Why Young People Aren’t Joining Religious Orders

The 200 bishops attending last year’s spring meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops reacted with considerable alarm to a report that the average age of diocesan priests is 57 and of priests in religious orders is 63. (The average age for women religious is over 70.) When the bishops’ discussion turned toward the shortage of all vocations among young people, some bishops stressed the need to enlist the help of parents in encouraging their children to consider vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

As the mother of three young adults, I admit that parents of my generation have not promoted vocations among our post-Vatican II children with the same enthusiasm our own parents expressed. However, as a veteran journalist in the Catholic press, I also know that we parents are only part of the story. While vocations to the diocesan priesthood are a different discussion for another day, I suggest that religious orders themselves are partly responsible for their own dwindling numbers. Some men and women religious talk the talk but do not walk the walk by actually living a model of religious life that impresses parents and motivates sincere, devout young people. Consequently, a major reason parents do not enthusiastically encourage vocations to religious orders is concern over practices and conditions in some orders. These concerns certainly do not apply to all religious men and women or to all religious orders, but they do apply in significant enough numbers to shape the perceptions of lay Catholics, thus impacting the vocations picture in general.

Communal Identity

The documents of Vatican II and subsequent Church documents, as well as the Code of Canon Law, detail certain elements that distinguish religious orders from lay groups and other forms of consecrated life, like secular institutes. These elements include: taking public vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; living together in community and sharing prayer, work, meals, leisure, and a common spirit; putting all salaries in common as belonging to the community; observing obedience to a superior and the pope; and wearing some sort of religious garb that distinguishes the vowed religious person from the lay Catholic. While contemplative orders pray and work behind cloistered walls, apostolic orders—the vast majority of religious orders—direct the works of their members to a common apostolate performed in the world and in the name of the Church.

However, instead of updating and renewing their apostolates as mandated by the Second Vatican Council, many religious orders transformed themselves into entities that resemble secular organizations more than consecrated communities in the service of the Church. As a result, many religious men and women live away from their communities, either alone or in self-selected small groups of two or three. Some religious perform their ministries as individuals rather than in the name of the Church, and some apparently refuse to work in the institutions sponsored by their orders. Some use their salaries to support a lifestyle comparable to that of lay professionals, and a good number relate only remotely and occasionally to their religious communities.

Such religious men and women apparently are good people doing good works. In fact, the vast majority of the members of apostolic orders are exemplary Christians dedicated to serving people in need. But many lead lives that are indistinguishable from those of dedicated laypeople who also do good works.

Angry Men and Women

The palpable anger toward the Church expressed by some men and women religious is confusing to young people and alarming to parents. Young people do not remember the Church before the Second Vatican Council. They do not wish to rehash debates over the influence of the curia or the “spirit of the council,” although many of them are quite open to reading the documents of Vatican II. They also seem to resonate with the council’s vision to build a new civilization of love for a world in crisis. Most young people never have attended a Latin Mass or wish to do so. They do not want religious orders to return to the old days when meaningless rules oppressed men and women religious, and iron-fisted superiors ruled like dictators and seldom consulted religious about their needs or desires.

However, young people and their parents do expect religious orders to have strong ties to the institutional Church and to act in the name of the Church. Therefore, it is distressing when the most vocal groups criticizing the Church often are led by members of religious orders who apparently act with impunity. What parent would encourage her daughter to enter a religious order in which some sisters refuse to attend Mass because they are so pained by the all-male priesthood? How should parents and their sons view the priesthood when some priests spend more time complaining about the difficulties of living a celibate life than talking about the joys and rewards of their vocation? What are we to think about reports that homosexual liaisons in seminaries and religious houses are sometimes tolerated or ignored, and that a visible gay subculture thrives in some seminaries? How comfortable should we be with reports that some orders of women religious are establishing networks for their order’s lesbian members?

Parents worry about the atmosphere in religious orders that promote liturgical practices clearly prohibited by the Church, such as non- ordained persons proclaiming the gospel and preaching the homily. Parents wonder why some women religious insist on altering Scripture and creating feminist versions of the Liturgy of the Hours (like the “Companion to the Breviary” series by the Indianapolis Carmelite Nuns and “Morning and Evening Prayer of the Sisters of Mercy”) rather than praying the authorized Divine Office. Many lay Catholics also wonder why some orders have stripped their chapels of religious symbols and turned them into multipurpose meeting rooms. We worry that many elderly religious— sisters in particular—seem disenfranchised by their orders and feel that their communities no longer resemble the entities to which they originally committed themselves.

