August 8, 2014

U.S. nuns face shrinking numbers and tensions with the Vatican

The number of American nuns is on the declineThe Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which includes representation from more than 80% of American nuns, is set to hold its annual assembly next week in Nashville. The meeting comes as the organization continues to draw scrutiny from the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, and also at a time when there has been a steep decline in the number of nuns.

The Vatican first began taking a hard look at some organizations of U.S. nuns about five years ago, eventually ordering an investigation and a “doctrinal assessment” of the LCWR – and a plan for organizational reform.

While the church’s specific concerns with the nuns are complex, a few major areas were highlighted in a 2012 Vatican document, which said the LCWR was “silent on the right to life from conception to natural death” and that Roman Catholic views on the family and human sexuality “are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching.” The document also raised concerns about “radical feminist themes” at programs sponsored by the LCWR, and cited addresses at LCWR assemblies that “manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors.”

More recently, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, criticized the LCWR in an April address before a meeting with the organization and reiterated the Vatican’s intention to require approval for speakers and awardees at LCWR events.

In addition to Vatican scrutiny, nuns also face a big challenge in their dwindling ranks. The total number of nuns, also called religious sisters, in the United States has fallen from roughly 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014 – a 72% drop over those 50 years – according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. While the total number of priests (diocesan and religious) also has fallen over that period, it has done so at a much slower rate (from about 59,000 to 38,000, a 35% drop).

Globally, the number of nuns also is declining, but not nearly as fast as it is in the U.S. In 1970, U.S. nuns represented about 16% of the world’s religious sisters; now, American nuns are about 7% of the global total (just over 700,000), also according to CARA.

A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that U.S. Catholics were widely satisfied with the leadership of American nuns and sisters. Half of the Catholics surveyed (50%) said they were “very satisfied,” while an additional 33% said they were “somewhat satisfied” with nuns’ leadership. Only 4% said they were “very dissatisfied.”

A separate survey we conducted in 2013 asked U.S. Catholics, in an open-ended question, to name the most important way the church helps society: helping the poor – part of the core mission of the LCWR – or other charitable works, was by far the most popular answer (27%).

Topics: Catholics and Catholicism, Religious Beliefs and Practices

  1. is Editor at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

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22 Comments

  1. Sister Lea3 weeks ago

    Religious Congregations as a whole are an archetype of the Catholic Church, a reflection of what has and is happening in the Church at large and a precursor of where the Church needs to look to the future. The Vatican fails to recognize this at its own peril and at the peril of the whole Body of Christ.

    Yet we have hope that all this repeated denunciation of LCWR by the Vatican will spur LCWR to give up its fear of offending those who will never sanction its existence or its evolutionary worldview.

    We have hope that the Vatican’s repeated attacks on and arrogant dismissal of these brilliant and dedicated women will help LCWR to overcome its fear of being labeled heretic by a Church that is flailing in the present whirlwind of unprecedented paradigm changes in human consciousness.

    The old king/high priest/dictator mode of authority is antiquated.
    We need leadership today that speaks with the authority of authenticity, to speak as Jesus did, with courage.

    Reply
  2. noreen linneman3 weeks ago

    Women in general are unsatisfied with their treatment by the Church. Nuns are not allowed to voice their concerns over the mistreatment of all women in the church. Soon, they will all be gone and the church will be left as a society of old men..

    Reply
  3. maliamungu habib1 month ago

    I appreciate the continued research work by pew, my feeling is that the continued reduction in the number of sisters is due to increased freedom in the US, industrialization and democracy itself, however this will have direct effect on the activities that were rendered by the nuns, specifically charity activities within and outside US

    Habib

    Reply
  4. Marion Boden1 month ago

    Most nuns I know in the US were born here. Many priests I know were not.
    Is it possible the statistics we read are not accurate and that the slower decline in number of priest is really inaccurate because it is artificially inflated by including foreign-born priests?

    Reply
  5. Dan1 month ago

    To clarify the article as it is misusing terms: Nuns are cloistered. Examples are found with the Benedicitines, Cistercians, Franciscans, Caremelites, Augustinians, and Dominicans. See EWTN for an example. Though most live cloisteres, some communities may live more like Sisters as their charisma may be focused on the world. The Benedictine Sisters of Erie are an example of this and the Little Sisters of the Poor (Franciscan)-usually cloistered and part of cloister are nursing homes. Sisters live in community at a convent-sometimes separate, sometimes part-of a parish, school, or hospital. Latter examples includes the Sisters of Bon Secours and the Sisters of Charity. They are not Nuns as they are not cloistered. Their charisma is to be engaged in the world. So: Nun-cloistered. Sister-not cloistered. The majority of LCWR are Sisters.

    Reply
  6. Bill Kennedy1 month ago

    The most influential people in my life, other than my grandmother,
    were the sisters of St. Joseph that taught me at Holy Cross in Champaign, Illinois, in the early ’50s.

