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.