'Time' Mourns Dwindling Numbers of 'Social Justice' Nuns

Monday, 01 Sep 2014 08:39 PM

By Joe Schaeffer

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A Time magazine article bemoans the stark decline in the number of "social activist" women religious in the U.S. today, stating that "[t]oday’s nuns are simply too progressive for the Vatican," which "chooses not to celebrate nuns and… not to empower them."

The article by Jo Piazza, author of the book "If Nuns Ruled the World," quotes Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio on "exactly what it means to be a nun today":

"We are about drawing in the poor, the lonely, the marginalized, all those seeking to be part of a whole. This is nothing more and nothing less than the most awesome vocation," the sister said.

Yet, despite the awesomeness, Piazza acknowledges that "[n]uns are dying out because their population is aging and young women are not joining their ranks in the numbers they once did."

Piazza blames this in large part on Vatican "attacks" against progressive orders, which she terms the "Great Nunquisition." She asserts that this Vatican crackdown discourages droves of social-justice-minded millennial women from taking religious vows.

"The young women who could be the nuns of tomorrow share a lot of the same values as the nuns of today," Piazza wrote. "They are fiercely dedicated to the concept of social justice and doing good in the world. Seven in 10 millennials consider themselves social activists, and 72% of them are eager to participate in a nonprofit young professional group."

Piazza spoke to a young woman who was considering a vocation but "changed her mind." When asked why, she reports the woman told her, "I want to work for an employer that values what I do."

Piazza's conclusions about millennial women are sharply opposed to the findings of other religious writers and of studies on the topic.

John L. Allen Jr., writing in the National Catholic Reporter in 2009, reported on the results of a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University that was conducted on behalf of the National Religious Vocations Conference.

Allen wrote the study found "[m]illennials are far more likely to say they entered religious life out of a desire for commitment to the church, and that they entered their specific community because of its reputation for fidelity to the church. They’re more likely to wear habits, more likely to say that devotions such as Eucharistic adoration and the Liturgy of the Hours are 'very important,' less eager to do ministry in non-Catholic or non-confessional settings, and more positive in their attitudes about authority."

Allen reports the data clearly show it is the traditional orders of nuns that are appealing to younger Catholic women.

"The corollary is that religious orders which foster a more traditional ethos tend to have better luck attracting younger members," he writes.

"One sign of which way the winds are blowing: Just one percent of women’s communities belonging to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, known for having a more liberal outlook, currently have more than 10 new members in initial formation, whereas a robust 28 percent of communities belonging to the Conference of Major Superiors of Women, known for being more conservative, have 10 or more members in the early stages of membership."

Mark Oppenheimer, who writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times, paid visits to an order of traditional nuns and a progressive order in 2012.

"Fifty years ago, the [traditional] Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, based in Nashville, was lucky to get four or five postulants a year," he wrote. "But in the past 20 years its population has doubled, from 145 sisters in 1990 to 284 sisters today. And the newbies are overwhelmingly young: this summer, 21 postulants entered the community, ranging in age from 19 to 32.

"In July, I visited this congregation, which belongs to the conservative Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious," Oppenheimer continued.

Speaking to a young member of the order, he found what inspired these newcomers to pursue a religious calling:

"When we talk about sacrifices, we are talking about things that make us more free," a 32-year-old nun named Sister Anna told Oppenheimer.

"We are not radically independent. We're not 280 women who happen to be living together. We live a common life. As the world becomes more and more focused on the individual, on self-sufficiency, on being an expert in your own field, that can bring down a community.

"The Dominicans make a countercultural statement: against individualism, against modernity."

Oppenheimer also traveled to Holyoke, Mass. to visit with the Sisters of St. Joseph, "a congregation that belongs to the [liberal] Leadership Conference of Women Religious."

"There are 257 Sisters of St. Joseph, about as many sisters as in Nashville," Oppenheimer reported.

"But the Sisters of St. Joseph were old: they range in age from 53 to 100. This summer brought one new member, a once-divorced, once-widowed woman of 54. The halls of their home, Mont Marie, are filled with walkers, wheelchairs and canes, congregating in loose formation outside the chapel, the living rooms, the dining hall."

Meeting with Sister of St. Joseph Jane Morrissey, who took her religious vows in 1964, Oppenheimer noticed another difference between the younger millennials and the aging nuns in Massachusetts.

"The Dominican sisters tend to limit their reading to Catholic texts, I was told, but Sister Jane just finished Solzhenitsyn's 'Cancer Ward,'" he writes. "For fun she memorizes Emily Dickinson.

"In the small, cushion-filled room on the third floor of her group home in Springfield, where she and four other sisters pray every morning, I saw copies of 'The Te of Piglet' and works by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han, in addition to Francis of Assisi."

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, Oppenheimer finds such nuns quickly becoming relics.

"The small renaissance of American nuns is occurring among sisters who look like nuns from 1960 and, in their deference to the church, act like nuns from 1960," he wrote.

"That model is compelling to a young generation of devout women who are more interested in purity than in the messy intellectual complexity, and frequent dissent, that their elders embraced."

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