Wednesday, July 8, 2009

And Then There Were Nuns (Poke-Em-With-A-Stick-Wednesday)

So, last week I saw a piece about the Nun Crisis:

This is something I'd been vaguely aware about for a while, but not seen any numbers on before. Basically, people are asking 'where have all the nuns gone?' As this piece points out, at the end of Second Vatican, when the population of the U.S. was about two hundred million people, there were something like 180,000 nuns in this country. Today, when there are more than three hundred million in the US (with many of the new immigrants having come from mostly-Catholic countries), there are less than 60,000 nuns left.

Nor is the crisis limited to the U.S.: according to a BBC article from a few years ago, the worldwide nun population declined by a quarter during just John Paul II's reign -- again, at a time when the number of Catholics overall went up. []

And things are made still worse by the aging nun population: most of the remaining American Catholic nuns are elderly. One piece I checked said there were more nuns past the age of ninety than there were under the age of thirty; another that the average age was over seventy and less than six thousand were under fifty. Recruitment has almost ceased for many communities, and the remaining nuns are struggling economically, with many of them now government-supported.*

Now Pope Benedict has dispatched an Apostolic Visitation -- the equivalent of a Papal Legate -- to investigate the crisis and report back. And meanwhile the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith** seems to have launched its own investigation. Initial signs suggest that the goal is to reign in those who embraced Second Vatican's call to go out into the world and help change it*** rather than remain cloistered but doctrinally pure.

What I think we're seeing here is the beginning of an attempt at renewal. When an organization, whether the Republican Party or Catholic nuns, start to lose members at an unsustainable rate, there are two schools of thought about how to solve the problem. One is to broaden the group's appeal by modernizing its ideas to attract those who had been put off by some aspect of the group's earlier incarnation. The other is to pull back to a faithful core of true believers in hopes their fervor will re-ignite the group so it can grow and thrive again. This will be a story I'm hoping to keep my eye on. Although only a bystander -- my denomination hasn't had nuns or monks in four and a half centuries, and I've only known two nuns**** -- I'd be sorry to see a tradition that goes back to the early Dark Ages fade away.

I guess we'll see.

--John R.

*[convents typically aren't supported by Church funds but by the wages earned by sisters from their jobs, usually as nurses or teachers. Janice has taken many a SSI claim from nuns.]

**[nobody expects the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith!]

***[the inspiration for a v. bad Mary Tyler Moore/Elvis Presley movie, 'Change of Habit']
****[one a fellow grad student at Marquette, the other a downstairs neighbor during the one period when I lived in The Core.]

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