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Cherry-picked statistics don't conceal the collapse of American women's religious communities

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 09, 2015

Setting a high standard for cherry-picking statistics, the “Global Sisters Report,” a project of the National Catholic Reporter, happily announces: “The number of vowed women religious in the United States today is approximately the same as it was a century ago — just under 50,000.”

So everything’s fine, right? Not quite. There are some “significant differences between now and then.” To put it mildly.

To begin, in 1915 the US population was about 100 million—less than a third of what is now. So you might have expected the number of women religious to have tripled, too. Except that the proportion of Catholics in the country’s population has grown, from somewhere under 20% in 1915 to over 25% today, so it would be fair to expect more than 150,000 women religious today. By 1965, in fact, there were more than 150,000—181,421, to be exact. So these statistical projections are not baseless.

Why, then, would one compare the number of religious sisters in the US today with the number in 1915? Possibly in order to allay concerns over the fact—fact—that religious life has undergone a catastrophic collapse.

One more thing: Of those 50,000 sisters in the US today, only 9% are under the age of 60. In another few decades, most of today’s American sisters will no longer be with us. Will those who remain still be whistling past the graveyards?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Dec. 13, 2015 9:33 PM ET USA

    What about the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, MI and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia or the Nashville Dominicans in Nashville,TN? Both of these very traditional teaching orders are growing by leaps and bounds. Both are new orders, so to speak, and the older orders definitely are diminishing. But, this is because of the drastic and uncalled for changes made in their Constitutions after Vat. II and a huge exodus in the late Sixties, early Seventies.

  • Posted by: Don Vicente - Dec. 10, 2015 3:10 PM ET USA

    In fact, the only young Sisters I meet are members of more traditional congregations, such as the "Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara." I believe that we will end up with fewer but more traditional women religious.