American nuns: Do they have a future?
Catholic sisters gathered for their annual assembly on Thursday (Aug. 9) intensified discussions aimed at thwarting a Vatican takeover of their group, but hanging over the meeting was an even larger existential question: Do the nuns have a future?
The viability issue is central to the dispute between Rome and the nuns that has riveted Catholics and dominated this year’s meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The steering group represents most of the 56,000 nuns in religious orders in the United States.
The Vatican announced in April that a team of bishops would take control of the LCWR in order to make the nuns hew more closely and publicly to orthodox teachings on sexuality and theology. The sisters are expected to deliver their first formal reply to the takeover on Friday.
A key justification for Rome’s action was the argument that vocations to more progressive women’s religious communities are in free fall: In 1965 there were 180,000 sisters in religious life, more than three times today’s number. The decline is especially acute in orders that belong to the LCWR.
Critics peg this decline to the increasing liberalism of the sisters since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s opened the door to reforms. They argue that orders that embrace a more traditional way of life — wearing the habit, attending communal prayer throughout the day, endorsing rather than challenging church teachings and Vatican pronouncements — are flourishing.
“The LCWR orders are dying, while several religious orders that disaffiliated from the LCWR are growing,” George Weigel, a conservative Catholic pundit, wrote recently in a blistering critique of the group.
But defenders of the LCWR communities argue that it is not just the quantity but also the quality of vocations that matters. Moreover, they argue that women’s orders are going through the kind of transformation that is critical to helping the church evangelize in the fast-changing world and to fostering comity in a deeply divided church. [More]