National Catholic Register


Where Have All the Nuns Gone?

Thriving orders dispute new book’s “double-crossed” claim


Register Correspondent

August 6-12, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/7/06 at 9:00 AM


ALTON, Ill. — Sister Mary Biatta Ziegler, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, sees herself as a “bride of Christ.”

Sister Carole Shinnick, a School Sister of Notre Dame, does not.

Sister Mary thinks the title reflects her complete dedication to Christ and the Church. Sister Carole, the executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, says that although she has a deep relationship with Christ, the term no longer is used by the Church to refer to women religious.

In a new book, former New York Times religion editor Kenneth Briggs suggests that women’s communities have waned because the Church hierarchy quashed renewal efforts and did not give religious the freedom to reform their own communities. Writing in Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Churchs Betrayal of American Nuns (Doubleday), Briggs says cultural change and Church politics also contributed to what happened, as did the sisters’ “ingrained loyalty” to ecclesial authority.

Since then, the number of women religious in the United States also has decreased markedly, from 179,954 in 1965 to 67,773 in 2006, and opinions about the reasons are as divergent as the views of Sister Mary and Sister Carole.

Sister Mary Biatta and Sister Carole represent contrasting attitudes about religious life that have emerged in the four decades since the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II left a legacy of 16 documents, including Perfectae Caritatis (Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life).

Although Briggs sees sisters as having been stifled in their quest for reform, he discusses major changes that did occur in religious communities — from the doffing of traditional habits to leaving convents to live in apartments.

It is those changes that many now see as having impacted the number of women entering religious life in recent years.

Mother Anne Marie Holden, superior of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, a community that continues to use a habit and made only minor alterations to their life in response to Vatican II, said she believes the message of Perfectae Caritatis was for each community to return to the roots of the founder without throwing away the essentials of the vows. Instead, she said, many sisters gave up living in community, diminishing their appeal to new candidates.

“To me, that’s so sad,” she said. “So often I’ve heard women say, ‘I could do what some religious are doing [and stay] at home.’”

Women who are interested in religious life today, she said, want a solid prayer life and community, as well as an order that wears a habit.

Study Under Way

Sister Mary Biatta, a spokeswoman for the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, agreed. Young women considering religious life, she said, are looking for an order with a great love for the Church manifested by acceptance of its teachings, a visible witness, which most often means a habit, and a life of prayer and community. Yet, she said, those are the very things that changed so drastically for many sisters after Vatican II.

Sister Mary Biatta’s community held the line on change, apart from a modification of the habit in 1969. “I believe we had a very wise superior at that time who was not going to jump on any bandwagon too quickly,” said Sister Mary Biatta, who also serves as vocation director for her community. “I think that was the greatest reason why we’re still getting vocations.” The sisters, based in Alton, Ill., have continued to grow, receiving four to six new candidates each year.

Other more traditionally minded communities have enjoyed notable success as well. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, based in Nashville, Tenn., for example, took in 16 new postulants last August, and saw 10 profess final vows and another 15 receive the habit as novices. The community of 220 sisters has a median age of 36. The latest entrants come from across the U.S., as well as from Poland and Australia. One has a doctorate in mathematics, another was a doctoral candidate in philosophy, many were teachers before entering.

In an interview with Catholic News Service in February, Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said communities of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, such as the Nashville Dominicans, have the lion’s share of new vocations, although their membership comprises only 10% of the women religious in the United States.

The Council of Major Superiors represents superiors of 90 communities in the United States, while the Leadership Conference represents 292 communities.

Cardinal Rode said the Leadership Conference “goes more in the direction of secularization,” compared to the more traditional Council of Major Superiors.

Neither the Council of Major Superiors nor the Leadership Conference is aware of any statistics that might back up what Cardinal Rode said. Neither has done any projection as to the future of their communities, and neither is worried about any communities going out of existence any time soon.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Annmarie Sanders, director of communications for the Leadership Conference, said LCWR does not track information on the median age of its member communities. Communities belonging to the CMSW have a median age of 55.

But a study to determine which communities are getting vocations is getting under way, said Holy Cross Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference. Brother Bednarczyk said his conference is in talks with the Center for Applied Research Apostolate in Washington, D.C., about such a study. Once it’s done, Brother Bednarczyk said, it will be of great service to religious institutes in the United States.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence of who is receiving vocations and who is not, but the fact is we do not have the hard data,” he said.

Deepening Holiness

Sister Carole would not speculate on why more traditional communities seem to be attracting vocations. As a result of reform, she said, “We’ve gone from living on a very superficial level where holiness was measured by how deep your pleats and how shiny your shoes were to a place where we now understand and value that the spirituality of all the faithful is a much more real, everyday part of who we are.”

