Book notes: Insightful data, analysis of sisters

Book notes: Insightful data, analysis of sisters

By Sr. Katarina Schuth O.S.F., c

WHEN MADE AWARE OF DATA on Catholic sisters, many audiences are shocked to learn about the precipitous decrease in members in recent decades. In 1965, the Official Catholic Directory reported the number of sisters at 179,954; by 2013 the number was 52,557, down by 127,397. How did this drastic decline happen? What was behind the enormous demographic change? How have the diminishing numbers affected the ability of institutes to attract new members? How do generational cultures, with their differences and similarities, shape religious life today? What possible futures await sisters in various age groups and distinctive types of congregations?

If these questions intrigue or perplex or unsettle you, New Generations of Catholic Sisters by Sister Mary Johnson, S.N.D.deN., Sister Patricia Wittberg, S.C., and Dr. Mary Gautier will provide the most comprehensive responses ever assembled. To examine these questions, they offer a vibrant narrative, interweaving a journal-like story of vocational discernment with extensive data from research studies. These contrasting resources add to the validity, interest, and usefulness of the findings.

In discussing the possible reasons for the decline in the number of sisters, the authors quote several media representatives, whose assessments about the future of religious life are usually dismal. These sources mention various causes for the downward spiral, which they believe has made it difficult to attract new members. For instance, some blamed shrinkage on women’s institutes “reassessing their missions and rules of life at the same time as the women’s movement was transforming social attitudes and practices.” Other sources blamed lower numbers on the “rigid and unreasonable restrictions on women’s institutes” by the Catholic Church. Yet another perspective placed blame on the sisters for changing from their traditional way of life.

Reasons for the decrease in Catholic sisters are described more compellingly by the authors through their review of social science research and their knowledgeable interpretation of the facts. Beginning with Sister Marie Augusta Neal’s 1982 groundbreaking national study of sisters, research has been wide-ranging in its scope and findings. Sister Neal, already perceiving the decline more than three decades ago, mentioned changes in society, a failure to invite candidates from among immigrants, and “the reduced probability of young sisters coming in direct contact with sisters in ministry,” as contributing factors. Other major studies followed, offering reasons for the drop-off as a general crisis in faith, structural changes in religious institutes, individualism, lack of distinctive identity, and the widening of women’s professional opportunities. According to the authors of New Generations, recently it is the gap between generations that seems to deter interest, especially of those under 40. In their analysis of various NRVC-CARA studies, Johnson, Wittberg, and Gautier consider in detail the different forms of religious life, as well as the ages of entrants, their ethnicity, and their choice of religious institutes.

Their appraisal details the distinctions among the many alternatives available to young adults who are considering a religious commitment. They believe it is necessary for each institute to define and make known its distinct identity. Certain tensions arise out of these many forms with their diverse theories about and practices of religious life. Church documents, importantly among them Perfectae Caritatis and Vita Consecrata, along with several Vatican interventions, have contributed to the present state of affairs. In contrasting the content of these documents and reports with a document coming from a 2004 World Congress on Religious Life, the authors suggest that “the differences in language, tone, and emphasis regarding the evangelical counsels, mission, charism, and role in the Church shed light on the strained relationship of some religious institutes with the institutional Church.” On closer scrutiny, it is unclear, however, that the intent of the statement of the World Congress was to provide a contrasting view of the key elements of religious life. Rather, that meeting dealt with a much wider agenda. Nonetheless, differences are apparent.

Other chapters of New Generations of Catholic Sisters explore the religious and spiritual landscape impacting the younger generation. Among the striking findings are the data related to recent entrants. An almost equal percentage of women join institutes associated with LCWR and CMSWR, but since LCWR comprises about four times more institutes, candidates are “spread out” over a larger base. The age of candidates attracted to each group differs radically, with older candidates moving toward LCWR congregations, and younger ones tending to favor CMSWR institutes. Chapter 4 captures the challenges for leaders and members as differences are manifested in community living, communal prayer, and ministry.

The next three chapters spell out the many generational challenges facing institutes as they emphasize their charisms and sources of identity. Some built their identity on ministry and social justice, while others accentuated their tradition of Eucharistic devotion. Helpfully the narrative points out that U.S. Catholicism is not monolithic, which suggests that young women with a more activist leaning may well find appealing the more traditional sense of stability and permanence, while women who desire a more “conservative” approach may be dedicated to a ministry of social justice. In any case, a clearly articulated identity is preferable in order to draw new members.

Numerous informative bar graphs show dissimilarities and likenesses among generations. For example, Chapter 6 deals with prayer, spirituality, and the vows; and Chapter 7 looks at community and ministry. Taken as a whole, the findings reveal more commonality than might be expected, but differences are also noteworthy. For instance, younger members lean toward communal life and shared ministry, while older members favor living with those involved in varied ministries. As the authors point out, each generation needs to search for mutual understanding through dialogue if religious institutes are to thrive and survive.

The concluding chapter, “Inviting the Future,” is filled with wisdom and sound, practical advice for leaders, vocation directors, and all members of religious institutes—in fact, for anyone sincerely interested in the Catholic Church in the U.S. The goal of articulating “the Gospel message in a language that resonates with changing worldviews” will require all parties to understand “the beliefs, values, desires and preoccupations that attract young people to, or repel them from, considering a religious vocation.” It compels generations who hold divergent views to get to know each other and for older generations to actively invite younger candidates to join them. The task for all sisters is to examine their life of prayer and ministry and commit themselves “to widen the space of their communal tents” for the sake of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ—and of regenerating their own institutes.


Sister Katarina Schuth, O.S.F. is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis, Rochester, MN. She holds the Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN. She has authored five books on theological education and church ministry, including Educating Leaders for Ministry, and is currently working on a book about changes in seminary education since Vatican II.

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