You may wonder whether the global church the sisters belong to is interested in keeping the convents open. It sure seems like it isn't. By 2005, the Catholic Church had spent $1 billion on legal fees and settlements stemming from priests sexually abusing children. Yet church leaders have allocated no funds to take care of elderly sisters, and while priests’ retirement funds are covered by the church, the sisters have no such safety net. When their orders run out of money, that’s it.
“Why would you want to be a nun if the archdiocese is going to treat you like they do?” Ann Frey at the Wartburg said. “Their whole lives they’ve been obedient and done what they were asked to do, and now nobody is helping them?”
The religious life used to be far more popular among Catholics, especially women, than it is now. In 1965, the number of sisters in the US peaked at 181,000. Nuns were so common back then that the strict, ruler-wielding nuns of Catholic schools became a pop-culture trope. Some sisters participated in Civil Rights marches, worked in hospitals, and devoted themselves to social justice causes. But today, that kind of devotion has become so unpopular that there are fewer than 60,000 nuns in America, and those who remain are aging rapidly—only 12 percent of nuns were younger than 60 in 2009, a study found, while 10 percent were older than 90. With few young women replacing them—the average age of those who take vows is 39—elderly nuns and sisters across the country have been forced to care for one another and keep convents running in the face of massive budget deficits.Boston Globe - What American Nuns Built: Both the nation and the Church have depended on the energy and expertise of nuns. They’re vanishing. Now what?
Ironically, as nuns have declined in number, they are finally gaining serious attention from the scholars who study American history and society. Much of what we know about nuns’ importance comes from the recent work of scholars...The fact that it has taken this long to appear is telling. As Patricia Wittberg, a nun and sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, summed it up, “Most Catholic history has been written by men who ignored women, and most women’s history has been written by people who were prejudiced against Catholics.” [...]*NPR - 'Double Crossed' Details Decline of American Nuns (audio/transcript of interview with Kenneth Briggs)
When the Vatican released its scathing report last year, it, too, seemed to have underestimated the importance of American nuns. Public opinion in the United States overwhelmingly rose to the defense of the LCWR... “It was a miscalculation, in that they did not anticipate the way the majority of American Catholics would really side with the nuns and really see this as in insult,” [Cummings] said. “In a time when there are so many burning questions in the church, so many problems to solve, to single out nuns...risks further alienating a whole lot of lay Catholics.” Indeed, a Pew poll conducted in June and July found American Catholics more satisfied with nuns than with priests, bishops, or the pope.
An additional motivation for the next pope to make peace with nuns is that those alienated from the church right now are disproportionately women. The statistics on nuns reflect a historic gap in engagement between young Catholic men and young Catholic women: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, three to four times as many women than men entered Catholic religious life in America. Today, as Wittberg noted in America magazine last year, that order has flipped: 1,206 women were in initial formation in 2009, compared with 1,396 men, and the men tend to be younger than the women. Millennial Catholics are the first generation in American history for which women are less likely than their male peers to attend Mass. “I cannot tell you how ominous this is,” Wittberg said, “because if you lose the women, you lose the children.”
The growing conservatism of the Church establishment is increasingly reflected in the makeup of the American sisterhood: As it shrinks, its newcomers are proportionally more conservative...
...[S]isters joining liberal convents are much older, often second-career types, sometimes with a marriage and children in their past. By contrast, a majority of women joining convents in the conservative splinter group are in their twenties. Some traditionalist convents are getting ten or twenty new postulants (first-year nuns) a year. And this is significant: In 2010, there were only 56,000 nuns in the United States, less than a third of their 1965 total. The average age of nuns is rising quickly, and many convents are becoming nursing homes for their members.NPR - An American Nun Responds To Vatican Criticism
The small renaissance of American nuns is occurring among sisters who look like nuns from 1960 and, in their deference to the church, act like nuns from 1960. That model is compelling to a young generation of devout women who are more interested in purity than in the messy intellectual complexity, and frequent dissent, that their elders embraced. The Vatican is doubling down on this old-fashioned model of sisterhood—no matter the offense taken by thousands of older nuns who have spent their lives poor, single and childless, all for love of God, if not always the church.
Despite the fact that Pope Francis received many accolades for taking a position against traditional authoritarianism and for criticizing the church for obsessing over birth control and homosexuality at the expense of more important issues, such as economic justice, Francis is now pushing back on the nuns who do just that. I’m talking about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that represents 80 percent of American nuns and is focused on social justice. In the past, the Vatican has gone after LCWR for focusing on economic inequality rather than bashing contraception and homosexuality. Despite what appears to be common ground between the nuns and the pope, it seems that Francis is not changing that tune...
The thing is that the LCWR is not advocating for gay marriage or birth control. They simply don't discuss issues of contraception and homosexuality, preferring instead to focus on issues like climate change, immigration, and assisting refugees in need of aid. Despite doing what Pope Francis supposedly wants his flock to do, however, the nuns continue to be punished and castigated by the Vatican, suggesting that the new pope is the same as the old.
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