Fewer children? Then fewer nuns ...


Time for a quick dip into my GetReligion guilt file to look at a Religion New Service story that intrigued several readers who felt slapped by the headline it inspired at USA Today, which was, "Parents discourage daughters who would be nuns." What struck me about this story was a rare mainstream press reference to what I am convinced is one of the most powerful realities in Catholic life today. More on that in a second. Here's the top of the report:

If she had listened to her parents, Sister Jenn Graus might never have professed vows last month to join the Congregation of St. Joseph.

Though lifelong Catholics, Graus' parents had met few nuns or sisters near their home in Sterling Heights, Mich., and assumed most were cloistered in remote convents. They were uneasy when Graus, 27, told them about her religious calling. Would they ever see her again? Would the college education they scrimped and saved for go to waste?

"They had to overcome a lot of apprehension," Graus said. Gradually, her parents warmed to her vocational aspirations after Graus told them that, yes, she would be allowed to visit home, and no, she would not have to give up her teaching career.

Now, there are several stories that loom over this one. First and foremost, the story seeks to address what it calls a "season of demographic decline" among Catholic female religious orders. That's putting it mildly.

And another issue must be mentioned, which is that many Catholic orders are in decline, while a few others are booming (see this interesting NPR report). To state the obvious, there seems to be a theological component to this part of the story and, yes, the Vatican seems to think that too. The RNS report briefly mentions this angle.

But the heart of this story is found, literally, much closer to home:

More than half of the women who professed final vows to join a religious order in 2010 said a parent or family member had discouraged their religious calling, according to a survey conducted by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Only 26% of the surveyed sisters said their mother encouraged them to consider religious life, and just 16% said their father cheered their choice, according to the report, which was released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. ... A more extensive survey conducted by the Chicago-based National Religious Vocation Conference in 2009 produced similar results.

Here is the specific reference that caught my attention.

Sometimes parents object because they want grandchildren, or fear losing a daughter.

They want grandchildren? That would be a factor only if the parents themselves have no other children or have, let's say, only one other child. This implies a major change in the past half century or so in the very shape and size of the Catholic family here in American and in the Western world.

Sure enough, near the end of the story the reader is told:

At one time, having a nun or priest in the family was a source of pride for Catholics. Folklore even held that it would help parents and siblings gain a spot in heaven.

But smaller families, changing cultural norms, a lack of knowledge about religious life and the clergy sex abuse crisis all contributed to a general decline in the desirability and prestige of Catholic vocations. ...

As the old saying goes, demographics are destiny.

So what we have here is a solid story on an important topic. It is also rather obvious that it contains evidence that a sequel is needed. How does one find sisters, nuns, brothers and priests in a Catholic culture that is nervous about large families? And is there a doctrinal component to that question, as well?

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