The Visitation’s Phantom Issue: Why Communities Decline or Thrive


Many communities that retain traditional forms of religious life are flourishing.
Many communities that retain traditional forms of religious life are flourishing. (photo: Facebook/Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist)

The final report on the apostolic visitation of institutes of women religious in the United States, issued on Dec. 16, presents a strong appreciation of the value of consecrated life in the Church and the contributions made by the thousands of religious women who have dedicated themselves to the apostolic work of the Church.

But the overall message is that the days of 175,000 women religious staffing parish schools, hospitals, orphanages and other charities are over, and they will not be returning anytime soon. The task now is to care for the aging, retired religious and to nurture the communities that are still able to receive new members.

The report, issued by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, notes the typically aging membership (median age is 75) and declining numbers (about 50,000). But it makes no attempt to identify the causes of the decline.

The closest it comes is the comment, almost in passing, that “vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted that candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women. This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasize these aspects of religious life” (4).

The report does not mention that there are some communities that do fit this description, and many of those are growing fast and have median ages in the 30s. In other words, after 50 years of “renewal,” most congregations are actually dying, and those that are thriving have retained the hallmarks of strong community life and distinctive identity.

There are hints that work needs to be done in certain areas. Without saying so, the report is really identifying where things fell apart:

  • Individual and communal prayer: “This congregation asks the members of each institute to evaluate their actual practice of liturgical and common prayer. We ask them to discern what measures need to be taken to further foster the sisters’ intimate relationship with Christ and a healthy communal spirituality based on the Church’s sacramental life and sacred Scripture” (5).
  • Doctrinal and apostolic harmony: “This dicastery calls upon all religious institutes to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption” (6). In 2012, the report by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization made up of the leaders of the religious women covered in the current report, found that the materials used in formation and education, the public positions taken by the LCWR and the speakers presented at their conferences failed to present full Catholic doctrine and even strayed into troublesome areas, such as ordaining women, supporting the homosexual lifestyle and “moving beyond Jesus.”
  • Community life: After noting that many sisters live alone, in pairs or even with members of other congregations, the report “urge(s) religious institutes to reflect deeply upon their lived experience of the community dimension of their consecrated life and to courageously take steps to strengthen their communities, that they might become ever more convincing signs of communion in Christ” (7).

It is well-known that some communities refused to cooperate with the apostolic visitation. The report frankly acknowledges the lack of trust in some circles and offers an open door to “respectful and fruitful dialogue with them” (11).

Some religious have expressed frustration with the male-dominated structures of the Church. The congregation cites Pope Francis in recognizing the need for greater collaboration among all the faithful and particularly that “‘the feminine genius’ find expression in the various settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures (Evangelii Gaudium, 103). We will continue to work to see that competent women religious will be actively involved in ecclesial dialogue regarding ‘the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life’ (104)” (11).

Finally, the congregation confirms the continuing place of religious life in the Church. “Our times need the credible and attractive witness of consecrated religious who demonstrate the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel. Convinced of the sublime dignity and beauty of consecrated life, may we all pray for and support our women religious and actively promote vocations to the religious life” (11).

When the Second Vatican Council issued its declaration on religious life, Perfectae Caritatis, it was clear that the work of renewal within religious congregations would have to be carried out by the members themselves. It could not be done by decree from Rome.

Those institutes that have flourished have had the spiritual strength and acumen to carry out the difficult task of discerning their founding charisms in the light of the Church’s present needs and retaining the practices that sustained those charisms. New institutes have sprung up and, like the wise scribe of the Gospels, have brought forth new things and old for the benefit of the Church.

There is a natural dynamic in consecrated life that requires steady focus on the Lord, who alone sustains it. If the focus is lost, so will be the life of the community. The Church suffers when a center of witness is lost, but the Holy Spirit is always at work, providing new opportunities for those who want to respond.

The final report of the apostolic visitation can be read as an overview of life receding along one path and advancing along another.

Donna Bethell is chairman of the board of directors at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.