This past Sunday, when our pastor based his homily on National Vocation Awareness Week, which ends Saturday, I was reminded of two headlines about women religious I had seen recently.
The first headline “Why Nuns Are Dying Out,” caught my eye because I’ve written books treating that topic. The headline was for an Oct. 24 review of a new movie, Novitiate, which is not yet available in my city. However, the film, which another reviewer called “a scandalous, shameless anti-Catholic freak show,” has an “R” rating for “language, some sexuality and nudity,” so I doubt that it contributes to a serious assessment of vocations.
The other headline I saw — “Decade after dust-up, nun firm on abortion: ‘Choice is the woman’s’” — was in the Oct. 27 Chicago Sun-Times. It describes an interview with Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Donna Quinn about her 10-year pro-abortion activism, which she summed up by saying: “The choice is the woman’s ... do not interfere.”
Sister Donna also told the Sun-Times that the Vatican and Church hierarchy have no authority, and she voiced her support for the ordination of women and dismissed Church teaching on the Eucharist. As the Sun-Times wrote:
Quinn sees the Eucharist as not necessarily ‘something you go to and that only the priest has this power to change this into something else, but I see Eucharist as being part of our everyday life.’
‘A grandparent who embraces his little grandchild ... is Eucharist to me.’
Yet, incredibly she insisted: “I still belong to the community called Sinsinawa” Dominicans and “could have left” the Catholic Church, but staying gives her a stronger voice.
In a rather perverse way, that article does shed light on one of the main reasons for the decline in vocations to the sisterhood, from 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 47,000 today, with more than half of those sisters over the age of 70.
Certainly this decline had many causes, including the trend to smaller Catholic families, increased opportunities for laity to serve the Church, Vatican II’s emphasis on the Universal Call to Holiness, and changing cultural and societal norms.
Another important factor often overlooked, however, is the radical transformation of religious life that affected the majority of religious orders of women in this country during the tumultuous 1960s and into the 1970s. While Vatican II (1962-1965) did call for updating customs and lifestyles in convents, it never called for religious to set aside their traditional apostolates and institutions and to abandon habits, community life and prayer in common.
Yet, this is exactly what many religious orders did after Vatican II, including some of the largest and most prestigious one. Several sisters feeling trapped in orders like this have told me that when they objected to the direction their superiors were taking, they were silenced and/or marginalized and/or sent for mental health evaluation and even told to leave after a lifetime of service.
This transformation of orders caused a massive loss of identity for women religious, as lines between vowed sisters and lay Catholic women became virtually nonexistent, and some sisters, like Sister Donna Quinn, felt free to criticize Church teachings. Committed young women thus lost interest in taking vows in orders that were changing before their very eyes, professing a generic mission statement, and either allowing or ignoring public dissent by members.
When I contacted Sister Donna’s order to see if her superior had seen the Sun-Times interview and if it were true that Sister Donna is still a member of the order in spite of her position on abortion and dissent from Church teachings, I received only this statement from the Sinsinawa Dominican prioress, Sister Toni Harris:
Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters are called to participate in the building of a holy and just society and Church through preaching and teaching Gospel values. As a religious congregation, we support the teachings of the Catholic Church. We are called to be compassionate and to love one another.
I made a subsequent request for a more direct response to my questions and for clarification of Sister Toni’s statement but was told the prioress was traveling and could not be reached.
While the Quinn story is an extreme example of dissent by a so-called religious, this sad situation also raises serious questions about why higher Church authorities allow such scandal by religious to persist. It also dramatizes how some formerly outstanding religious orders have self-destructed, adversely affecting the image of religious life and slowing vocations to a trickle.
So what does this mean during National Vocation Awareness Week? Because of all the factors I have mentioned, this country likely will not see 180,000 sisters again — at least not in the foreseeable future.
All is not lost in the vocation picture for women, however, for some orders of women religious — both long-established orders and some relatively new groups — have renewed themselves according to Vatican II guidelines; and young women who feel the call to religious life and want a community with a distinct religious identity and steadfast commitment to the Church, are finding those orders.
Graphic evidence of this trend can be found on websites like the Sisters of Life, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Province of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, to name just a few.
Supporters of “progressive” orders insist that they are getting as many new vocations as the traditional orders that have maintained a religious lifestyle and faithfulness to Church teachings and authority. However, this claim is based on an outdated, incomplete study that included only half of the traditional orders of women religious.
The good news for vocations is that young women called to religious life are voting with their feet and choosing orders with a distinct religious identity and a specific apostolate conducted in the name of the Church. They are not buying into the dissent perpetrated by women who use their status as religious to get attention for their attacks on settled Church teachings.