Number of American Nuns plunging

I saw this at the Pew Research Center:

U.S. nuns face shrinking numbers and tensions with the Vatican

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which includes representation from more than 80% of American nuns, [The key is “from”.  The LCWR is only comprised of “leaders”, not of the individual members of different communities.] is set to hold its annual assembly next week in Nashville. [They denied me credentials.] The meeting comes as the organization continues to draw scrutiny from the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, and also at a time when there has been a steep decline in the number of nuns.  [Huge losses in numbers.  And the average age is soaring, such that the graph will soon look like the trajectory of an anvil dropped from an airplane.]

The Vatican first began taking a hard look at some organizations of U.S. nuns about five years ago, eventually ordering an investigation and a “doctrinal assessment” of the LCWR – and a plan for organizational reform.  [That assessment is not concerned with whether or not sisters live in apartments or wear habits, and such.  It concerns doctrine, formation.]

While the church’s specific concerns with the nuns are complex, a few major areas were highlighted in a 2012 Vatican document, which said the LCWR was “silent on the right to life from conception to natural death” and that Roman Catholic views on the family and human sexuality “are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching.” The document also raised concerns about “radical feminist themes” at programs sponsored by the LCWR, and cited addresses at LCWR assemblies that “manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors.[Look at the speakers the LCWR has had over the last few years.]

More recently, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, criticized the LCWR in an April address before a meeting with the organization and reiterated the Vatican’s intention to require approval for speakers and awardees at LCWR events.  [The LCWR ignored the Congregation this year.  That didn’t go over well.]

In addition to Vatican scrutiny, nuns also face a big challenge in their dwindling ranks. The total number of nuns, also called religious sisters, in the United States has fallen from roughly 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014 – a 72% drop over those 50 years – according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. While the total number of priests (diocesan and religious) also has fallen over that period, it has done so at a much slower rate (from about 59,000 to 38,000, a 35% drop).

Globally, the number of nuns also is declining, but not nearly as fast as it is in the U.S. [What, then, are the sisters in these USA doing wrong… or rather, wronger?] In 1970, U.S. nuns represented about 16% of the world’s religious sisters; now, American nuns are about 7% of the global total (just over 700,000), also according to CARA.

A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that U.S. Catholics were widely satisfied with the leadership of American nuns and sisters. Half of the Catholics surveyed (50%) said they were “very satisfied,” while an additional 33% said they were “somewhat satisfied” with nuns’ leadership. Only 4% said they were “very dissatisfied.” [Denial is not just a river in Egypt.]

A separate survey we conducted in 2013 asked U.S. Catholics, in an open-ended question, to name the most important way the church helps society: helping the poor – part of the core mission of the LCWR – or other charitable works, was by far the most popular answer (27%).

So, their groups are dying off.   Pretty sad.

And, this year, they have decided to hide behind closed door.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Liberals, The Drill, The future and our choices, Women Religious and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. marnold says:

    This is sad, but it’s not really all that surprising. Although nuns are often compared to priests, in their actual function in the church they more accurately represent monks. I have met a few nuns in my time, but have yet to meet a monk. Also, nearly every call that I have ever heard for vocations is primarily aimed at filling the ranks of the priesthood with a short ‘nuns and monks exist too if you feel called that way.’ Perhaps if we all focused on vocations as our true callings, and not just to put men behind the alter, we could increase the ranks of all religious orders.

  2. PA mom says:

    The last several years our parish has created a Vocations Evening. A mandatory attendance for the older grades, it features a seminarian, a religious sister and a married couple.

    It has been well attended and has allowed opportunities for more of us to interact with some lovely religious Sisters. We have invited them into our school groups, allowing the children more time with them. But we are being careful about our choices. Very careful.

