What the declining number of nuns in America says about our post-Christian Christianity

While the Vatican’s Synod on the Family has so far garnered most of the attention this week, two smaller stories caught my eye and might perhaps shed light on the larger cultural picture.

The first concerns nuns in America. There are fewer of them—far fewer, in fact, if you’re comparing against the 1960s. In 1965 there were over 180,000. Today, according to a report from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number has fallen below the 50,000 mark—a nearly 73 percent dive.

As if to provide a case study, earlier this week Rod Dreher posted about a closing Benedictine convent in Elk County, Pennsylvania. The nuns are liquidating the property over the next two weekends, including pews, religious medals, even crosses.

Why the decline?

There are several factors that play into the decline, but Vatican II’s mixed message (or at least its mixed inference) about modernity did its bit, according to CARA. V2 called for aggiornamento, a general directive to update with little in the way on specifics for what or how. Predictably, some groups saw this as license to liberalize in ways that displeased Rome.

Writing about the era in the Autumn 1981 Wilson Quarterly, Jay P. Dolan said, “In the United States, nuns have traded in their religious habits for skirts, slacks, and Gucci bags.” I’m assuming that’s hyperbole, but the point sticks. The Sisters of the Most Holy and Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary in California, for instance, lost more than three hundred members after a confrontation with church hierarchy over ambitious progressive reforms.

The church was flirting with contemporary culture and had little idea how seductive its allures might prove. “The Council Fathers,” said Pope Benedict in an unrelated but apropos comment about Vatican II,

opened themselves trustingly to dialogue with the modern world . . . because they were certain of their faith, of the solid rock on which they stood. In the years following, however, many embraced uncritically the dominant mentality, placing in doubt the very foundations of the deposit of faith, which they sadly no longer felt able to accept as truths.

Not only did this conflict have an effect within women’s monasteries, but it’s had an effect on drawing new recruits. The distance between contemporary culture and traditional monastic life has never been so great as it is today. There are at present “more Catholic sisters in the United States over age 90 than under age 60,” according to CARA.

When running an excerpt from Abbie Reese’s book, Dedicated to God, last year Salon.com played off this barrier to youth in its headline: “Will millennials become nuns?” The excerpt did not answer the question, but the impression was clear enough: it’s a tough life that few understand—so no, not many.

Of course, most of us aren’t nuns, so who cares if there are fewer sisters around the tables for breakfast at the convent? That’s where the second story comes in.

Post-Christian Christians

Looking at five trends among unchurched Americans, the Barna Group has just released a study saying,

Nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (38%) now qualifies as post-Christian. . . . [I]n spite of our ‘Christian’ self-descriptions, more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice.

Barna’s definition of post-Christian factors fifteen different metrics, including professed belief in God, church attendance and financial support, frequency in prayer and Bible reading, and belief in the accuracy of scripture. While this or that person might quibble over this or that criterion, the general point of the research is that Americans are, generation by generation, more secular and less Christian—even if we describe ourselves otherwise.

All of this takes me to John Crowe Ransom’s extraordinary 1930 book, God Without Thunder. Ransom argued that while the Christian West professed traditional faith, its underlying and growing belief in modernism canceled out its assertion to Christian faith. “[H]alf of their minds was making a profession which was one thing and half was indulging in a practice which was another.” As a result,

The old doctrines are being [and note the present tense] more or less quietly dropped, the new doctrines are being more or less openly published. The war is nearly over, and the new doctrines have all but won. . . . [A]s far as religion can be, it is fundamentally irreligious, or secular, both in its doctrine and in its works.

To hear Cardinal Walter Kasper dismiss African and Asian moral opinion at the Synod of the Family is to understand exactly what Ransom was driving at. It’s also to understand Benedict’s concern about Vatican II.

Reading the news with Benedict and Ransom in the background illuminates the present cultural drift in all communions away from the true faith. The nones rise, the nuns fall, and many others just follow the cultural currents further away from traditional belief and practice.

Image credit: Ragesh Vasudevan.


  1. The link to: “To hear Cardinal Walter Kasper dismiss African and Asian moral opinion at the Synod of the Family” is broken. Can you sum up, or give another link to that which he *dismisses*?

  2. I read much of the CARA study, and it seems to focus on the two major groups of nuns in the US. I would have liked to see the focus include non-affiliated orders, those that belong to neither major group. I would like to see the actual stats for the non-affiliated orders, as well.

    I’m not making any predictions of “recovery” in this narrowly defined group, but I notice CARA says three of the six orders with substantial growth are unaffiliated with either major organization of nuns. However, in the total of six orders with exceptional growth, the LCWR had none. That would fit with B16’s quote.

  3. While this clearly addresses something real, I think that one should be rather cautious in seeing the decline in the number of religious sisters as indicative of anything else. The number of Catholic religious in the US – and elsewhere – in the mid-twentieth century was disproportionately high and should not necessarily be regarded as some sort of norm or ideal. Indeed, the very existence of apostolic religious life is a modern phenomenon that was related to particular needs and a particular context. However, something similar was also true of monastic Orders. In western Europe there was a huge expansion between the two world wars and monasteries grew (and were built) at a rate that in retrospect was unsustainable. From what I remember, something similar occurred in the US, particularly after the Second World War, as Merton’s journals indicate (of course he had his own influence in that too).

    There are also many other – and complex – factors to be taken into account, including the way the Irish church produced missionaries. All I’m saying is that the situation in 1960 does not necessarily represent an eternal ideal from which religious and monastics have now fallen.

    1. No fundamental disagreement there. It’s just an interesting (and maybe illuminating) stat when you place it against the general secularization of Christians. We’re fine with spirituality, but don’t much want to be hemmed in by anything so cumbersome as tradition or received Christian practice.

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