Declining US religious outlined in new report

A longtime trend of declining numbers of women in religious orders is unpacked in a new study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

In the report, the social science researchers of CARA observed that the demographical story of women religious in the US takes some disentangling.

Although past studies have talked about the rapid decline in the number of nuns in the country starting after the Second Vatican Council, “such studies did not provide the more nuanced narrative of what decline meant for the individual religious institute”, the report said. “How, for example, did religious institutes respond to declining membership?”

From a peak in 1965 of 181,000, the number of women religious in the US has steadily declined to the current 50,000. That’s about how many sisters there were in the US 100 years ago, said the report, Population Trends Among Religious Institutes of Women, by CARA staffers Mary L. Gautier and Mark M. Gray, and Erick Berrelleza, a Jesuit scholastic at Boston College.

CARA found that, as their numbers declined, some religious orders reorganised their internal structures, while others merged with other religious institutes. Some have been bolstered by sisters from other countries or women who joined a religious order later in life. Others simply stopped serving in the United States.

“In the face of diminishment,” it said, “women religious have innovated by responding with new models when old models proved ineffective.”

The report pointed to a flaw in assumptions about the growth in women’s religious vocations coming primarily in orders that are “traditionalist” – meaning for example, those whose members wear a full religious habit – while institutes whose members do not wear a traditional habit are declining.

“One of the most striking findings regarding new entrants is that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted” to both kinds of religious orders, the CARA report quoted.

Among other items in the report, CARA pointed to several institutes that stood out in the data for having a “slowing rate of decline” in number of members. When the authors dug a bit, they found that such slowing sometimes was the result of one community absorbing another.

There are some institutes that show consistent growth even without such mergers, the report said.

“These communities do not exhibit the growth-followed-by-decline pattern and seem to point to even further expansion into the foreseeable future,” it said.