Report: Sisters' numbers shrinking but growing more diverse

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim West

By Mark Pattison

(CNS) — A new report on U.S. women religious said that religious life is becoming
not only more multiethnic but more international as well.

report, “Understanding U.S. Catholic Sisters Today,” said that of all
women who entered religious life in the past 10 years, only 57 percent were white, while 17 percent were Hispanic, 16 percent were Asian, and 8
percent were black — including both African-American women and those born
in Africa.

of the growing numbers of foreign-born women religious, the report noted, Trinity
Washington University recently received a grant to study and map the presence
of international women religious in the United States and their evolving
ministries in response to church and societal needs.

report, released Dec. 9, was commissioned by FADICA, Foundations and Donors
Interested in Catholic Activities, which represents about 50 philanthropic

It highlights the major findings of the latest sociological studies of U.S. women religious. The report was written by Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. The findings “help illuminate present realities of U.S. women’s religious life,” the report said, “and point toward priorities that will help ensure a vibrant future.”

aspects of U.S. religious life today, according to the report, have not changed: the
increasing average age of women religious and their declining numbers.

9 percent of religious sisters are younger than 60; more than two-thirds of
women and men vowed religious are older than 65,” the report said.

religious life is presently completing a fifth consecutive decade of decline,”
it added. “The number of U.S. sisters has decreased by 72.5 percent in the
last 49 years, and while there are recent signs that the pace of decline has
slowed, there is nothing suggesting that is likely to be reversed.”

At the same time, “the most encouraging conclusion drawn from recent studies of U.S. Catholic sisters is that … many U.S. Catholic women are still drawn to religious life,” the report said. Research show that “while there is a great deal of concern about the future of individual communities and ministries, the majority of sisters remain optimistic about religious life,” it added.

report placed the figure of women religious in the United States today at roughly
50,000 — about the same number as there had been in 1939, when U.S. population
numbers were lower but vocations were on an upswing. Crowded novitiates “and overflowing convents” in the mid-20th century were an “anomaly,” it noted.

contact with sisters not only reduces the number of women entering religious
life, but also may make adjusting to religious life more difficult for those
who do enter. Increasing sisters’ contact with nonmembers should be a
priority,” the report said.

While those women who do join religious life are often older
and better educated than those of past generations, they also bring with them
student debt.

in 10 congregations with three or more serious inquiries asked at least one
person to delay formal application due to educational debt, while seven in 10
congregations turned at least one person away,” the report said. “Only
half of those with loans at the time of application were eventually accepted.
The rest were turned away.”

situation has religious orders in a double bind, according to the report.

congregations do not want to turn away new members who offer vitality to a
waning congregation, they must consider how much benefit a candidate brings to
an institute compared to the burden of educational debt,” it said.

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

potential source of worry for vocations is that “young Catholic women show
a greater disaffection than males within their generational cohort. This
represents a historic reversal,” the report said. “In the past, women
of every U.S. Christian denomination have prayed and attended religious
services more often and held more orthodox beliefs than their male counterparts.”

study suggested it could be “helpful for parishes and dioceses to create
more space and support for discernment to all forms of consecrated life,
including emerging ones.”

The 40-page
report outlined 10 key themes for understanding U.S. Catholic sisters today: path
to vocation; ethnicity, race and region; generations and gender;
characteristics of religious life; age of entry and education; ministry;
collaboration; charism and identity; leadership; and the sisters’ visibility in
U.S. culture.

the 1840s until the late 1960s, the average Catholic woman in the United States
found, through religious life, far more opportunities for education,
leadership, and meaningful work within church structures than outside of them.
Since the late 1960s, many of the women who would have been attracted to
religious life in earlier generations are finding alternative ways to live
their vocational call, both within the church and in secular society,” the
report said.

item the study recommended was further research. “The most recent study of
sisters’ ministries in the United States was conducted in 2002 by (Immaculate
Heart of Mary Sister) Anne Munley under
the auspices of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious,” and was just a
follow-up to a 1991 report on the topic.

study’s executive summary also called for more research on sisters in the
Southwest, where women religious have had a long-standing presence and where the Catholic population has increased dramatically; the reasons women give for not entering religious life; and the best
practices for women’s religious orders to transmit their charism to lay

Key findings of the report and informational and promotional materials on religious life are available at the website, which is hosted by

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