America Comment

The number of US nuns is collapsing – but there are still signs of growth

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Here is something you may have missed amidst all the other news in the Church at present. As the website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese reports, several hundred religious institutes of women are likely to disappear in the next few decades. In more demotic terms, several hundred orders of nuns are about to become extinct.

This report deals with nuns in America alone, so the situation in Africa and Asia is no doubt different, but one hazards a guess that there would be very similar trends in Europe. Indeed, ask anyone of my age group (I was born in 1963) whether they know any active nuns, and they will usually scratch their heads. When I was young, there were nuns, who were middle aged; now I am middle aged, all the nuns seem to be in retirement homes, and there are no young ones at all, at least not that I have met in my own neck of the woods. When the history of this time comes to be written, this will surely be the key thing that will emerge: the almost complete disappearance of religious life in the Church, and with it, the people who once upon a time did all the work.

A few years ago I gave a child a holy picture of Saint Faustina, explaining that she was a very holy nun. “What’s a nun?” the child asked.

The other question that historians will ask is why, in a relatively short space of time, did so many religious orders disappear. That remains a hard one to answer. After all, wasn’t Vatican II supposed to usher in a new age of renewal in religious life? Instead, many orders renewed themselves out of existence. As Catholic Philly tells us, and there is no arguing with statistics this dramatic:

“The number of women religious in the United States has declined from a peak of 181,421 in 1965 to 47,160 in 2016, National Religious Retirement Office statistics show. About 77 percent of women religious are older than 70.

As many as 300 of the 420 religious institutes in the United States are in their last decades of existence because of aging membership and declining vocations, officials said.”

But as with all statistics, this requires interpretation. What about the 120 or so orders that are not facing extinction? Presumably they are attracting vocations, and presumably the 77% who are over the age of 70 are disproportionately found in certain orders and not others. In other words, while many orders may be on the brink of shutting up shop, not all are. Why is this?

The answer could well be found in recent history. Some years ago, the Vatican initiated a visitation of all American female religious orders. This was not, to put it mildly, universally welcomed. Some saw it as an ‘attack’ on American nuns, others as a sinister attempt to ‘rein them in’. Whichever way, the visitation produced no tangible results. Indeed, one feels that the Vatican, for a variety of reasons, gave up on the enquiry and decided to let nature take its course. Certain orders are not going to continue, while others are; the orders women still want to join are by and large, for want of a better term, traditional ones. Those facing extinction, not so much.

There are signs of growth in the Church, thanks to the grace of God; but the hard fact remains that the Church of just a few decades ago, staffed by an army of nuns and religious brothers, is now a thing of the past. Its disappearance has taken little longer than a generation. There is a lesson to be learned here. The conference in Kansas, reported by Catholic Philly, speaks of elderly religious sisters and other participants being ‘inspired’ by their conference on the effective disappearance of much of the religious life in America. I am not sure they quite get it. As for the rest of us, wondering what comes next, how the Church can do without what once seemed essential, I am not sure we get it either, at least not yet. Just the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation saw the death of much traditional religious life, and the coming of new models, so we too live between two times, one dead, another perhaps still powerless to be born.