Action Alert!

$24 million for retired religious? Therein hangs a tale.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 05, 2014

Should I write about this? I’m concerned about retired religious, and I have even donated from time to time to help them. And yet the special collection in American churches to assist with the care of retired religious remains something of an insult to the laity. What could I possibly mean by that?

First, a caveat. The United States (and the world) is very different now than it was in the 1950s when the population of religious communities—especially women religious—was at its peak. The decline in religious vocations owes much to a general secularization of culture which the Church could hardly be expected to control even at her best; to an extensive rethinking of the roles of women in society; and (no doubt) to an increased emphasis on the lay apostolate within the Church, along with new forms of consecrated life.

These sea changes left many traditional orders running well below replacement level. Many communities rapidly became grossly top-heavy in terms of age, and soon the number of active religious had dwindled to an unsustainable percentage of the whole group. The extent of the apostolic mission of these groups contracted rapidly, and along with it their ability to generate revenue through services offered and direct donations. Add to this the rapidly increasing life-expectancy of otherwise normally healthy persons with access to good medical care. The result is obvious: Too many declining, inactive retired religious—and too few younger ones in the same communities to keep things going in a way which provides for the needs of all.

But it is a fair question whether this decline would have been utterly catastrophic without the complicity of the religious communities themselves. As a general rule, those communities which retained a strong Catholic mission based on a vibrant and deep Catholic faith have not experienced catastrophic decline, and many of them have begun growing again. By the same token, those communities which failed in their discernment of spirits, which secularized along with the culture, which exchanged the teachings of the Church for the nostrums of the world, and which became virtually indistinguishable from ordinary humanists, are now on the brink of death, if they have not already passed from the scene.

The bottom line is that many—though certainly not all—of those religious who are now retired and need support were guilty of significant spiritual betrayal. They were complicit in the destruction of the very communities they depended on for their long-term care. All down the road, they rationalized: Their abandonment of their charisms was justified as a new openness to the service of the poor; their rebellion against Church authority was rationalized as a liberated love for the marginalized; their decline in numbers was rationalized as an important sign of the divinization of the secular.

This went on and on, and while it was going on and on, Church authority did little or nothing to stem the ebbing tide. The whole sorry process has left us with organizations such as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which is still in overt rebellion despite a special Apostolic Visitation and the appointment of a bishop to superintend their reform. One recalls also that after the last Apostolic Visitation of American seminaries, it was found that the diocesan seminaries had vastly improved and were functioning well again, but there continued to be real problems in the houses of formation and theological programs of too many old-line religious orders—particularly those who were suffering a serious impoverishment of vocations.

Hard Lessons

The insult here is that the laity are now being asked by the bishops to fund the retirement of the very same religious who (at least in many cases) engineered the destruction of their own communities and undermined the faith of everyone with whom they worked. Modernists and secularists, feminists, Wiccans, and (let us be brutally honest) often sexual profligates: You can still find them in leadership positions in the weaker communities today; their number among the retired is legion. Combing through the group as a whole would be much like looking for deeply and faithfully Catholic professors at Jesuit universities such as Georgetown.

Do you think I am too harsh? In some ways I may be. As an important point of fact, I do not know the number among the retired who either led or happily collaborated in the destruction of religious life in the second half of the twentieth century. Some obviously would be victims of this alleged renewal, victims who were held powerless by their own communities to influence their direction. Still others would be repentant, having grown wiser with age and the implacable approach of death. (There is a story in the news today which speaks of something similar, as Pope Francis granted the request of a suspended Maryknoll priest, who had held office under the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, to say Mass again before he died.)

In addition, a deeper truth is inescapable in all this. No matter how bad many of these retired religious were—no matter how bad any of us are—this does not mean the faithful ought to refuse to give them the support and care they need in their declining years.

So, okay, I get it. It is nice to know that a single collection in the United States can still generate $24 million, and I can even easily imagine that this is not enough. Still, we ought to be aware of what we are doing and why. We need to support these religious out of love; but we also need to reject the temptation, confusion, selfishness and betrayal that have contributed so much to this unfortunate need. These same errors and sins are now in decline, but they still have too much power in certain segments of our beloved Church. The collection for retired religious? Therein hangs a (cautionary) tale.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: mkclancy237191 - Aug. 12, 2014 10:21 PM ET USA

    One reason the religious are not getting enough support Is that they have abandoned the wearing of almost any type of Habit that distinguished them from secular women. I was dismayed at one time when the Nun asking for support from the congregation at Mass but did not look like a Nun in her secular dress plus a short skirt!

  • Posted by: ellen2895 - Aug. 06, 2014 3:54 PM ET USA

    You're correct. I graduated from Mt.St. Joseph in Cincinnati Ohio They are into all the crafts of this world and Nature. I objected to a pro abort doctor speaker to no avail. So by by and my $$ goes elsewhere. I visited about 15 years ago and the massage, pantsuits, labyrinth, and Nature were the new way. Forget new vocations and any young women. I wonder if the sister up for canonization will wake them... Sr Blandina and Billy the Kid - no joke - look her up

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Aug. 06, 2014 12:38 PM ET USA

    It is not our problem if we donate to their retirement fund. It is their problem if they broke faith with the church and brought dissent to many innocent people. May God have mercy on us all.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Aug. 05, 2014 10:47 PM ET USA


  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Aug. 05, 2014 10:18 PM ET USA

    RFFR is actually only a few hundred dollars per retired religious. For instance the local Sinsinawa Dominican Motherhouse used RFFR money one year to buy new chairs for the dining room. I wrote a book on their rocky relationship with the Church. I have donated to their retirement fund as well as through the RFFR (Im inclined to think that we shouldnt withhold giving to religious retirement on account of dissidence of the retirees), but my current understanding is that they are adequately funded

  • Posted by: john.n.akiko7522 - Aug. 05, 2014 9:44 PM ET USA

    Yes, but at least these are priests, brothers, and nuns that were faithful to their vows and didn't leave religious life altogether; something that many did.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Aug. 05, 2014 9:33 PM ET USA

    I am personally aware of only two convents, and they are faithful sisters. They have kept their habits and live lives of prayer and penance. And yet they have no vocations. Similarly a monastery. i also know another sister who left her habit and she did not want to, but did it out of obedience.

  • Posted by: BobJ70777069 - Aug. 05, 2014 8:17 PM ET USA

    Well said! In my parish church, we are pleased and gratified to see at Sunday Mass many members of the Sisters of Life in full habit. Last week I counted 18 Novices and 4 Professed (by no means all of them). All are formerly young professionals, some highly paid, now brides of Christ.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Aug. 05, 2014 8:10 PM ET USA

    My wife's aunt is in one of the dying Dominican monasteries where the median age is in the 80s. She frequently says "You wouldn't believe what some of these women believe." At least in this monastery there aren't many repentant liberals even as death approaches.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Aug. 05, 2014 7:57 PM ET USA

    One of your best. The other thing the Church should do is bring together many of the outlier communities, cancel old charters, and put them together for ease of support. Time to consolidate.