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.

8.02.2022

Are Religious Sisters Headed for Extinction in the 2040s? (Spoiler… No)

Last Week ABC News published a story entitled “America’s nun population in steep decline” with five authors. The story’s lede starts by noting that young adults are becoming less religious. It highlights that fewer are identifying as Christian, including identifying as Catholic. As we’ve shown before, the decline in Christian affiliation is much steeper than in Catholic affiliation, which has been quite stable by comparison. Also many young adult Catholics are increasingly religiously active in unconventional ways.

The story then refers to studies that were profiled by a Catholic news source about the age distribution of religious sisters. The ABC News story concludes that the average age of sisters is 80. Yet, I don’t believe either of the studies cited indicate this. The survey of membership survey of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) found the average age of its members was 57. The second report, by CARA, reviews population trends and a survey of sisters. A 2009 survey cited in that report includes an age distribution for all sisters but no average age is given.

Then this paragraph appears in the story: “In 2022, there were reportedly fewer than 42,000 nuns in America, which is a 76% decline over 50 years. At the rate sisters are disappearing, one estimate said that there will be fewer than 1,000 nuns left in the United States by 2042, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.” This links to a Pew Research Center report that links to CARA’s Frequently Requested Statistics.

CARA has not projected that there will be fewer than 1,000 nuns in the United States in 20 years. If one took the data from our frequently requested statistics, from 1970 to 2021, and applied a rate of change and assumed “if current trends continue” then the assumption in the aforementioned paragraph might look like the best future estimate. But again, CARA did not say this and furthermore it is far from the best future estimate.

In 2014, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation commissioned the CARA to conduct an annual survey of women and men who enter religious life each year in a religious congregation, province, or monastery based in the United States. CARA surveys religious institutes annually asking for a list of new entrants. We then survey these men and women entering religious life annually. In 2021, for example, 136 women entered religious life. Their average age was 28 (median age of 25). Between 2015 and 2021, 1,279 women entered religious life and had, at the time of entry, a similar age profile to those entering in 2021. The average size of an annual entrance class during this period is 183.

The steep decline in the number of sisters is a result of an extraordinary period in the Catholic Church in the United States. The number of sisters in the United States peaked in 1965 at 181,421 sisters. This was far from the historical norm and the Church received decades of service from these women. After 1965, new entries began to slow. A sister who entered religious life at the age of 25 in 1965 would be 82 years old today. We are unfortunately seeing the passing of this extraordinary generation of women.

Yet, women have continued to enter religious life since 1965 and there will be many more than “1,000 nuns left” in 2042. The “current trend” in the data will not continue as the rate of decline will slow and stabilize around a population of sisters that numbers more than 10,000 rather than fewer than a thousand.

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