  3. msc says:

    While this makes me sad, and I have no doubt that the abandonment of orthodoxy has a great deal to do with it (why take vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience if you’re wishy-washy about the underlying ecclesiology and theology; you don’t do that because Christ was a great teacher, but you might do that because Christ is the Son of God) I suspect that a certain amount of the decline is because of the increased freedom for women to choose careers and to be employed outside of the home. Now one can look after the sick while being a unionized nurse, with good pay and benefits. One can help to look after the elderly as a personal care assistant, and again get paid for it. My mother-in-law was taught by nuns for most of her schooling, but as their numbers have decreased they have been replaced with well paid teaching positions requiring (wrongly, in my view, but that’s not relevant here) professional training. And so on. I wish more people felt the call, but a young woman who wants to do a lot of things that used to be done by nuns can now do them and be paid and have a family and so on.

  4. I would suggest that a major factor in the decline in vocations across the Western Catholic world is contraception. Apart from the disobedience evident in its widespread use it also means there are fewer young Catholics to consider a vocation. A family of six or ten is far more likely to produce a vocation than one with two or three children. When the family’s size is one that is freely chosen, when children are seen as a gift from God, surely there will be an atmosphere more conducive to vocations? The failure to teach the truth and to put it into practice, indeed the active opposition to the truth, is now bringing about its natural fruit: decline, decay and death. As one of my confreres, a returned missionary of many years experience, has often told me – “Where there is disobedience God will not give His blessing”.

  5. Unwilling says:

    msc puts the finger on the sore spot of practical wisdom “because Christ is the Son of God”. Matt 10:29 “qui reliquerit domum, aut fratres, aut sorores, aut patrem, aut matrem, aut filios, aut agros propter me et propter Evangelium

    Does anyone have differential rate of decline curves for LCWR-associated vs non-LCWR female religious communities?

  6. rcg says:

    50%? Maybe they should have held the meeting in Stockholm.

  7. Pingback: Iraqis on Social Media Reporting the Genocide -

  8. mburn16 says:

    1) Greater opportunities to fill a profession traditionally associated with Nuns outside the vocation
    2) Greater opportunities for women to fill professions they did not previously have access to
    3) Maturity as a young woman no longer requires the choice of “marriage” or “vocation”

    The role of a Priest, or, for that matter, a male layperson, has not changed that significantly in the last 40 years. But for women? Now a young Catholic woman can finish high school, go to college, and become a teacher….AND she can get married and raise a family at the same time. Alternatively, she can finish high school, go to college, and become a business woman – and not worry about the need to get married.

    As for why its happening at a faster pace in the US than elsewhere, I think the reason for that is simple: the decline already happened in Europe, and women in developing parts of the world do not yet have the same level of secular opportunities enjoyed by their US counterparts.

    If the Church wants to promote the female vocation, its going to have to make a good argument to young Catholic women about what they can actually DO as a nun.

  9. Gail F says:

    “A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that U.S. Catholics were widely satisfied with the leadership of American nuns and sisters. Half of the Catholics surveyed (50%) said they were “very satisfied,” while an additional 33% said they were “somewhat satisfied” with nuns’ leadership. Only 4% said they were “very dissatisfied.””

    What a ridiculous question. Seriously, how many ordinary Catholics have any idea what the “leadership of American nuns and sisters” does? How many people who don’t have children in a school could tell you anything specific about “the leadership of American schools”? How many of us could comment on the leadership of American hospitals, or the leadership of American prisons, or the leadership of American symphony orchestras? It’s a stupid question.

  10. Mojoron says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but nuns who wear habits and are somewhat cloistered, those groups, I have read, are on the increase. My sister, who is an ex-Loretto, left the order in the early 60’s when she saw and heard the Lorett’ins complaining about how V-II didn’t do the things that they thought ought to be done. She left before her graduation from college and her final vows.

  11. Elizabeth D says:

    I’m not sure if most Catholics know how badly large swaths of women’s religious life has gone off the rails. Most Catholics nowadays never see sisters. And even if they do see LCWR sisters, often they don’t even know they are sisters. To say nothing of non Catholics. People know there are way less sisters than before, but I suspect it’s widely believed that it’s mainly because there are more opportunities for women and different expectations women have for their self-fulfillment–even one of the commenters above expressed that view. That is a PART of it. Another part is the failure to catechize the young adequately–for at least two generations now. Sure, contraception IS a part.

