Why Rank-and-File Catholics Don’t Love Women Religious Anymore
Two distinct models of religious life for women have evolved in the U.S. Between 10 and 20 percent of the orders of women fall into the traditional category, and most of these traditional institutes have affiliated with the new Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. The rest can be described as change-oriented, and most of these orders are affiliated with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Both of these models of religious life for women share some common problems, but the future for the traditional orders looks much brighter than the future of the change-oriented orders.
Many traditional institutes are attracting sufficient numbers of new candidates to sustain themselves in future years. A few are even attracting significant numbers of new members and have instituted waiting lists so that they are not overwhelmed with too many new members at one time. Also, a number of new religious institutes have been founded since 1970 with the express purpose of living religious life as it is understood by the Church. As of late 1996, approximately 80 of these new communities belonged to the Fellowship of Emerging Religious Communities (formerly the Fellowship of New Religious Communities). Although many of these new institutes are very small, and their future is tenuous, they are indicative of an ongoing interest by contemporary men and women in living religious life according to Church teachings.
The apparently viable institutes of women have these elements in common: specific corporate identity, common apostolate, community living, common prayer, religious garb, traditional practice of the vows, outspoken fidelity to the Pope and the Magisterium, and religious governance based on the religious superior model. In other words, they practice the elements of religious life repeatedly set forth in documents such as Vatican II’s Perfectae Caritatis, the apostolic exhortation Evangelica Testificatio, numerous instructions emanating from the Congregation for Religious, various papal discourses, and again in the 1996 apostolic exhortation on consecrated life, Vita Consecrata. As Fr. Albert DiIanni contends, young people are attracted to religious institutes that have retained their identity as religious institutes and have specific spiritual practices.
But DiIanni, a former vicar general of the Marist Fathers, has noted: “Young people are telling us that something has gone wrong with some forms of religious life. They are doing it by staying away in droves. Part of their message, I believe, is that religious groups may have taken the religious heart out of things….” In contrast to the traditional religious institutes that are attracting new vocations, most of the institutes of women Religious that carried experimentation and renewal to extremes neither intended nor authorized by the Second Vatican Council are in decline. Studies have found that these change-oriented institutes lost a greater percentage of their membership than did the traditional institutes, and they have not attracted significant numbers of new members. In many change-oriented institutes, the lifestyle of the sisters has evolved to a point where it is impossible to distinguish sisters from their lay professional counterparts. In some institutes the only connections some sisters have to their community is the umbrella of a tax exemption for their income and occasional community mailings.
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