We wonder about the integrity of religious institutes when we consider the words of the outgoing president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization of about 900 sister-leaders of women’s orders. Sr. Nancy Sylvester, declared at LCWR’s 2000 annual meeting, “We are at an impasse with the official Church.” She admitted that “tension and conflict with Vatican officials” occur because women religious “beg to differ” with the Church’s understanding of religious life. Further, Sr. Nancy declared, “We believe in each one’s right to speak his/her truth. We believe in the power to change unjust structures and laws. We respect loyal dissent.”

Additionally, many laypeople believe that men or women religious who represent themselves as vowed religious but do not accept the Church’s teachings are dishonest at worst, inconsistent at best, and definitely a deterrent to new vocations. Why do these people, who voluntarily entered religious orders, remain if they have so many disagreements with the Church?

Lost Along the Way

Many religious orders seem confused about who they are and why they exist, yet they still ask young people to devote their lives to this nebulous entity. Sr. Miriam Ukeritis, C.S.J., and Fr. David Nygren, C.M., are authors of the most comprehensive study of religious orders ever done in this country, Future of Religious Orders in the United States (FORUS). The most compelling finding of this 1992 study was that “a significant percentage of religious no longer understand their role and function in the Church.” We do not need a study to tell us this: We witness it among many of the religious men and women we encounter. We surmise it from articles and books. We hear it on the local news.

The FORUS study also articulated another obvious point: The 1960s and 1970s saw a “massive unraveling of the forms and structures of religious life,” forcing many schools, hospitals, and social- service institutions sponsored or staffed by religious orders to close their doors. Though some religious men and women do not believe these institutions were a critical ministry in a modern world with so many other problems, lay Catholics nevertheless valued and cherished those who served in these ministries, which, incidentally, also made walking religious vocations campaigns. Thus, previous generations of Catholic parents often interacted with religious in these institutions and esteemed them as positive role models for their children. Many of today’s Catholics simply never encounter men or women religious or may not recognize them as members of orders even if they do. Hence, the smaller number of visible role models means fewer vocations.

Further, the FORUS study found that those schools, hospitals, and social-service institutions run by religious orders had at least provided a locus of corporate identity for the order. People knew the religious as “hospital sisters” or “teaching brothers.” This identity now is lost, as more orders have withdrawn from sponsoring such institutions, and their religious have found employment in diverse professions and locations. Thus, it is now much less likely for young people to come into contact with members of religious orders, let alone have some understanding of what it is that they actually do and how their lives and witness differ from that of the lay faithful.

On the other hand, the FORUS study found that “the orders that appear to be rebounding and stabilizing the most in the United States are several monasteries, both male and female, who have carefully reinstated monastic practices and a sense of clarity regarding their life and work.” Likewise, Sr. Eleace King, I.H.M., a former researcher with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, found in her study of religious orders in the early 1990s that “communities having a distinct lifestyle and ministry rooted in the guiding spiritual tradition of the institute are apt to attract new candidates. Those with diversity in lifestyle, ministry and spirituality are not.”

Such findings by competent researchers merely reflect the attitudes of many lay Catholics about religious orders. Yet, there is little evidence that religious orders heeded the FORUS warning that changes must be made by the year 2002 if many of today’s religious orders are to survive. Indeed, the philosophy of the leadership in some of the most high-profile orders— particularly women’s—appears to have changed little in the eight years since the FORUS study.

To further complicate the picture, some women religious say they are experimenting with creating new forms of religious life, stretching the canonical norms as they do so. For example, the Erie Benedictine Sisters are experimenting with a program that allows temporary members, who have no intention of staying permanently, to join as scholastics and live in community with the vowed sisters for one to three years. The Sisters of Loretto have integrated so-called lay comembers into leadership and decision-making roles. With such ongoing experimentation, how can a religious order expect to attract new candidates looking for a vowed lifetime commitment, when the order itself is a work in progress, and prospective members have no idea what it will look like once the experimentation ends? How can potential candidates even be certain that an order engaged in broad experimentation will retain its canonical recognition by the Church as a religious institute?

Elitist Image

Religious orders usually claim to be inclusive, but many orders appear very homogeneous and even unwelcoming to new candidates who may look, think, or act differently from the majority of their members. Laypeople thus may legitimately wonder if religious orders have become too closed, too elitist, lacking intellectual and cultural diversity. Many no longer seem to value the devout brother or sister who does not have the interest or ability to pursue higher education but nevertheless desires to be a member of a prayerful community and would serve by performing domestic work, farming, sewing, nursing the elderly, or supporting office staff. Lay Catholics perceive an attitude among some religious that such work is beneath their dignity and should be performed only by more expendable lay workers. How many religious orders today would welcome a humble but holy person like Venerable Solanus Casey, the Capuchin priest who touched so many lives as doorkeeper at his monastery?

