Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why Have Religious Vocations Numbers Dropped?

Q - The number of Catholic religious belonging to Orders has dramatically dropped bringing the total number to under one million. The BBC reports recent statistics show a drop of 10 percent between 2005 and 2006. Despite Catholics numbering more than 1.1 billion worldwide, the increase in membership to the Church has not resulted in more nuns, monks, priests and deacons. Of the total, 753,400 members were women, while 191,810 were men, including 136,171 priests and 532 permanent deacons. During Pope John Paul’s pontificate, the number of nuns worldwide declined by a quarter.

Here is my question:
What do you believe are the reasons for the decline in those joining religious orders? Is this something to be worried about or is there room for optimism?

A - Thanks for the question! First, I need to tell you that I cannot do anything but have hope. I live in the midst of it. I just took a break from this post to go and get some caffeine (in the form of sweet tea) and talked to a sister from the Nashville Dominicans for 10 minutes about hope in our students lives. She is here, along with 16 other priests and religious from around the country, for our Busy Students' Retreat. Hope is here in Aggieland. Hope is in St. Mary's averaging about 7-8 students a year going into formation as religious and priests. Hope is in 30 entering in the last 3 years.

Look at the picture to the right. This is not an uncommon sight for St. Mary's. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the Sisters of Life just happened to be in town at the same time last semester. So, we took them on campus. FYI - In the picture - one of the friars, one of the sisters and the priest in clerics are all Aggies.

Second, I should let you know that some of the numbers that have been reported incorrectly. The Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano has corrected the numbers it issued previously. Here are the corrected numbers:

Father Ciro Benedettini, the deputy director of the press office, said that the accurate figures showed a decline of just 7,230 over that one-year period.

Thus although the world's religious population did decrease between 2005 and 2006, the decline was less than 1% of the total-- rather than nearly 10%.

So, in light of this, I do believe there is much more to be hopeful about, though even if the original numbers were correct, there is a lot of room for hope.

The reasons for drops in religious orders are many. I want to warn you that I am neither a sociologist or a demographer, rather, I am an observer of culture and faith. The following observations are my own opinions.

With that being said, I believe is has to do with several things:

1 - A misinterpretation of Vatican II. After Vatican II, many people within the Church tossed open the windows to the modern world and instead of engaging the world in order to evangelize it, became evangelized by modern culture themselves. They allowed the culture to be a greater authority on matters of faith than the Church of Jesus Christ. For more on this part of the story, you can read some comments I have previously written on Vatican II and it's misinterpretation and implementation.

2 - A disconnect with people living out the faith. I see this often as well. We are sinful creatures made with a fallen nature. This means we want it both ways - to be close to God and to do our own thing. We all do this, but it is much more widespread in our Church today. But, if you can't get your own way and don't want to have it any other way, then religious life is the last thing you would consider.

3 - Lack of a Catholic culture of vocations. Many people decided to stop asking their children, friends, and others to think about a vocation to the priesthood and religious life. It wasn't an option in some parts of the Church to seriously consider it.

4 - Dissent. This one is a very serious reason. Why would you sacrifice your life for something (the Church) you think teaches lies? Dissent on moral and sexual issues is especially harmful to vocations to the priesthood and religious life. If you undermine the Church's moral authority to teach truth in regards to sexuality then we can expect that people will not answer the high calling to live a celibate life (or chastity in any vocation - look at the high number of married Catholic who use contraception). Dissent also is directly tied to reasons 1 and 2.

5 - Laicization of the clergy. If a lay person can "do" everything a priest can do, then why become one? The blurring of the lines between clergy and laity, the failure to see Christ's authority in the clergy, and the changing definition of our worth from being to doing lead to many problems.

6 - Specific issues to certain religious orders. Some orders and dioceses are busting at the seams. Some have no vocations at all. Some orders are expanding rapidly and others are about to close up their shops. Why? Because of all the reasons above and more. It is a complex issue. But, to be as blunt as possible, it is mainly because some orders have lost their Catholic identity or charism (gift of the Holy Spirit). Their missions have become too blurred for them to properly discern how to live out their calling.

Now, with all of this said, there are more signs for hope than there are signs of despair. God is in charge here and many times through salvation history has God allowed these "prunings" of the people of God to happen in order for the growth to come forth more abundantly. I believe that we have turned a corner in our Church in the USA. We are seeing more and more signs of a "springtime" within our faith.

Pray for vocations. Pray for our Church and her leaders. Come visit the religious and priests at St. Mary's this week. Join us in our hope.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I read somewhere (don't remember where) recently that part of the problem is the abnormal influx into vocations in the 1950s (I think). Now, many of those religious are reaching the end of their lives and the number of vocations has returned to a normal level.