Catholic orders

Catholic orders disappearing


The monastic and religious orders are the foot soldiers of the Catholic faith. They are one of the most enduring and influential movements in human history.

In Australia, and the western world generally, they are in serious decline.

Numbers have halved in the last 25 years. The median age is 73. The death rate vastly outstrips the number of new members.

Many of the 161 orders of nuns, brothers and priests will be extinct within 15 years - some have only two or three members - and they have closed or transferred more than 100 hospitals, schools or aged-care facilities.

Australia has 8422 members of Catholic religious orders - 5927 women, 1611 priests and 884 brothers - down from a peak of 19,413 in 1966. Only 8 per cent are under 50, while 74 per cent are over 65 and 27 per cent are over 80.

In the 12 years to 2009, the orders recruited 401 new members, of whom three-quarters were still there last year. But 2531 members died and 483 left in the same time.

I'd be interested to know how many of the new recruits came from the global South.

Some thoughts on why the decline and how some orders are bucking the trend.

Reappearing nuns


Despite the devastation of the last thirty or more years (see “Disappearing nuns”), there are some signs of renewal and hope for religious orders. Those signs are evident among the newer orders that have remained true to their spiritual tradition and are still making the traditional demands of religious life. Those orders are successfully recruiting new members. Both DiIanni and Wittberg have described how the thriving communities are re-establishing an emphasis on “intense community life” and “communitarian living.” Nygren and Ukeritis have found that the orders that are most healthy have reinstated monastic practices and a sense of clarity about their life and work.

Traditionally, before taking final vows, members of orders are required to successfully complete an extensive four-stage formation program. Before Vatican II, formation programs were normally conducted within the religious order, thus reinforcing its unique “charism” or unique spiritual identity and mission. However, with the declining numbers that followed Vatican II many orders moved to intercommunity formation. A characteristic of the newer and revitalised orders is that they conduct their own formation programs and thus successfully impart their unique charism to new recruits.

Dilanni has observe three aspects that characterise the religious orders that are thriving in the post Vatican II world:

1. Explicit religious goals. They are committed to Christianity as classically understood rather than a vague faith that has died the death of a thousand definitions.

2. An intense community life. They are committed to a common life and to the practices that sustain community. The founder’s values are given community expression in oft-repeated symbols and practices.

3. A passion for an explicit worldwide evangelisation. They attract young people who are willing to minister anywhere on the globe and whose priority is evangelism.

Thriving orders make high demands on their members, they hold to traditional doctrine but are innovative in method. These growing orders have made an innovative return to their tradition, interpreting and reapplying it in a fresh way. In doing so they have sought “to make their mission relevant to the surrounding culture without being a part of the culture.” In the modern and now postmodern world they have become the legitimate heirs to a religious heritage that has known decline and rebirth throughout the whole of its eighteen hundred years.

Digging deeper:

Albert Dilanni, Religious Vocations: New Signs of the Times. Review for Religious, 52 (1993), 745-63.

Roger Finke, “An Orderly Return to Tradition: Explaining Recruitment of Members into Catholic Orders”. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Mar. 1997, 36:2, pp218-230.

David Nygren and Miriam Ukeritis, “Future of Religious Orders in the United States,” Origins Vol 22 number 15 (24 Sept, 1992), 271.

Patricia Wittberg, The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders: A Social Movement Perspective (Suny Series in Religion, Culture, and Society)

Disappearing nuns

For over fifteen hundred years, religious orders have been the driving force in the renewal and mission of the Catholic Church. Throughout their history, the orders have sought to maintain high levels of commitment to their cause. That began to change in the 1960’s when the orders sought to enter the modern age following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The Council document Lumen Gentium proclaimed the equality of all members of the Church in their calling. By clear implication, members of the religious orders were no longer uniquely set apart from other Catholics. Following the Council, various reforms were introduced. In the women’s orders, name changes were no longer required of new members. Habits did not have to be worn. Vows were reinterpreted. “Poverty” was reinterpreted as “moderation.” “Obedience” was forsaken for democratic governance and individual discretion. Communal living was less widely practiced. The various orders were encouraged to minimise their various distinctives and adopt a more centralized approach. The fundamental nature of religious life began to alter. Women were encouraged to choose their own occupation and by implication, their own mission. Orders scrambled to revise their mission statements to accommodate diversity

All of these changes appear completely reasonable and appropriate, even necessary in order to enable the religious orders to enter the modern era and attract a new generation of participants. What were the outcomes? How have the women’s religious orders fared since these modernizations were introduced? Have the changes led to a new generation of women joining the religious orders? The figures speak for themselves.

In 1965, the year in which the Council concluded its deliberations 4,110 women entered religious orders in the United States while 491 sought dispensations to leave their order. By 1970, new entrants had shrunk to 662 with 2,456 women exiting orders. Overall membership in women’s orders fell suddenly between 1966 and 1975 (181, 421 to 135,204). For almost four decades the decline has continued to the point where the viability of religious orders is now in question. The impact of the Vatican II reforms had been a disaster. The reforms designed to make religious life attractive to a new generation actually decreased the appeal. Why?

1. The Vatican II pronouncements undermined the ideological framework that gave meaning to religious vocation. By acknowledging all callings as equal the Council nullified the basic ideological foundation of eighteen centuries of Roman Catholic religious life’.

2. By allowing individuals to choose their own missions and by accommodating the subsequent diversity by revising corporate mission statement, the orders lost any sense of a clear, unified purpose.

3. By lowering the demands placed on members, the orders unintentionally reduced the rewards obtained through membership. Demanding membership is not sought as a goal in itself. But when imposed, it can result in significant spiritual and social rewards that are valued by those who join orders.

4. The orders that abandoned communal living found that faith was harder to sustain unless it is supported by significant relationships, members found it easier to question their faith and to leave their vocation when their significant relationships were outside of their order.

The changes introduced by Vatican II reduced the level of commitment required of members of religious orders. In doing so it reduced even more the appeal of religious life to those who were looking for a spiritual cause to live for. Religious life became like more like other vocations. Members left for other professions. Religious life became less appealing to candidates. The Catholic Church lost the services of its most dedicated members and is suffering dearly for it today.

If you're serious...

Roger Finke, “An Orderly Return to Tradition: Explaining Recruitment of Members into Catholic Orders”. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Mar. 1997, 36:2, pp218-230.

Patricia Wittberg, The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders: A Social Movement Perspective (Suny Series in Religion, Culture, and Society)

Reappearing Nuns