Where Have All the Nuns Gone?
Thriving orders dispute new book’s “double-crossed” claim
BY JUDY ROBERTS
August 6-12, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/7/06 at 9:00 AM
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 Church’s 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
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
Other more traditionally minded
communities have enjoyed notable success as well. The Dominican Sisters of St.
Cecilia, based in
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
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
“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.
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.”
author of The Catholic Experience in
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
Different Organizations, Different Paths
The two main organizations of
women religious in the
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
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
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 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
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
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