News Analysis

Rebellion or submission: Why are millennials flocking to convents?

The supercomputer that generates trend pieces about millennials has gone haywire. Having been fed a steady diet of breezy reportage about that generation’s penchant for witchcraft, aperol and avocados, and after being told they are eschewing normal familial roles in favour of “plant parenthood” and polyamory, we are now supposed to believe that this most fretted-about demographic has a new obsession: the consecrated religious life.

Yes, nuns are in the news. Last week the Huffington Post published a 8,000-word exploration of why young women might be drawn to becoming a nun. Several weeks prior the New York Times ran a similar piece, focusing heavily on a new initiative called Nuns and Nones, which has begun to place young, religiously ambivalent activists in residency programmes alongside older women religious.

The trend that precipitated the HuffPo article is the prospect that the steep decline in the number of American nuns – from around 180,000 in 1965 to less than 50,000 today – is beginning to reverse. “In 2017, 13 per cent of women from age 18 to 35 who answered a Georgetown University-affiliated survey of American Catholics reported that they had considered becoming a Catholic Sister,” Eve Fairbanks writes.

What is prompting millennial women to consider such an unusual lifestyle? Fairbanks proposes several ideas. One is the countercultural impulse, that Catholicism “seems especially out of step with contemporary American life”. More darkly, Fairbanks points to polling suggesting that millennials possess “a hidden desire to be ruled”. An older nun is quoted, discussing the three religious vows nuns take. “The hard one is obedience,” she says, which probably resonates with a younger generation that is already living in closets and not having sex.

The prospective nuns in the piece are not, by any stretch, the sort of mousy, retiring types that stereotypes might indicate. One was deployed in South Korea.

Fairbanks also noticed that the younger nuns “tend to be far more doctrinally conservative than their predecessors”. Among those discerning religious life, many have expressed interest in the communities of nuns that continue to wear habits.

Speaking to a publisher of guides for the religious life, Fairbanks writes: “Amid all their freedoms, Tuohy deduced, these young women wanted to be led. Even constrained. She said she wished I wouldn’t emphasise that point, however. Something about it seemed to make her uncomfortable.”

While the Huffington Post piece profiled women who were attracted to religious life on its own terms, as a way to grow close to God, the New York Times millennials-and-nuns trend piece focused more on what they might have to offer social justice activists.

The Nuns and Nones residency programme placed young people at a Sisters of Mercy house in Burlingame, California. As the author put it, “Many of the young people say they view convent culture as an almost separate, rebel force, hardly related to the Catholic Church at all – though of course it is an integral part of the Church.”

A closer look at the Nuns and Nones programme, which has “no structure, offices or nonprofit status”, according to Faith & Leadership, an online magazine connected to Duke Divinity School, reveals something a little more worldly in its aspirations.

One of the group’s leaders, Brittany Koteles, gave a speech as part of a contest for which the group won a $10,000 prize. In the speech, which can be found online, she says: “We can turn convents into training grounds for the next generation of organisers.”

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what they told the New York Times:

“A lot of us in social justice, a lot of the people of our generation, it’s this culture that’s all about forward-moving progress, and that forgets that there’s this cyclical spiral and these really old wisdom traditions that can feed change,” said Christina Tran, a 34-year-old comic artist in Corvallis, Ore, who organizes monthly Nuns and Nones meetings. “It’s less about building anew; it’s more about remembering.”

But what happens when those “really old wisdom traditions” include opposing gay marriage and abortion rights?

One of the first gatherings of the Nuns and Nones project was at that bastion of orthodoxy, the Harvard Divinity School. It occurred under the auspices of How We Gather, which is listed as a partner of Nuns and Nones, along with the Fetzer Institute, on their website. Both How We Gather and the Fetzer Institute have ties to devotees of the Urantia Book, a New Age tome written in the early 20th century by an anonymous Chicagoan.

Ironically, the things these young people admire about the Sisters of Mercy are quite possibly the same things that caused their collapse in vocations.