An additional motivation for the next pope to make peace with nuns is that those alienated from the church right now are disproportionately women. The statistics on nuns reflect a historic gap in engagement between young Catholic men and young Catholic women: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, three to four times as many women than men entered Catholic religious life in America. Today, as Wittberg noted in America magazine last year, that order has flipped: 1,206 women were in initial formation in 2009, compared with 1,396 men, and the men tend to be younger than the women. Millennial Catholics are the first generation in American history for which women are less likely than their male peers to attend Mass. “I cannot tell you how ominous this is,” Wittberg said, “because if you lose the women, you lose the children.”
The growing conservatism of the Church establishment is increasingly reflected in the makeup of the American sisterhood: As it shrinks, its newcomers are proportionally more conservative. Compared to the relatively progressive LCWR, a smaller, newer, more conservative group called the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious is drawing a roughly equal number of new recruits, and significantly younger ones.
Regardless of what the next pope does, no one thinks the number of American nuns will ever return to midcentury levels. And the structure of the sisterhood has changed: A few thriving orders now draw young recruits from all over the country, a shift from the era in which most young sisters simply joined the community of women who taught them in school. Despite their dwindling numbers, nuns still carry the legacy of those generations of women who spent their lives in often thankless service, and they continue to play a crucial role as symbols of the more humble and humane side of the Catholic church.
Marian Batho, delegate for religious at the Archdiocese of Boston, said she has “great hope for the future” on the brink of the new papacy. She recently started a monthly meeting for women who are curious about entering religious life. “I don’t want to say there are standing-room-only crowds coming to the group, but there are women who are interested,” she said. “We need to tell our story better, and shout it from the rooftops how wonderful this life is.”
Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.