    The other part of the reality is so many women’s religious communities themselves made it really, really hard for women who actually want what religious life entails to to join them–and impossible for them to find in these communities an authentic form of religious life. Much of the prayer life of all too many communities is hardly Catholic anymore, what’s a devout Catholic young woman to do when she enters a religious community and they don’t use the Liturgy of the Hours like they’re supposed to but rather a feminist prayerbook that avoids any male names for God? Ans they don’t live their Constitutions anymore and at this point in some ways they cannot because of precipitous losses making it impossible to live out the way of life that on paper is proper to their congregation. Of those who do enter, many become disillusioned or spooked by the coming demographic cliff as the elderly sisters die and the psychologically difficult realization that THEY as the youngest will be left holding the bag, and leave before making lifetime vows. Even among men’s congregations, I personally heard one young man who discerned out of a male community and gave the reason: “because they don’t live their Constitutions.” In that case the priest of that order who was standing there with him when he said it was beaming, perhaps glad the young man had called them on it. But this is true of the typical LCWR community in a more serious way.

    The religious communities that don’t have these problems generally get more vocations. These are mostly (but probably not exclusively) the CMSWR religious congregations. The sisters wear habits. That is the sector of religious life that is growing while most LCWR communities decline.

    The really attractive thing about religious life is it is a radical Evangelical following of Jesus! Young women who love Jesus and want to give themselves to Him completely see something in that that they CANNOT have in precisely the same way in secular life. You CANNOT live the evangelical counsels in that same way in the secular life no matter what kind of new opportunities women have.

  12. LeeF says:

    Nuns on a bus are mostly indistinguishable from leftist lay political activists apart from the title “sister”. CMSWR nuns in habit are distinguishable in both dress and the type of services they render. Which is most likely to attract a young woman? Unfortunately, nuns on a bus have muddied the image of religious sisters for two generations now.

    And while the type of priests and nuns depicted in Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy type of movies might be simplistic, such a type represents a more defined and differentiated image of religious vocations than present day habit-less and collar-less religious and priests.

  13. gracie says:

    At school in the 1950’s, the nuns taught children that there were three vocations in life. Those three were either to 1) the religious life or 2) the married life , or 3) the single life. That was it. What you did to earn money to support yourself was called a career or a job. Certainly you were encouraged to find out what your talents were and what you were good at, in order to find employment that would interest you. But nowhere do I remember being asked, “Do you have a vocation to be a nurse/carpenter/teacher/plumber/engineer/shoe salesman, etc. They were all considered jobs and sometimes would be called careers if you planned on doing it until you retired.

    The three vocations, otoh, were about a calling from God to walk on one of those paths in life. And yes, some people walk on two or even three of those paths at different points in time but the point is that God places us on those paths as a means to our salvation – it’s where He wants us to be as workers in his field. The Church doesn’t teach that anymore.

  14. Cathy says:

    A few years back, the possibility of a vocation as a nun very much interested me. I checked the various orders on the Archdiocese website. They all included links to Network and Future Church on their social justice issues pages. It just didn’t seem like there were any vocations for women who believe that Church teaching on faith and morals are not changeable according to the fickle fashion of the day. I honestly believe if the orders were Catholic, women might join.

  15. frjim4321 says:

    The bishops go into executive session all the time and I’ve never read a criticism of them here for that.

    Also, it’s not uncommon for abuse victims to shut down for a while as they process their situation and move toward greater access to their courage and strength.

    What drives the growth or decline of various styles of religious communities more than anything else are cultural and socioeconomic factors. Society has become more polarized than ever. Fashions in religious life simply mirror that trend.

