US report unpacks statistics about women's religious orders

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A longtime trend of declining numbers of women in religious orders is unpacked a bit in a new study by Georgetown University's Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate, reports the Catholic News Service.

In the report released on Monday, the social science researchers of CARA observed that the demographical story of women religious in the United States takes some disentangling.

Although past studies have talked about the rapid decline in the number of women religious in the country, starting after the Second Vatican Council, "such studies did not provide the more nuanced narrative of what decline meant for the individual religious institute," the report said. "How, for example, did religious institutes respond to declining membership?"

From a peak in 1965 of 181,000, the number of women religious in the U.S. has steadily declined to the current 50,000. That's about how many sisters there were in the United States 100 years ago, said the report: "Population Trends Among Religious Institutes of Women," by CARA staffers Mary Gautier and Mark Gray, and Erick Berrelleza, a Jesuit scholastic at Boston College.

CARA found that as their numbers declined, some religious orders reorganised their internal structures, while others merged with other religious institutes. Some have been bolstered by sisters from other countries or women who joined a religious order later in life. Others simply stopped serving in the United States.

"In the face of diminishment," it said, "women religious have innovated by responding with new models when old models proved ineffective."

That's partly why the report refers to disentangling, Gautier told Catholic News Service. Some whole institutes disappeared from the Official Catholic Directory, a reference book published annually, whether by being folded into another organisation, by leaving the United States or adapting in another way.

The report pointed to a flaw in assumptions about the growth in women's religious vocations coming primarily in orders that are "traditionalist" - meaning for example, those whose members wear a full religious habit - while institutes whose members do not wear a traditional habit are declining.

"One of the most striking findings regarding new entrants is that almost equal numbers of women have been attracted" to both kinds of religious orders, the CARA report quoted. Gautier's book categorised the two types of religious orders according to whether the organisations belong to one or the other of two leadership organisations, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Council of Major Superiors of Women.

FULL STORY  Report takes deeper look at statistics about women's religious orders (CNS)

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