Friday, December 11, 2015


Understanding U.S. Catholic Sisters Today is the title of a recent report by Kathleen Sprows Cummings for FADICA ("Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities"), a network of over 50 private foundations and donors committed to supporting Catholic-sponsored programs and institutions. The report has received a lot of attention, in large part because of its attention-getting opening sentence: "today there are approximately the same number of Catholic sisters int he United States as there were a century ago-just under 50, 000." The report also opens by citing a recent study that some 8% of never-married millennial women have considered a religious vocation, of whom 2% have considered it "very seriously." 

All this is good news, of course - up to a point. It suggests "the crowded novitiates and overflowing convents of the mid-twentieth century represent an anomaly in the history of U.S. women's religious life rather than a standard to which sisters could or should return. this perspective helps to diffuse the pessimism that often surrounds discussions of religious life." 

On the other hand, as the report recognizes, the fact that there are as many sister snow as a century ago says nothing about that number relative to the size of the American Catholic population (considerably larger now than a century ago) or about the relative median age of sisters (considerably higher now than a century ago). The latter numbers are particularly discouraging: 91% of finally professed sisters were age 60 and over in 2009, and more than two-thirds of men and women religious are older than 65. So, while there is certainly good news, the challenge for the future of viable religious life in the U.S. remains real and pressing.

Discussions of the real or imagined decline of religious life in the U.S. tend to be polarized along ideological liens, reflected somewhat (at least to the outside world) in the existence of two apparently competing organizations for women religious in the U.S. and the very visible difference between sisters who look like sisters (i.e., wear habits) and those who don't. the report provides some helpful clarification and nuance to this debate. The broad generalization that younger religious are more likely to prefer the habit and want community life seems to be borne out, but the report also highlights the more problematic side of this, in that those younger religious are also significantly unrepresentative of millennial Catholic, a majority of whom reject several significant Catholic positions. thus the report warns: "If institutes only draw members from a subset-within-a-subset (in other words, the small and atypical minority of the youngest age cohort of U.S. Catholics) future priests and religious may becoming increasingly removed from the beliefs and interests of the majority of their generational cohort—which could make attracting new members even more difficult."

Two other areas which may continue to prove challenging for recruitment, according to this report, are the perhaps perennial problem of the vagueness of much religious conversation about charism and the very contemporary problem of candidates coming with substantial student debt. With regard to the first, the report suggests: “Unless religious institutes develop an identity that can be easily and clearly articulated to the outside world, both in Catholic settings and in the wider culture (i.e. portrayals in the media), they will not attract many new members. Furthermore, if women’s religious institutes do not define themselves clearly, they risk letting themselves be defined by others, which may, in turn, increase polarization and further reduce the attractiveness of religious life among potential members.”

With regard to the second, the report notes one in three inquirers into a congregation has a student loan, and the average debt is $26,800. By the time of formal application, the average debt is $21,000. The result: 90% of congregations asked at least one applicant to delay, and 70% turned down at least one person. "Religious congregations do not want candidates’ guilt about burdening a congregation with student loans to dissuade them from pursuing a vocation. At the same time, the institutes do not want to make educational debt a top or even exclusive consideration in debating whether or not to accept a candidate. Yet with other financial responsibilities, such as rising health care costs that are particularly formidable for the already-aging sister population, concern regarding educational debt is an increasingly significant aspect of the discernment process for both the institute and the individual."

That we are at least talking about these problems, rather than about not having any applicants at all, is certainly a good sign. But these challenges certainly remain serious obstacles to any hoped-for flourishing of religious life - both men's and women's communities - in the United States in the foreseeable future.

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