About that nuns on the Internet story

Time to catch up with a recent story that got buried in all of the coverage of President Barack Obama's evolution on the definition of marriage and Mitt Romney's adventures in Moral Majority territory. When I started reading this Associated Press report, I found it rather liberating. It was nice to read a story about Catholic nuns that was unrelated to the whole uproar about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Vatican's attempt to pull that organization's leaders out of the world of beyond-Jesus experimentation. It was good to read another story about how Catholic religious are coping with recruiting issues in the digital age.

BIDDEFORD, Maine (AP) -- When Sister Elaine Lachance devoted herself to a religious life straight out of high school in 1959, her religious order had more than a dozen convents in the U.S. with nearly 260 sisters.

Today, the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec, based in Canada, has just five convents in Maine and Massachusetts with 56 sisters. The youngest is 64 years old, and it's been more than 20 years since a new member joined.

Rather than leave the future of the convents to prayer and chance, Lachance has turned to the Internet. She's using social media and blogging to attract women who feel the calling to serve God and their community.

However, as I kept reading the story I had second thoughts.

Things were fine as long as the focus stayed on this one order and its challenges. The problems, for me, began when the AP team tried to broaden the scope of the story to look at the current crisis facing nuns, in general.

The number of nuns and sisters has plunged through the decades as more career opportunities for women opened, parochial schools closed and sisterhood became less visible. ... In the U.S., the count has fallen from about 180,000 in 1965 to 55,000 last year, a drop of nearly 70 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In 2009, their median age was 73, with 91 percent of them 60 and older.

GetReligion readers who are active Catholics will immediately spot the key issue and, unfortunately, it does have something to do with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

It appears that the team behind this story does not seem to realize that, in addition to that large body on the progressive side of the spectrum, conservative Catholics have formed their own network for religious orders that are dedicated to more traditional, even contemplative, forms of religious life. That group is called the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which was founded in 1992.

To understand what is happening, the AP really needed to answer some basic questions: Are some orders declining, while others are growing? Are some orders declining at a more rapid rate than others? In particular, I wanted to know if the numbers in that 2009 CARA study can be tweaked to separate the LCWR orders from the CMSWR orders.

In other words, the story assumes that all of these religious orders face the same challenges and the same bleak prospects. That may not be the case.

This does not mean that the hook for this story -- the fact that some orders are using the Internet to seek recruits -- isn't invalid. This is a timely subject for a news feature, and the AP report contains some fascinating details:

... (T)here's been an uptick among women showing an interest in pursuing a religious life, said Patrice Tuohy of the National Religious Vocation Council, a Chicago-based group representing vocation directors for religious organizations. The NRVC launched a website called VocationMatch.com seven years ago that links young people interested in leading religious lives to religious communities. The site gets about 6,000 inquiries a year. The Internet is useful for such questions because it offers instant information and is anonymous, Tuohy said. ...

Audra Turnbull, 23, turned to the Internet when she felt the calling in college. Inside the chapel at Quincy University in Quincy, Ill., she pulled out her laptop, Googled "nuns" and found a website called A Nun's Life. In time, she checked out dozens of other websites, YouTube videos and social media before getting touch with a motherhouse in Monroe, Mich., where she plans to join the ministry.

Those tools are invaluable for "nunnabes" -- wannabe nuns -- like her, she said.

"It's hard to find nuns these days to talk to them," she said. "So a sister being interviewed or giving ministry on YouTube has been huge because you put yourself in that place and visualize what you want to be doing."

Turnbull expects to become a sister in two to three years. She's also created a blog of her own called The Awkward Catholic, which takes readers through the process of entering religious life.

Read it all and check out some of the links.

Again, let me stress that this is a valid story on a fascinating topic. The problem is that it omitted one additional fact that readers needed to know in order to understand the current realities -- the fact that not all of these orders are in decline. Some are growing. As Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink stated in her now infamous 2007 keynote address (.pdf here) at a national LCWR assembly:

“They are putting on the habit, or continuing to wear the habit with zest. ... Some would critique that they are the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed. But they are flourishing. Young adults are finding in these communities a living image of their romantic view of Religious Life. They are entering. And they are staying. ...”

In other words, this AP story needed one or two more voices, to capture another point of view on this crisis.

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