Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Sister Statistics: What Is Happening?

In spring 2014, CARA began analyzing membership data reported by the religious institutes of women in the United States as listed in The Official Catholic Directory (OCD). Forthcoming is a CARA Special Report based on this research entitled, Population Trends among Religious Institutes of Women. This post presents a teaser to this Special Report as well as some re-analysis of a CARA poll regarding vocational interest focusing on young never-married women’s interest in a religious vocation. Two CARA summer interns contributed substantially to these efforts, Erick Berrelleza, S.J., a Jesuit Scholastic at Boston College and James Fangmeyer, Jr., a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. This is all part of a recent flurry of research on religious life by CARA in addition to CARA Senior Research Associate Mary Gautier co-authoring New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2014) with Sr. Mary Johnson, N. and Sr. Patricia Wittberg, S.C.

As an applied research center, there are many reasons for CARA to focus on women religious. Perhaps the most pressing is that if current trends continue (…and they may not), there would be fewer than 1,000 religious sisters in the United States in 2043 (…most of this change would occur through aging and mortality with 11% of sisters in the United States currently in their 90s, 26% in their 80s, and 32% in their 70s). This estimated 2043 total would be similar to the number of sisters in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. Currently the total number of sisters in the United States is similar to totals for the first years of the 20th century.

The number of sisters relative to the Catholic population is more precarious in the United States than in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. The situation in the U.S., is slightly better than in Austria, France, Poland, and Portugal. Leading all other countries, there are more sisters in India than anywhere else (99,330). That equates to about 199 Catholics in India per religious sister.

By comparison there are 1,338 Catholics per religious sister in the United States (and 672 per religious sister in Italy). In addition to India, in several other Asian and African countries, the number of religious sisters is growing year over year (e.g., Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, Vietnam, Indonesia, and South Korea). Yet in many of these countries there are still more Catholics per religious sister than in the United States (e.g. in Nigeria this is 4,783 compared to 1,338 in the United States). No European country is currently experiencing growth in the number of religious sisters. Between 2002 and 2012, Asia and Africa experienced a net increase in sisters of 39,420. By comparison, the Americas, Europe, and Oceania lost a net 119,823 sisters during this same period (…globally the Church experienced a net loss of 80,403 sisters since 2002).

The Special Report will highlight institutes in the United States that are seeing women enter formation and the few that are experiencing this at a rate that allows them to grow. This is easier for smaller, newer orders than it is for the larger, more established orders that are losing many older members who joined communities at membership peaks in the 1960s.

Here in the United States, Gautier and her co-authors note, “Some commentators, for ideological purposes, attempt to create generalized typologies that mask the complexity of the religious reality, arguing that all new entrants go to traditionalist (CMSWR [Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious]) institutes and few or none go to LCWR [Leadership Conference of Women Religious] institutes. … The reality of the situation is that almost an equal percentage of LCWR and CMSWR institutes have no one at all in formation at the present time (32 percent and 27 percent, respectively). One of the most striking findings regarding new entrants is that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences in recent years.” (pg. 20-21).

One of the key differences between those attracted to LCWR institutes is that they are more likely to be over the age of 40, whereas those attracted to CMSWR institutes tend to be younger. As Gautier and her co-authors note, the Millennial religious sisters (b. 1982 or later)—in an institute in either conference—are more likely than those who are older to say the following types of prayer are “very” important to them: daily Eucharist, common meditation, Eucharistic Adoration, and other devotional prayer. Younger sisters are also more likely than older sisters to place more importance on aspects of community: they find living with other members, sharing meals together, and socializing together to be “very” important to them. Finally, the younger sisters are also more likely than older sisters to be attracted to their institute’s fidelity to the Church and its practice regarding a habit.

Gautier and her co-authors caution that “Millennial Catholics, of course, are not the last generation the Church must attract. The Post-Millennial generation is already passing through our high schools. While we do not know what worldview they will develop when they reach young adulthood, we do know that they will not be the same as the Millennials.”

Far too few Millennials and Post-Vatican II Generation (b. 1961-81) Catholic women in the United States have decided to enter religious life to make up for the older generations who have passed away or left. Gautier and her co-authors argue that those currently and recently entering religious life are a rather anomalous few among their peers. To reach more women beyond these few, institutes in the United States would need different approaches to attract Millennial women who are not as currently devoted to their faith. There are no easy answers to just what these approaches may be.

CARA’s Special Report analysis identified only six units of religious institutes with at least 100% growth between 1970 and 2013 (i.e., doubling their membership). Some of these units are often used in anecdotes and news reports about Church trends reversing. However, when one sums the membership of all six “fast” growing units you find that in total they have added only 267 net members since 1970 (i.e., totaling a membership of 229 in 1970 and 496 in 2013). Whatever the units of these institutes have done or are doing will unlikely be the solution to reversing losses in the tens of thousands elsewhere. It’s simply not enough. There are 348 units of religious institutes that have lost 50% or more of their members since 1970 (i.e., net change in total membership). The total net number of sisters lost here from 1970 to 2013 totals nearly 105,000.

