Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Decline in religious life

The 2002 edition of the Catholic Directory of the US said that there were 75,500 religious sisters, and the 2006 edition said there were 67,773. That's a decline of 7727 in four years.
At the time of Vatican II, there were approximately 180,000 sisters in the US. So in a little over 40 years, the numbers dipped by roughly 112,000. That's a steep decline!
A lot of ink has been spilled over this, but the reality is that nuns are a vanishing breed. The next 20 years should bring a further steep decline, as the average age of most congregations is quite high and elderly members will be dying off in large numbers.
Thankfully there are new orders springing up, but it doesn't seem that they will be able to offset this decline by very much. Many factors have contributed to the problem: Catholics having fewer children, the falling away from faith, other opportunities for young women, religious becoming so much like the laity in many cases that people don't see any reason for religious life, and confusion among religious themselves as to what religious life is all about.
I don't know how it will all turn out, but the Church will weather the storm as it has weathered countless others through the centuries. That doesn't mean that religious life in this country will necessarily climb back to the numbers it once had. I'm guessing it might stabilize somewhere around 20 to 40 thousand, and hopefully begin a small increase again.
For that to happen, though, Catholic family life will have to be renewed. Good Catholic families are a seedbed for vocations.


Jeff Miller said...


I do wonder though why most of the ink spilled has been mainly about the decline in priests and not religious?

Part if of it is that it does not fit the agendas of some groups (married priests, women priests, etc). But even more faithful Catholics have seemed to forgot about the prayer backbone of the Church in religious life.

Lisa said...

Thanks for pointing out the recent declines. This is certainly something for which we should pray and of which we should be conscious especially when working with young (and not so young) people who are deciding their futures. The declines compared to right before Vatican II can be quite discouraging. However, I found it interesting and somewhat encouraging to learn that actually numbers were lower at the turn of the century, that the high numbers of the 1950s were markedly higher than the 1900s. That said, I think it can be encouraging to think of today's numbers in contrast to those earlier numbers in terms of the stability of religious life despite the ups and downs of the 1950s and 60s. Religious life will survive but we must all work to nurture and sustain those called to live it on a daily basis.

Sr. Lorraine said...

Thanks, Lisa, for that good point. Perhaps the high numbers of the 50's were out of proportion to the usual number, so the decline afterward seemed more severe.

Melody said...

Sister, I don't know if you get First Things magazine, but in the current issue Fr. Benedict Groeschel has a good article on this topic.