  16. mrshopey says:

    “Also, it’s not uncommon for abuse victims to shut down for a while as they process their situation and move toward greater access to their courage and strength. ”
    As a spiritual father, how would you handle a child who is a victim of their own selves, disobedience?
    I will give you a hint, in my household, talking about it doesn’t always result in a positive way as they view themselves as a victim. There a comes a point where you have to be clear, then action has to be followed through. That is, if you want to be taken seriously and not just be a talking head.
    They are definitely victims of their own choices.

  17. incredulous says:

    Unfortunately, just as in the Garden, Satan attacks women. He appeals to disobedience and pride. Again, where is Adam defending Eve? [Good point. God entrusted everything in the Garden to his stewardship… including Eve. Where was he when the serpent attacked? The Second Adam corrected Adam’s failure. The Second Adam is also High Priest, whom all priests should emulate in this. Guard the Church!] We are now just porn addicted narcissists who seemingly could care less.

    God bless those God fearing devout Catholic women and men who have their head’s on straight and may the Holy Spirit convert all others.

  18. frjim4321 says:

    mrshopey, are you justifying corporal punishment or am I reading into your statement?

  19. vetusta ecclesia says:

    I don’t suppose readers in USA are aware of the entertaining UK satirical blogsite Eccles is saved. ( The latest is a hilarious take on Nuns on the Bus.

  20. incredulous says:

    Father Jim,

    Tail wags dog? You have it all wrong. The Church isn’t supposed to mirror “fashions” of society. The Church professes the Truth. Society must mirror the Truth of the Church (including LCWR and ALL the non-celibate clergy). That’s just a cop out.

    Further, your prior completely incorrect characterization of the lunatic behavior of Nancy Peloisi being that of an oppressed victim of a bully rather than the truth which is 180 degrees opposite, you haven’t demonstrated you remotely understand what a victim is.

    I will venture out on a limb that you are totally steeped into feminist ideology and that’s how you filter the world.

    These women are willfully disobedient to God and are obedient to Satan. Either we have free will or we don’t. What does is your theological understanding of that truth? Do we have free will or don’t we? If we do, they aren’t victims. They are empowered individuals choosing Satan over God. Pray for their conversion. Also, pray for Saint Michael’s intercession.

    Saint Michael the Archangel,
    defend us in battle.
    Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
    May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
    and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host –
    by the Divine Power of God –
    cast into hell, satan and all the evil spirits,
    who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.


  21. mrshopey says:

    You are reading in to it. Mostly, my children at least, would rather take a spanking over the other discipline.
    I don’t like to spank.
    There are times when you have to draw the lines and let them spin, outside, to their hearts content.

  22. robtbrown says:

    mburn16 says,

    If the Church wants to promote the female vocation, its going to have to make a good argument to young Catholic women about what they can actually DO as a nun.

    What nuns or anyone other religious DO is lead the religious life, only part of which is the work in their active apostolate–unless they’re strict contemplatives. Even before the collapse there were teaching opportunities for women, but many still entered the religious life and became teachers.

    The religious life is in some manner or another a community life. And the community is defined by what they hold in common. If what they hold in common is adherence to progressive social movements (esp. those that contradict the doctrine of the Church), it’s not likely that many will want to pay the price of religious life and enter.

  23. mhazell says:

    @mburn16: If the Church wants to promote the female vocation, its going to have to make a good argument to young Catholic women about what they can actually DO as a nun.

    On the contrary, my opinion is that this is part of the problem. What is needed for the authentic renewal of the religious life that Vatican II called for is not more arguments as to what nuns do (or, for that matter, monks and brothers). Rather, young Catholic women who are discerning a vocation to the religious life need to be taught who a nun is. What differentiates a nun from other members of the laity, where does her identity come from, what is it rooted in, who is it rooted in? To put the question of doing before being is, IMO, really the wrong way round.

    The crisis in the religious life strikes me as mainly a crisis of identity. (In different ways, I think this is also true for the married life, and for the priesthood.) And the direction of travel expressed in the Pew Research Centre graph isn’t going to change until we figure that out.

