The good sisters that served the Catholic Church so well are going away. From a few hundred in the mid 19th century to a maximum of 200,000 in 1965, their numbers are declining with an estimated roughly 45,000 sisters currently serving in 2016. The replacement number is very low with under 1,000 women nationwide entering the convent in 2010. Sadly, there are more nuns over 90 than under 60 years of age. How did this happen?
Our culture today is full of individualism, materialism, and competition. People are valued for what they earn. 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, 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.
In 1965 there were 45.6 million Catholics and 48,992 seminarians in the United States while in 2006, there were 69.1 million Catholics and only 5,642 seminarians! Today’s young adults do not know much about Jesus, the Church, the faith or religious life. Most people thinking about entering religious life are much older than in previous eras. They are concerned about what will happen to their 401(k) account, cell phone contract, apartment lease, car, dog and more. To enter a novitiate, they are being asked to break off a set of adult relationships and responsibilities that might only be a few years old. Among all their relationships, young adults know few young religious sisters, brothers or priests.
Young adults live in a media world unfamiliar to many priests and religious. DVD’s, Facebook, Snapchat, Halo 3, the Internet, WiFi, on and on. When we tell a young person we do not know how to take a picture with a cell phone, we are communicating not only that we are “out of it,” but we fall on the spectrum somewhere between imbecilic and incompetent.
Young adults experience gender issues, sexuality and the relational world very differently than most priests and religious. From sexual experimentation in their preteens to cohabitation while in college, the experience of young people has changed significantly in recent decades. A Church that condemns sexual choices and practices is seen by a large majority of today’s educated Catholics not as prophetic but as narrow-minded and prejudiced. With women running corporations and universities, serving as Speaker of the House and campaigning to become president of the United States, many Catholics find incomprehensible Church teaching prohibiting the ordination of women.
More and more young adults say they must work off a crushing student debt before they can consider entering religious life. Recruiters from the founding religious orders of many Catholic institutions find that potential candidates often take as much as a decade to pay off their student loans, making it difficult to consider the possibility of a vocation.
Many religious orders are overwhelmingly white and decidedly upper-middle class in taste and temperament. Prospective candidates who grew up in homes where incomes were near or below median family income are often put off by the lifestyle of some male religious. Many young women from semi-affluent backgrounds cannot imagine how they could survive on the meager stipends most religious women receive for personal spending, often much less than $100 a month. One Jesuit priest, when told that the median family income in the United States was $48,200, was shocked and replied, “If that were true, how could people afford to go to our schools.”
I do not see religious life in the United States Catholic Church ever returning to the levels of the 1960s. The average age in most religious communities has risen to a point where a young person is actually entering a retirement home, not a novitiate. Again, young women and young men are alienated by the patriarchal and/or hierarchical nature of the priesthood and the idea of living a celibate lifestyle is incomprehensible in our overly sexualized age.