A recent article in America magazine titled "Reality Check" has generated some interesting commentary about religious life in the US. The surprising number reported is that institutes who belong to the LCWR have roughly the same number of postulants, novices, and sisters in temporary vows as institutes who belong to the CSMWR (about 500 for each group, with the CSMWR having a slight edge--535 to 507). The authors believe that some statements made about religious life suggesting that LCWR institutes are dying are "patently false," quoting a statement from George Weigel to that effect. They caution against inaccurate generalizing from media reports on a few orders that seem to be growing quite a lot.
The article left me with the impression they intend to say there is a certain parity between the LCWR and CSMWR in terms of new members, and so they are equally hopeful for the future of religious life. But I must admit that seems counter-intuitive, and looking at the data raised some questions for me. (The data was drawn from a study by the NRVC/CARA.)
1. The study had responses from about two thirds of religious institutes in the US, representing over 80% of all members. So what about the other 20% that didn't respond? Maybe there's some significant data that wasn't reported and could change the results.
2. Of the institutes of women religious who did respond, two thirds (66%) belong to the LCWR; 14% belong to the CSMWR, and 1% belong to both; the rest are either monastic groups or new groups too small to belong to the conferences.
Now that's a key statistic; the 14% in the CSMWR have as many vocations as the 66% who belong to the LCWR. That's a huge difference, and I think it's relevant to any conclusions drawn. Proportionally, the CSMWR group does have more new members. Some say that's not significant because they think it's more important to compare LCWR and CSMWR groups as a whole. But I don't think so, because:
a) The mere fact of belonging to the LCWR doesn't necessarily mean that an institute follows the philosophy about religious life that the LCWR conferences promote (for example, the last meeting's keynote speaker, Barbara Marx Hubbard, promotes a rather strange mix of ideas that seem more New Age than Christian). Some institutes who belong to LCWR probably still do base their formation on Catholic theology and spirituality rooted in the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. Maybe that's an overly optimistic assumption, but I hope not.
b) The number of vocations is not evenly distributed among all institutes; many have none, and fewer will have most of them. It would be important to know what type of formation is given in the institutes that are attracting new members.
3. Median age -- the America article doesn't mention this, but it's 74 for the LCWR group, and 60 for the CSMWR (from NRVC study).
4. Age of new members--(data here also from the NRVC website).
Percentage of new members who are over 40: 56% for LCWR, and 15% for CSMWR. So the LCWR institutes seem to be attracting older women.
5. Of institutes with new members, percentage that has at least 5 novices: 9% for LCWR, 43% for CSMWR.
So if we want to assess religious life "by the numbers," the scene is complex. The America article hasn't convinced me that there is really not much difference between the future of the two groups. It does show, however, that there is a real decline in numbers in religious life overall. But what else can we expect when there has been such a falling off from Catholic belief and practice in general?
It's worth reading the "mythbusters" report from the NRVC, which indicates that while it isn't true that only conservative/traditional institutes are drawing new members, it is true that "Religious institutes that have a focused mission, who live in community, who have regular prayer and sacramental life, and who wear a habit show a higher proportion of newer members."