Here is a teaser to what the Special Report will reveal about this complex situation (…available soon!):

What gets lost in the discussion of the overall decline of women religious are the stories of institutes that have not followed the decline trend. Religious institutes experiencing growth, for instance, were virtually unaccounted for in past studies. Since any growth in vocations did not surpass the number needed for replacement, many institutes were simply dismissed as having no new members. While in many cases new vocations to religious life are not abundant, it is important to recognize that women continue to be called to this way of life. Although the numbers overall continue to decline, this Special Report presents signs of life that are hidden in those numbers.

It also reveals the diverse ways in which religious institutes have and are responding to declines in membership in the United States. There is no universal approach. However, the choices being made will have significant implications for the future of the Church in the United States.

While the Special Report will focus on women already in religious institutes, other recent CARA research has evaluated who is potentially interested in joining in the future. In a 2012 CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) of never-married Catholics ages 14 and older, respondents provided their attitudes toward religious vocations. A shown below, never-married Catholic females ages 14 to 30 are slightly less likely than those who are older to have considered, and considered “very” seriously, becoming a religious sister. However, these differences are small-especially when one accounts for margin of error.

It is the case that most Catholic women do not consider religious life. But then again, the Catholic population in the United States is and has been so large that even a small fraction considering is equivalent to hundreds of thousands seriously considering this at some point.

Among females ages 30 and younger, a majority of those who have not considered a religious vocation indicate a desire to be a mother (55%) as being “very much” the reason for this lack of consideration (25% say this is the “most important” reason for not considering compared to only 7% of older women). On a related note, many also cite the lifestyle and the work of sisters as reasons for not considering a religious vocation (43%) as well as concerns about celibacy (38%).

Older never-married women are less likely to cite any of these reasons as a factor that “very much” led to their lack of consideration. On the other hand, older female respondents were more likely than younger to cite the stigma of clergy sex abuse to be a reason for not considering religious life. This in part may reflect the passing of time, as respondents in their teens at the time of the survey were small children in 2002 when news of these cases became widespread. Note that in the closed-ended questions this older group cited God not calling them as the “most important” reason for not considering (26%).

What is perhaps also striking about the figures in the table below is the lack of generational differences on many other issues.

Respondents who had never considered a vocation were also given the opportunity to express reasons for this in their own words. Below is a sampling from those ages 30 and younger:
  • Always wanted to get married and have a family.
  • At this point of my life I don’t want to settle down to one thing.
  • Different career aspirations and perhaps motherhood.
  • Felt my calling was outside sisterhood.
  • God had another purpose in life for me.
  • I am in a relationship.
  • I couldn't imagine that type of spiritual life style, I enjoy the company of a man and would like to get married one day.
  • I do not believe I can follow the way of the sisters.
  • I have had a great deal of exposure to sisters and have great respect for them, but I have other plans for my life that include another career path.
  • I have other interests that I want to accomplish.
  • I want the joys of being married with children.
  • I was not interested, it did not fit with my dreams.
  • My boyfriend is against it.
  • That is not a lifestyle I could picture myself living in.

By comparison below are some representative comments from respondents ages 31 and older:
  • Because it’s not my calling.
  • Believed that I would marry and have children.
  • Could not take a vow of poverty.
  • Freedom of movement and speech.
  • I am not holy enough.
  • I could not follow their strict rules.
  • I don't have any interest in it nor do I think I'm the "right" type of person.
  • I don't have the patience or humility required.
  • I don't think I would ever not be interested in men. I also like flirting and dating them. I like guys too much.
  • I enjoy my freedom of choice.
  • I like men and having an intimate relationship. I wanted a family, freedom, a career. I did not want to live with women to serve God. I could serve him as a lay person active in my parish community.
  • I have never felt the "calling."
  • I'm not willing to be totally submissive to the rules and obligations of the order's leader.
  • Not that selfless.
  • This was not my calling in life.
  • When I was young nuns wore habits and I liked clothes.

On that last note, there are mixed opinions among never-married Catholic women regarding sisters wearing habits. Half of the younger respondents say they do “not at all” agree that religious sisters should wear habits compared to 58% of older respondents. At the other end of the spectrum just 5% of the younger respondents and 10% of the older agree “very much” with this practice.

Younger never-married Catholic females also appear to have less awareness than older respondents that there is a diminishing number of religious sisters, as only 14% agree “very much” that the Church has too few sisters compared to 31% of never-married females ages 31 and older. It is also the case that younger respondents are less likely than older respondents to agree “very much” that they understand what religious sisters do (16% compared to 36%).

Regression analyses of the survey responses (available in the full report) indicated that women 1) who attended a Catholic elementary school as a child (...and too few may be enrolled now to support vocations), 2) who remained involved with a Church group while in high school, and 3) who were encouraged by multiple people to explore a religious vocation were most likely to have considered it. Among those who had considered this at least a little seriously, majorities of the younger respondents say they were “very much” interested in an active religious life devoted to ministry and service (52% compared to 42% of older respondents) as well as having a contemplative religious life devoted to prayer and community (50% compared to 30% of older respondents).

Again this post is just meant as a teaser. I can’t give away the bulk of the story (no spoilers) which you’ll find in the upcoming Special Report.  

Update: This report became available on Oct. 13 and is available for download here.

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