    Everything I learned of any value I learned from the sisters by the 5th grade.
    All else, including an MS from Stanford, was superfluous.

    They provided the bedrock foundation of everything I learned,
    for which I am eternally grateful.

    Reply
  7. Sabrina Williams1 month ago

    Interesting article. I’d love to know how many nuns of other faith communities there are in the USA. There are also nuns in the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopal and Buddhist religions, too. Are they also experiencing declines as well?

    Reply
  8. YoungSister1 month ago

    I wish Christians could rise above name calling and insulting one another, though I know it is part of being human. Jesus said people will know His friends by how they love one another…saying a recognized vocation in the Catholic Church is useless, that is not the gospel.
    I happen to be a young, female, Religious Sister. I see our way of life as more needed today than ever before. Our culture is full of individualism, materialism, and competition. People are valued for what they earn and conquer rather than who they are as children of God. I truly believe our life of prayer and missionary service around the world sends a different message. Our lives say that people do matter, that this passing world is not all there is, and that God has better plans for us than we can imagine.
    We do wear a habit, and I am grateful for that witness too. Despite that, I respect what other Religious Sisters do, no matter what they’re wearing. If my worth as a Christian stops at my wardrobe – then this is a very sad day.
    I pray that we can direct our energy in ways that build up the Body of Christ, so that instead of pointing fingers we can reach out to the poor and those who have forgotten God.

    Reply
    1. chris g1 month ago

      Well Sister, your intentions are certainly sincere and I hope for your sake that you will, in the end, feel that you have spent your life fruitfully. Just a note from my personal history: I had three aunts that were nuns, one Franciscan, one Dominican, and one was a cloistered Carmelite. As they approached the end of their lives The first two expressed a great deal of discontent with their vocational choice in life, but the real shock came from the Carmelite nun. My (female) cousin visited her in her last year of life and asked her about her life. “I wasted it” was her response. Shattering.
      I hope your youthful certainties are not ended in disappointment. Sincerely I mean that.

      Reply
      1. Robert W Vivian1 month ago

        It is not unusual for people when they come to the end of their lives, when looking back, to feel discontent. I once listened to an interview by an eminent advocate on his life just after his 100 year birthday. In his day he was famous. He had achieved a great deal. When asked if he had his life over would he do it again. “No” he said, “I would be become a medical doctor.”

        Reply
    2. Paul Adams1 month ago

      Please don’t underestimate the importance of wearing your habit, sister! It is a symbol, especially in these times, of faithfulness to the Church and her teachings, and a beacon of joy and hope for the rest of us. It seems to be the sisters who abandoned their habits who also abandoned Christianity – really not an exaggeration when you read what they have espoused in opposition to Church teaching. Those orders represented by LCWR seem to be the ones aging, not recruiting, and dying off. Even so, a national collection at Mass for retired religious recently netted some $24 million, an expression of charity even by those whose Faith they betrayed and who saw the orders that once inspired and educated run them into the ground by their own leaders.

      On the other hand, we see new orders of faithful young women – one I’m familiar with is the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. They are joyful and holy women, bursting at the seams with new young recruits. They, not LCWR, are the future of religious sisters in the Church.

      Reply
  9. Rich Tilson1 month ago

    The good Sisters are working with the poor, the hungry and teaching the children of Catholic families. They are closer to the real world and the stink of humanity and not hiding in the majestic castles of the Bishops and Cardinals. The Vatican has to blame someone for the failure of their leadership, so they pick on the good nuns. Instead they should look at their sexually immature priests, many are gay and others prey on children.
    The Nuns are closer to the teachings of Jesus Christ than the pompous gay self indulgent priesthood.

    Reply
  10. Thomas R1 month ago

    1985 to 2005 looks to be particularly a bad period for US Catholics. Also I wonder how the “Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious” are doing.

    Positive news for us Catholics is the source indicates that internationally the number of priests has increased since 1990 and that globally the number of “Parishes without a resident priest pastor” has declined since 1995. And religious brothers are about the same or slightly higher than 2000.

    Perhaps most intriguing to me is that in notes it indicates several countries did see an increase in church attendance among Catholics. The Netherlands was a surprise for me on that. The percent of the Dutch population that’s Catholic went down, but if I calculated it right about 5.5% of Dutch were church-going Catholics in 2005-2009 while in 2010-2014 it was around 6.14% as churchgoing Catholic.

    Reply
    1. Dan1 month ago

      Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious are doing very well. Vocations have been increasing to the point where some communities have building projects to make space. That being said, retention also remains very high.

      Reply
  11. Michael Fenske1 month ago

    Why don’t the bishops have the guts to investigate the men’s religious order? Sexual politics and misogyny reigns supreme again.

    Reply
  12. Gil Michelini1 month ago

    With LCWR is full rebellion against the Church, I am not surprised by these numbers. It seems that since the peak of religious sisters was 1965 that something was not right in the formation of the sisters that Vatican II only allowed to occurred rather than cause. From my experience with sisters who formed in orders around 1965 have a rebellious almost anti-Church / Protestant mindset.

