Data for the Day: Decline in the Number of Women Religious

One of the most significant changes in Catholicism in the last fifty years has been the dramatic decrease in the number of religious women. These maps highlight the decline of the number of religious women in dioceses across the country since 1980.  Several scholars have looked for sociological explanations for this decline. A common explanation argues that Vatican II itself, and not just the women’s movement or increased opportunities in the labor market that resulted in women leaving the church in large numbers. Specifically, before Vatican II religious women were accorded a special status within the faith.

Vatican II eliminated this special status as part of an effort to promote the role of average Catholics. However, the idea that religious life no longer was a superior route to holiness led to boundary reduction and a lack of role clarity that saw many women decide that they could be good, faithful people without the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty.

This decline touches many aspects of Catholic life including Catholic education. Religious women were one of the key distinguishing features between religious and secular schools. When people of a certain age speak of their Catholic upbringing they often make reference to the nuns who educated them. In 1965 there were 113,795 sisters working in Catholic schools across the United States. In 2007 this number had fallen to just over 6,500 sisters. Although they are not neatly distributed across the country, this means that there is less than one sister for each Catholic school in the United States.

How has the decline in the number of sisters affected your diocese/parish/school? And, for the sisters who may be reading, what other explanations may scholars have missed?

Recommended Reading:

Finke, Roger. 1997. “An Orderly Return to Tradition: Explaining the Recruitment of Members into Catholic Religious Orders.” Journal for the Scientfic Study of Religion 36:218-230.

Nygren, David J and Miriam D. Ukeritis. 1993. The Future of Religious Orders in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke. 2000. “Catholic Religious Vocations: Decline and Revival.” Review of Religious Research 42:125-145.

Wittberg, Patricia. (1994) The Rise and Decline of Catholic Religious Orders: A Social Movement Perspective Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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