Financial Irresponsibility

The financial practices of some religious orders often seem perplexing and inconsistent to laypeople who must work diligently to support their families. Legitimate questions arise about why religious men and women are released by their orders to spend months, even years, “discerning” their futures when the order is financially strapped and understaffed. People question why religious orders financially support members who never hold a job but rather are professional students, spending years accumulating multiple advanced degrees apparently for their own satisfaction rather than for application in an apostolate of the order. People wonder how religious leaders can justify spending thousands of dollars traveling around the globe for sabbaticals, conferences, or “fact-finding” and “goodwill” trips. We wonder why religious are allowed, indeed encouraged, to seek outside employment when similar job openings exist within their own congregations or institutions.

We hear that some orders are turning over valuable property to lay associate members, property originally acquired through the sacrifices of priests, brothers, sisters, and lay Catholics who earned only pennies a day. A sobering story came to light recently in the 1999 book Magnificat: The Life and Times of Timothy Cardinal Manning by Msgr. Francis J. Weber, archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Msgr. Weber reported that before leaving the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1970, sister-leaders transferred ownership of their institute’s college, hospital, and high school to civil corporations so that the lay community they formed would have ownership after they departed religious life. The sisters who remained in the order subsequently were left without any property.

Laypeople note the inconsistency of closing Catholic institutions for lack of staff while sisters, brothers, and priests take jobs in the secular workforce. People wonder why orders support members in individual houses and apartments when rooms in convents, rectories, and religious houses are available. We wonder why some orders continually try to create new ministries when they can barely handle the ministries they already have. We wonder how religious can honestly claim to be countercultural when some of them so easily embrace the trappings of the secular culture.

Shaky Future

Although there are no guarantees in life, it is reasonable for a person entering a religious order to have some expectation that the order will remain in existence, particularly when the candidate is asked to forsake her own possessions and depend on the order for her future sustenance. What future can a young person expect in an order that has sold, or plans to sell, its provincial houses, schools, and medical facilities? What hope is there for a young person’s future in an order that has closed its infirmaries and placed its elderly brothers and sisters in secular nursing homes? Can our young people expect to be cared for in their old age by orders that plaintively beg for funds to support their aging members, even while the same orders give money to outside charities that are worthwhile but unrelated to religious life or the Catholic Church?

What is a young person to think about her future in an order in which many or most of the members believe the order is dying? Indeed, can any other conclusion be reached when the median age in many orders is higher than the overall average, and no members are under the age of 50? And yet the leaders of many religious orders appear to be in a state of denial. They seem unwilling to critically evaluate what mistakes might have been made and what changes ought to be considered to make their orders more compatible with the Church’s contemporary guidelines on religious life and thus more attractive to potential new candidates.

One might argue that a faithful person should put her future in the hands of God, and indeed, most devout Catholics are willing to do just that. What many young people and their parents resist is placing their futures in the hands of religious superiors who do not have an impressive track record for making good decisions for their orders since the Second Vatican Council asked religious orders to renew themselves.

Walk the Walk

Today’s young people have their faults, as do their parents, but on the whole, this generation of young adults is generous, spiritually hungry, and longing for community. Like previous generations, some young people want to answer the universal call to holiness through vowed membership in a religious order, by being part of a supportive, God-centered project bigger than themselves. Their reluctance to enter religious life—and the reluctance of parents to encourage them—often is based not on selfishness, materialism, or lack of interest. Rather, they are often genuinely concerned that religious orders no longer offer a distinctively religious way of life, a unique manner of living, working, and praying that they cannot achieve on their own in the secular world.

Today’s young men and women also are a cynical “show-me” generation that looks for the reality beyond rhetoric, platitudes, and religious jargon. They are turned off by people who talk the talk without walking the walk. So, if bishops, priests, and men and women religious really are serious about attracting new vocations and getting parents to support religious life, they should take seriously these concerns of the lay faithful and honestly evaluate the state of religious orders. This is not to say that all religious orders should be alike, for certainly each must maintain its own special spiritual gifts that shape its approach to the vows, community life, prayer, mission, and ministry. Neither should religious orders limit themselves to traditional apostolates. However, they do need to convey the message that they are much more than just well-intentioned social-service organizations that support the individual good works of their members.

When lay Catholics perceive that most men and women religious are joyfully consecrated members of theocentric communities that enthusiastically act in the name of the Church, young people will be anxious to join them. Then, we parents will support—indeed celebrate—religious vocations among our children.


  • Ann Carey

    Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities

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