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Some Statistics on Women Religious

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 03, 2009

During this time of the Apostolic Visitation of American female religious (Women Religious: Few Options Left), you may have missed some saliant facts about religious life throughout the world.

First, just in case you’ve been living in a cave and haven’t noticed the decline in female religious life in the United States (and much of the West) over the past generation, note that the Vatican’s concerns about American religious life are justified by sheer numbers alone, even if nothing else were wrong. During the period from 2002 to 2007, for example, the United States was second only to Italy in the decline in numbers of female religious, down 10,454 to Italy’s 11,156. But Italy started with about 50% more nuns. Posting losses of around 6,000 were Germany and France, with losses of about 4,000 incurred by Canada and Spain. Two to three thousand female religious were lost per nation in Belgium, the Netherlands and Brazil. Around a thousand were lost in each of Argentina, Columbia and Ireland.

Between 1965 and 1995, the United States had already lost 49% of its female religious, while the number dropped by 46% in Canada, 44% in France, 48% in German, 43% in Great Britain, 51% in the Netherlands. All told, over the past 45 years, America has lost 65% of its sisters. Since the year 2000, female religious are down generally in Europe; North, Central and South America; and Oceania.

Second, just in case you’ve been living near the front of that cave so that you were able to glimpse the decline, but you assumed it was a worldwide trend, you should come all the way out into the sunlight. India led all nations with an increase of 9,398 women religious from 2002 to 2007, and in general Asia scored considerable gains. Thus Vietnam increased by 2,545 and both South Korea and the Philippines increased by about 500. All across Africa the trend is the same: Tanzania and the Congo are up by around 1,500; Nigeria, Madagascar, Kenya and Angola are each up by 500 to 800.

Generally speaking, since 2000, the number of female religious is up in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean. Ninety-nine individual nations have posted gains. But these are not nations that have the kind of militantly secular “Western” culture that most of us have come to know and distrust.

The ten largest congregations of women religious are the Salesian Sisters (shrinking), the Order of Discalced Carmelites (shrinking), the Claretian Missionary Sisters (growing rapidly), the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (shrinking), the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (growing), the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (growing), the Missionaries of Charity (growing), the Sisters of Charity of Saints Bartolomea Capitanio and Vincenzia Gerosa (shrinking), Benedictine Nuns (shrinking), and the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (growing).

Unfortunately, the gains are not yet quite enough to offset the losses; from 2002 to 2007, the number of sisters declined worldwide by 4.6%. If current shifts continue, however, that trend is likely to reverse itself over the next few years. All together, there are about 750,000 women religious serving around the world—or, if you like math, approximately one sister for every 9,000 souls to be saved.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Ben Dunlap - Dec. 10, 2009 1:58 PM ET USA

    michaelrafferty5029 -- Robert Miola asked a similar question about women religious when his academically-accomplished oldest daughter dropped the promise of an intellectual career to become a religious sister -- and then his second daughter did it as well. His touching reflection on their vocations is here: Sisters & Daughters.

  • Posted by: kathimcnamee11450 - Dec. 08, 2009 9:31 AM ET USA

    Well said, Gil125

  • Posted by: michaelrafferty5029 - Dec. 07, 2009 6:27 PM ET USA

    Gil125 -- there are many ways to serve God and mankind. As for getting into heaven, that door is open to us all, laity and religious alike. I know that I'm planning to be there -- even if my presence disappoints some holier souls.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Dec. 06, 2009 6:43 PM ET USA

    michaelrafferty, just offhand, mightn't an intelligent and talented young woman and her family see the religious life as a very special way to serve God and mankind? And even perhaps as a very special way to enter Heaven? Of course, if serving God and getting into Heaven aren't matters of great concern to them, I agree, there's not much reason to consider the religious life.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 05, 2009 3:47 PM ET USA

    Cardinal Barbarin of France stated recently that when he ordains two priests in a year, he buries twenty others. France, the Eldest Daughter of the Church, is staring down a situation that was a crisis years ago. The problem will become apocalyptic in the not-too-distant future. Of priests who are active, how many have been involved in scandal (known or unknown) and how many more are not preaching the Faith? Sanctifying grace is channeled via the sacraments—good priests are essential.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 04, 2009 12:53 PM ET USA

    I wonder what the Claretian Missionary Sisters, the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel, the Missionaries of Charity and the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament have in common. Could it be habitual orthodoxy?

  • Posted by: Gaby - Dec. 04, 2009 8:39 AM ET USA

    These gains and losses are given in absolute numbers. I'm curious what those figures represent proportionately. For example, a gain of 500 in Nigeria might still be an overall decline when compared to the overall growth of the population. But that wouldn't mitigate the fact that in the secular world, women religious life is pulling a led zeppelin.

  • Posted by: michaelrafferty5029 - Dec. 03, 2009 8:56 PM ET USA

    I have the great respect for all of the nuns that I know personally and a deep appreciation for the roles that women's religious orders have served in the Church. That said, I simply can't understand why an intelligent and talented young woman living in North America or Europe today would consider a nun's life in the Church. And what parents would encourage a daughter to pursue it? For girls living in developing countries, on the other hand, the nun's life has a lot to offer.

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