  24. Reconverted Idiot says:

    I have fond memories from my childhood of two nuns in particular, one of The Little Sisters of The Poor, a tireless worker in the community despite her advancing age, the other a Carmelite and a teacher at my school. They were both well loved and respected in our local church, absolutely adored by us children, and their orthodoxy was impeccable.

    mhazell wronte: “Rather, young Catholic women who are discerning a vocation to the religious life need to be taught who a nun is. ”

    Exactly. The two examples I refer to above were nuns, they didn’t ‘do nunning’ (to coin a phrase). What they did was to simply be nuns. These days I can’t believe there are so-called Catholic nuns who bear no recognizable relationship in their lives to examples such as those sisters. I just can’t fathom it. To become a nun, brother or priest to me has always meant an exhibiting a particular identity. In those cases the former was always helping the poor, visiting the sick, and ‘popping in for a cup of tea and a chat’ with local families (often treating us kids with a little something in passing), while the latter was an awesome teacher who ‘knew everything’ and could play practically any musical instrument put in front of her. Yet they weren’t some kind of ‘Sister Nice, and Sister Brains’: they were nuns. We kids respected them way beyond how we respected other adults: to be caught out doing something naughty by one of those two was a dreadful prospect; not because they were ogresses or anything, but because they were the last people you wanted to give a bad impression of yourself to: you felt far more ashamed of yourself than with your own parents (even though you were probably in a better situation being caught by them than by your parents), because of who they were.

  25. FrAnt says:

    When is the right time to tell the child “no”? When will the Vatican disband this group? From the writing of the men’s version of the LCWR is not much better. Both should be told “no” you cannot continue to exist in the Church. Get it done with and over. Too much time and energy has been spent coddling a group that has no interest in Church teaching.

  26. They will vanish even faster if Bruvver Eccles has his way.

    Not that I’d stop the sisters from taking paramilitary action in the Middle East, on strictest equality and diversity principles.

    Father, your earlier interpolation to ‘incredulous’ is spot-on. I have always believed that the original sin of Adam was reneging on responsibility. Eve’s was disobedience, but Adam’s was putting his responsibility for Eve, creation and everything else down on the ground to serve his appetite.

    Since then, the besetting sin of males – and the thing that causes the most sadness and disruption between men and women – has been their love of avoiding responsibility. This has extended into the priesthood as well. Way, way easier to take the soft option, be popular, not be picked on by scary nuns, etc.

    And I think that’s why God made men and not women be priests – to take responsibility and leadership for things once more. But lazy priests are quite happy to support women’s ordination because it’s one more chance to stop being responsible for something.

    (Garbled, but sincere.)

  27. MarylandBill says:

    A lot of good answers to why the number of nuns are dropping, I just thought I would put in my 2 cents.

    1. Americans as a whole, including Catholics, are being raised to believe that a spouse and family are possessions you own, along with your big house and fancy car; not obligations and opportunities for sacrifice and self-service. Its part of why our families are a mess and why our vocations are dropping. We are convincing people, and women in particular that serving others and making sacrifices is evil and that self-fulfillment (meaning buying what you want and doing what you want) is good. So naturally a vocation that cannot be distorted into being self-serving (though the LCWR has tried) is not going to be attractive.

    2. Too many nuns are afraid to be easily identified as nuns. I saw an article last year where a nun who did social work refused to wear a habit because she believed her habit would come between her and the people she was trying to help. Now I suppose this could be true in a narrow series of cases, but by an large, I suspect that was more a rationalization than a reality. And if nuns are afraid to let people see that they are nuns, how are young women suppose to know these women are different, and be attracted to their way of life.

  28. CrimsonCatholic says:

    I always though nuns were cloistered and religious sisters were not, which they were usually involved in various ministries. Yet it seems that many people yous nuns and religious sisters interchangeably. Am I mistaken, Father?

Comments are closed.