    Perhaps we need this generation of rebels to pass through before the orders that are growing–those not in rebellion–can set the true standard of what it means to be a religious sister.

    Reply
  13. Gary Lockhart1 month ago

    “U.S. nuns(sic) face shrinking numbers and tensions with the Vatican” Michael Lipka

    Correction: U.S. sisters face shrinking numbers and tensions with the Vatican

    Nuns live in cloister, sisters do not. While all nuns are sisters, not all sisters are nuns. That’s an important distinction that is rarely made. Lipka should engage in some grassroots research and he’d find out what the numbers are for cloistered religious as opposed to secular religious. Traditional orders who are faithful to the Church are seeing an increase in vocations while the pant suit wearing, feminist agenda preaching cabal of dissident sisters are dwindling. Ultimately, the latter will cease to exist thanks to the course of natural events; they’re simply dying off.

    “The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which includes representation from more than 80% of American nuns,” Michael Lipka

    The LCWR counts as its members 80% of leaders of various communities not the rank and file. Big difference.

    Reply
    1. emmett coyne1 month ago

      Gary,

      what do “real” nuns do besides “pray? + Anyone can “pray.”
      I once asked a cloistered Carmelite nun what she did all day “make carmel corn?”
      She sengt me a batch of carmel corn for xmas.

      The sisters existed at a time when women had few opportunities than being avaiable for men to use them sexual & turn their wombs into baby machines..
      Sisterhood looked great.

      But now women are freer and can do better than men in most professions.

      No need for sisterhood today. t served women well when few options.

      Reply
      1. YoungSister1 month ago

        I wish Christians could rise above name calling and insulting one another, though I know it is part of being human. Jesus said people will know His friends by how they love one another…saying a recognized vocation in the Catholic Church is useless, that is not the gospel.
        I happen to be a young, female, Religious Sister. I see our way of life as more needed today than ever before. Our culture is full of individualism, materialism, and competition. People are valued for what they earn and conquer rather than who they are as children of God. I truly believe our life of prayer and missionary service around the world sends a different message. Our lives say that people do matter, that this passing world is not all there is, and that God has better plans for us than we can imagine.
        We do wear a habit, and I am grateful for that witness too. Despite that, I respect what other Religious Sisters do, no matter what they’re wearing. If my worth as a Christian stops at my wardrobe – then this is a very sad day.
        I pray that we can direct our energy in ways that build up the Body of Christ, so that instead of pointing fingers we can reach out to the poor and those who have forgotten God.

        Reply
      2. Sabrina Williams1 month ago

        Even with our modern “freedoms”, being a nun is still a viable option for one who has that calling. I think nuns (or as those of us who are Eastern Orthodox say, female monastics) have all too often been the victims of negative publicity and disinformation, and as a result have been misunderstood. You make the statement that nuns “just pray” as though that were somehow meaningless. Sure “anyone” can pray, but in reality, how many do make the time to do so except for a quick slapdash effort between the million other things we do everyday? Nuns have chose to dedicate their time and their lives to prayer, the kind of prayer that is deep and profound. It’s not something to be scoffed at or written off. Nuns pray for me, for you, for the entire world! As for the crack about carmel corn, Nuns and monks produce many different kinds of products. They do it primarily for fundraising so that they can help minister to those who are less fortunate, or to preserve historic churches and for a variety of other valid reasons. Nuns are caring for the sick, orphans, they are risking their lives every day in war-torn countries (while you mock them online)…and they do it without ever getting a regular paycheck or even recognition! When has a nun won the Nobel peace prize? Maybe they should beause they’re doing a heckuva lot more as the ‘front line’ persons than the UN ever will! I, for one appreciate the nuns in all the religious groups who have a tradition of nuns: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Jain, Confuscious, Daoism and Buddhism.

        Reply
    2. Vince1 month ago

      The number of women entering LCWR communities vs. the “Traditional” or CMSWR orders that you reference are about the same. The difference is that the CMSWR order vocations are concentrated in a much smaller number of communities.

      The world is a much different place for women than in 1965. In pre-Vatican II times, entering the convent was a path to education and leadership for women that would have been much harder to attain outside the convent. In today’s world, the opportunities exist for most women to seek higher education as well as serve in leadership roles both outside the Church and inside the Church without entering the convent.

      Is it a loss for the Church and all those served by women religious that their numbers are dwindling? Certainly. But the bottom line is that the number of women entering religious life will never return to the numbers in 1965, regardless of labels like “Traditional” or “Feminist”. The number of women in Congregations like the Nashville Dominicans, Sister of Life and others that get a lot of press is really just a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of 49,000 sisters cited in the article.

      Reply
  14. Alan Aversa1 month ago

    These statistics normalized by number of Catholics actually show the problem is worse than depicted above.

    Reply