A Plumb Line

Our Lord has raised an unsullied crop of priests and nuns in our midst



Twenty years of clerical sex abuse scandals have rocked the Church. I heard that in 2002, after the Boston Globe reports, some clergy took to wearing civilian clothes in public to avoid heckling. A part of me was thankful that I had not become a brother or religious priest at St. Joseph Abbey, 33 years before, where I had noticed warning signs of odd behavior.

Over the millennia, too much prosperity has proven to harm the Church. Its moral foundation goes soft.

The primitive church was constructed with a plumb line and spirit level by Jesus Christ and his first apostles. Their successors in certain times and places allow it to deteriorate. As readers of this magazine well know, the U.S. church is struggling. U.S. church statistics give evidence of that. From 1970 to 2019, the number of religious sisters dropped from 161,000 to 41,000; diocesan priests from 37,000 to 25,000; and parishes from 18,000 to 16,000. The only bright spots are the increase in permanent deacons, growing from 1,000 to 18,000, and some worldwide stats (parishes grew from 191,000 to 223,000; priests from 271,000 to 281,000; and permanent deacons from 303,000 to 471,000).

“Behold, I will set a plumb line in the midst of my people,” wrote a prophet of old (cf. Amos 7:8), as the Lord measured his people.

A moral plumb line is in our midst: an unsullied crop of austere priests and devout nuns with high moral standards. Certain U.S. religious orders have taken a turn toward fidelity and tradition. While there may be no quick or easy solutions to revitalizing religious life in America, a handful of communities seem to be heading in the right direction, growing so fast they are running out of room.

The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, or Nashville Dominicans, now number over 300. Their many young sisters teach in Catholic schools in about 40 states, and in Australia, Scotland, and Canada.

The Michigan-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist are also growing. Founded in 1997, they now number about 140 (average age: upper 20s).

The Religious Sisters of Mercy, in Alma, Michigan, have gone from seven sisters at their founding in 1973 to about 100 today.

As for priests: The Dominicans of the Province of St. Joseph, in the northeast (one of four Dominican provinces in the US), is one of the fastest growing men’s religious communities, with nearly 70 men in formation.

Despite global-level scandal and some upheaval, the numbers of Legionaries of Christ priests have grown in recent decades.

The Church many times has been kept from collapsing, and that in itself is a stupendous miracle.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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