More on Women’s Religious Vocations

Apropos of Linda’s recent posts regarding women religious and vocations, the new Chair-elect of ASA’s Sociology of Religion section-  Patricia Wittberg- weighed in on this very topic in an article in America.

Reporting on data from the 2009 NRVC-CARA study on recent vocations to the religious life (which Linda mentioned and linked to previously), the article does a nice job of highlighting the contemporary challenge facing religious orders, in general, in attracting vocations.  It is probably worth noting that Patricia and her co-author, Mary Johnson, are both women religious and sociologists.  As such, they use their empirical data to debunk simplistic popular views, which fail to grasp the complex reality of attracting women’s vocations in our current era.    Some readers have criticized the piece itself as being misleading for stating too simply that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences of women religious in the U.S. in recent years–without noting in the same paragraph that their are over four times as many LCWR orders as CMSWR orders in the study.  This is an important qualification, but since the authors pointed out this very distribution in the paragraph prior, I don’t think they were misleading anyone.  Perhaps a larger danger is that other commentators may fail to provide that same context.

For instance, the title of Fr. James Martin, S.J.  discussion of the piece  “LCWR orders received almost equal numbers of vocations as CMSWR orders” was potentially problematic, as he failed to clarify and contextualize the title until the sixth paragraph of an eight paragraph article.  Still, once he got around to it, he did a  good job of clarifying things by stating:

“And to be a little more precise, it should also be noted that the LCWR represents a greater number of orders (80% versus the 20% represented by the CMSWR) so the CMSWR orders are attracting proportionally larger numbers.  But not in absolute numbers, which is the usual comment that one hears from pundits, church officials and even sisters.  Overall, of all the women entering religious orders these days, roughly half choose progressive groups, and roughly half choose traditional groups.”

David Cruz-Uribe’s  reflection on the article at Vox Nova suggests that Wittberg and Johnson were not mistaken in perceiving some myths in need of debunking.  For more myth-busting, you can go to this mythbusters page on the National Religious Vocation Conference website.

Finally, since this post seems focused on clarifying (and hopefully not just ‘nitpicking’), I believe that Fr. Martin was in error when he said:

No women’s religious orders—of any stripe—are receiving more than a handful of vocations, as the new study shows.”

As Wittberg and Johnson note,

“The key finding here is that only a very small number of institutes are attracting more than a handful of entrants.” (emphasis mine)

This very small group of institutes (who are attracting more than a handful of recruits) are also attracting the most media attention and are not necessarily typical of CMSWR (or LCWR) orders. Consequently, “Few are paying attention to the fine work of N.R.V.C. and the religious institutes from both leadership conferences that have initiated new vocation programs, which have galvanized the energy of the institutes and hold the promise of further growth in the near future.”

Perhaps, this last point is the most important and what truly galvanized them to write this article.  In looking to the future, Wittberg and Johnson highlight several key questions that need to be answered in facing the challenge of recruiting young women religious today:

“What will religious institutes have to do in order to build and sustain more multicultural communities and institutes that look like the youth and young adults of the church in this country? What structural and cultural changes will have to take place to ensure a future for new generations of religious whose cultural mix will look very different from the dominant generations in religious life today? And what is the responsibility of the wider church to the vocation efforts of religious institutes?”

These are important questions.

Perhaps Linda will weigh in with her own thoughts.  And please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, too.

One thought on “More on Women’s Religious Vocations

  1. To throw in my comments…

    1) I think it’s important to dispel the myth that LCWR orders are receiving no new vocations, even if the proportion of vocations to the LCWR is less than that to the CMSWR. I’m glad that Patricia Wittberg, Mary Johnson, and James Martin are addressing the issue.

    2) I agree with your critique of the Fr. Martin’s sentence: “No women’s religious orders—of any stripe—are receiving more than a handful of vocations, as the new study shows.” That seems to be a misreading of what Wittberg and Johnson wrote. I did a quick Google search and found that in 2010 the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia had 27 new postulants and the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of Eucharist had 22 ( That’s certainly more than a handful! However, I think it’s good that Wittberg and Johnson brought up that this is not the norm. I can see how some people might assume that all CMSWR orders are getting this many vocations because those two orders tend to be two of the most visible CMSWR orders, e.g. going on Oprah.

    3) I think we need to be careful about how we label the two umbrella groups of women religious in the U.S. , and wish Fr. Martin hadn’t described the situation with this sentence: “Overall, of all the women entering religious orders these days, roughly half choose progressive groups, and roughly half choose traditional groups.” There’s variation of ideology within the LCWR, and it’s unlikely that all LCWR orders would be comfortable being labeled “progressive.” Some certainly are, though others are more moderate and some even more to the right than that. Some wear habits while some do not; some say the Divine Office, some do not. Also, my understanding is that some orders belong to both the LCWR and CMSWR.

    4) On a different note, in reading both articles in America, I found it somewhat surprising that neither noted that the LCWR and CMSWR tend to attract women of different ages. If we go back to the 2009 report we find some interesting differences in who’s joining each group: “A little more than half of the candidates in CMSWR institutes, compared to about one in six candidates in LCWR institutes, are under age 30. In LCWR institutes, more than half are age 40 and older, compared to one in seven in CMSWR institutes.” I realize that age wasn’t the focus of either article but instead the fact that the LCWR is continuing to attract vocations. However, I think age of those entering each conference is an important point that should be addressed in future articles/discussions about who’s entering religious life.