding together under obedience was one of the few ways to get the resources for renewal. In today’s affluent societies Catholic laity have the time, talent and treasure to engage voluntarily in part ministry during their work lives and full time ministry in retirement. Perhaps the ideal of voluntarism, of doing ministry without pay, will come to rival religious life as a resource for Catholicism in affluent countries. In the USA since Vatican II laity have flocked into parish ministry both voluntary and (under) paid, and men have taken up the voluntary deaconate. If we opened the voluntary deaconate to women, I am certain the men would quickly be outnumbered by the women. In this year of the Religious Life let us be grateful for the historical role they have played in church but recognize their role essentially came from their baptismal calling and only incidentally from their various forms of institutional life. I love the recent phrase of solidarity with women religious “We are all nuns” which for me captures the baptismal reality.
Marie Haener-Patti
2 years 10 months ago
While sitting in the compound of the Jesuit seminary in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, ( I was there as a volunteer to inspect schools after the earthquake) I was asked by a Jesuit brother and two Canadian Jesuit seminarians,"What would you say to your daughters if they expressed a desire to join religious life?" I told them that I would encourage them to become Episcopal priests. When they expressed surprise, I said, "Why would ask my two intelligent grown daughters to accept a second place role in their church? All of the responsibility and none of the authority?". That is why there are no vocations to the women's religious orders. I treasure the education I had from several orders of sisters, and more still my Jesuit University education, but I wouldn't wish that role on my children.
John Barbieri
2 years 10 months ago
All of us -- starting with me -- are acting out on the basis of what we believe to be true at best or think we can get away with at worst. The apostolic visitation to the sisters is a good example of what the hierarchy really believes or thinks it can get away with. This episode shows what the hierarchy thinks not only of the sisters but also of women generally. Why would any woman want to have anything to do with the church?
Anne Danielson
2 years 9 months ago
Why would any woman want to have anything to do with Christ's Church? To know, Love, and serve The Communion of Perfect Love, The Blessed Trinity in this life, and hopefully, be with God and our beloved for eternity in Heaven.
Anne Danielson
2 years 9 months ago
During The Sacrifice of The Mass, a Catholic priest serves in the persona of Christ. A woman can be a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, but she cannot be a son, or a brother, or a husband or a father. Perhaps this generation is lost because a multitude of persons deny that from The Beginning, God Created us male and female, as a son, or daughter.
Joseph Manta
2 years 9 months ago
If the "most serious challenge to the future of religious life for women in the United States ...is the alienation of American women in general from the church" why are the orders that live in communities and wear habits not having any problem attracting new sisters? This trend was noted Report and is backed up by considerable studios which show these more tradition orders are growing and are younger. Maybe its that only a particular and aging group of women share this alienation.
Anne Chapman
2 years 9 months ago
" why are the orders that live in communities and wear habits not having any problem attracting new sisters? This trend was noted Report and is backed up by considerable studios which show these more tradition orders are growing and are younger."" They are younger, on average, but most traditional orders attract very few new sisters. This alleged growth is a very popular myth among conservative Catholics that has reached the level of urban legend. It is highly misleading and some of what is claimed is simply not true. The reality of the traditional orders is that the vast majority of them are not growing very fast at all. More than 1/4 had not a single woman in formation at the time of a major study conducted by Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) on behalf of the National Religious Vocation Conference, (NRVC - "The National Religious Vocation Conference is a professional organization of vocation ministers that presents religious life as a viable option in the Catholic Church. NRVC promotes vocation awareness, invitation, and discernment to life as a religious sister, brother, or priest." From the NRVC website) Information from the CARA report "One of the most striking findings regarding new entrants is that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences [LCRW and CMSWR] in recent years.".....CARA’s analysis of the ....data identified six religious institutes of women that have doubled their membership between 1970 and 2013. .... However, all six institutes together have increased their net membership by only 267 members since 1970, too few to have an effect on the overall picture. Whatever these institutes have done or are doing is unlikely to offset losses in the tens of thousands elsewhere. It is simply not enough." The traditional religious orders are only 20% of current women religious. Their growth rate is so slow that they cannot begin to replace the 40,000 +older sisters of the LCWR as they retire and die during the next 20 years. It is a mathematical impossibility. When the six fastest growing CMCWR institutes have added only a total of 267 members in 40+ years, the picture becomes quite clear. Yet some continue to trumpet the growth of a very few orders without noting that most CMCWR orders are attracting very few applicants (and many of those who begin do not continue to final vows - in either conference) and that even the "fast" growing CMCWR orders are not attracting nearly enough sisters to make a dent. Another article by Sr. Wittberg in America (Oct. 12, 2012) also has more information on the reality. http://americamagazine.org/issue/article/reality-check 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 United States 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. Those numbers mean that on a per capita basis, C.M.S.W.R. institutes are attracting new candidates at a higher rate than L.C.W.R. institutes. But they also indicate that of the total number of American Catholic women interested in religious life, an equal number are interested in L.C.W.R. institutes as in C.M.S.W.R. institutes.....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 This, of course, does not preclude these institutes having new members 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. ....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.
Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
Something appears to be wrong with your data. You claim that "most traditional orders attract very few new sisters. This alleged growth is a very popular myth among conservative Catholics that has reached the level of urban legend." and then you cite " a major study conducted by Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate" which reports "almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences [LCRW and CMSWR] in recent years." Since the CMSWR is a fraction of the size of the LCRW, the CMSWR must be growing at a much faster *rate* than the LCRW. I am sure you just got confused. .

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