In Double Crossed, Briggs downplays the gains of communities such as the Nashville Dominicans by saying that concern with numbers is more akin to America’s obsession with sales figures and thus not apropos to religious life.

He also calls the growth of traditional communities “fleeting and illusory,” adding, “[They] might flourish, after a fashion, loyal to the directives of nostalgic bishops, but the membership of such communities would likely be skewed in the direction of Catholic conservatism rather than, as in days past, representative of a cross-section of the Church.”

Joseph Varacalli, author of The Catholic Experience in America (Greenwood Press), takes another view of such communities, seeing them as part of a restorationist or “neo-orthodox” movement in the Church. For restorationists, he writes, the causes of the shortage include “the lack of a fundamental commitment to recruitment, a constant disparagement of the importance of religious life, and the liberalization that has occurred within female religious orders that has made the call far less distinctive, challenging and well defined.”

Sister Carole of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious would disagree.

She does not equate declining numbers of religious women with the reforms that followed Vatican II and thinks that changes in the institutional cycle of the Church combined with social trends may have as much to do with the decrease as anything.

“I entered religious life in 1960 when there were only three or four viable options for young women,” she said. “You either became a secretary, a nurse, a teacher or you married. ... Most young women graduating from high school today have the whole world in front of them and have all sorts of options to choose from.”

Other factors in the drop in numbers of women religious, Sister Carole said, include Catholic parents having smaller families, making them less likely to encourage their children to pursue religious life, a culture in which heroes for young people are those who achieve celebrity or success, and the deterioration of permanent commitment in the culture.

Benedictine Sister Christine Vladimiroff, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa., added that in general, people today are making long-term commitments at a later age. Those who do have an interest in religious life have the option of becoming associated with a community in ways other than making a permanent commitment with vows.

Her community, for instance, has a longstanding oblate program with more than 200 members.

Sister Christine said the Benedictines of Erie, who no longer wear a habit, have retained an emphasis on prayer and community even as some members have moved away from the monastery to live in houses in small groups. The convent currently has three women in formation.

Sister Carole said she doesn’t necessarily see lower numbers of women religious as a negative.

“I think we’re going through a pruning period,” she said. “I’m not sure we should have been as large as we were in the 1950s. ... Religious life was never intended to be an enormous number of people. It’s really a very small, powerful, laser-like focus of people. I don’t think we want to interpret what is happening today as diminishment or in a negative way. I think we’re being reshaped for a new age.”

However, Varacalli said those who see new life coming to the Church in the form of more traditional orders would argue that there are countless women who would dedicate themselves to religious life if only the Church would extend a strong invitation. Thus, he said, the shortage of sisters is artificial and caused by progressive Catholics in charge of religious life.

Judy Roberts is based in

Graytown, Ohio.

Different Organizations, Different Paths

The two main organizations of women religious in the United States — with one associated with 1970s attempts at renewal and the other seeking renewal according to Vatican II — both began in the 1950s.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Religious asked leaders of pontifical orders of women religious in the United States in 1956 to form a conference. What resulted was the Conference of Major Superiors of Women. Its initial purpose was to promote the spiritual welfare of women religious, insure increasing efficacy in their apostolate and foster closer fraternal cooperation with all religious, the hierarchy, the clergy and Catholic associations.

The conference renamed itself the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 1971, with its new name implying “that the women would steer their own ship rather than take directions from Rome.” The Congregation for Religious refused to recognize the new name for five years, finally doing so in 1975.

Along with the name change came an increasing focus on “justice issues.” Throughout the 1970s it took up causes such as the needs of migrants, poverty and activities of American corporations in the third world. In 1977 it gained non-governmental status at the United Nations, enabling it to bring the perspective of women religious to issues of disarmament and human rights to the world body. Later, in the 1990s, members participated in protests outside the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., which had been accused of training killing squads for South American conflicts.

But perhaps no other event summed up what some people found wrong with the Leadership Conference then Religious Sister of Mary Theresa Kane’s speech in front of Pope John Paul II, visiting the United States in 1979. Then president of the conference, Sister Theresa urged the Pope to include “half of humankind” in “all ministries of our Church.”

The question of women’s ordination certainly seemed to continue to be on the conference’s mind. In the mid-1990s, a two-year study addressed the question, “If ordination is closed to women, in what alternate ways can they exercise leadership in the Church?”

Meanwhile, a group split off from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 1970-71, partly over feminist issues, according to Double Crossed, a new book by former New York Times religion editor Kenneth Briggs.

It named itself the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis, after the Vatican II document on renewal in religious life. According to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., it was made up of women religious who were committed to spiritual renewal while not neglecting the authentic updating called for by Vatican II, which was to go back to the founder’s charism.

The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious was formed out of the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis and other like-minded organizations in 1992. The Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life granted it canonical approval in 1995.

— Register staff