The Drudge Report is highlighting this BBC article on the decline of religious life in the Catholic Church. Here’s the basic gist:

Newly published statistics showed that the number of men and women belonging to religious orders fell by 10% to just under a million between 2005 and 2006.

During the pontificate of the late Pope John Paul II, the number of Catholic nuns worldwide declined by a quarter.

The downward trend accelerated despite a steady increase in the membership of the Catholic Church to more than 1.1bn.

However, correspondents say even this failed to keep pace with the overall increase in world population.

I’ve often wondered what the decline in religious life has meant for the average Catholic. Personally, I can count the number of religious sisters and brothers that I know on one hand—and this includes people I met growing up in Baltimore, attending college and then working in Princeton, and now living and working in Manhattan. If I include diocesan priests (technically “secular”), the number jumps up, but even then it’s fair to say that I don’t really “know” most of the priests who have administered the sacraments to me. If push came to shove, there would probably be a couple priests from college and New York who, in a time of trouble, I’d feel comfortable going to see. My parents experienced something different. They, of course, went to Catholic schools all their life, were taught by religious brothers and sisters, and still have vivid memories of the relationships that were forged—relationships that secured them in the faith. One wonders what the loss of religious witness and a ministry of presence has meant to the Church simply on a person-to-person level.

Of course times change. Renewal movements in the Church have opened new possibilities for Christian vocation and holiness in ordinary life. People who might have joined religious communities in times past now find themselves involved with groups like Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, Regnum Christi, Focolare, and the Neo-Catechumenal Way—all providing lay people with models, organizational supports, and what certainly seem to some like lay vocations. The members of these groups say that a rising tide lifts all ships and a general increase in holiness in the Church will—and, according to their experience, already has—led to priestly and religious vocations. If they’re right, and they likely are, one shudders to think how much more drastic the decline in religious life would be if the renewal movements didn’t exist.

Some will argue that the Church doesn’t need robust religious communities, especially not the ones in monasteries and convents. It’s no longer the Middle Ages, and the Catholic Church doesn’t need to sustain Western culture behind the walls of the Carmel. So much for contemplative life—and the prayers that sustain the Church. The active religious communities? Well, they’re fine and good, but can’t we leave this social work to professional social workers? And in light of the feminist movement, can’t women aspire to something more than soothing bed sores in Calcutta? Somehow the personal witness of a life radically devoted to Christ in loving service to others seems radically discounted.

Yet the institutional loss has been no less severe. And here my mind immediately jumps to some of the most pressing needs daunting contemporary society: decent education for those who can’t afford it; food, drink, shelter and assistance to independence for the homeless; health care for those whose salaries can just meet their bare necessities like rent, heating and electricity, and groceries. One wonders if the state will ever be able to meet these needs—let alone the need for personal care and human love. Maybe the charitable activities of the Church alone will suffice. What would happen to our inner cities if Catholic schools, hospitals, soup kitchens and shelters shut down? But the sad reality is that many of them depend on governmental moneys. When the Church had a ready supply of celibate religious—without the need to earn a wage to provide for a family, with the freedom to give themselves completely to their ministry, and expecting (even vowing) a life of poverty—staffing Catholic schools and Catholic hospitals was much easier.

The situation isn’t entirely bleak. One is forced to think about communities like the Nashville Dominican sisters, or the Sisters of Life, or the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal—youthful, vibrate, orthodox, flourishing communities. Maybe they’re the future of religious life .

I’m just thinking out loud, and I’m rambling, so I’ll stop here. But maybe this Lent a prayer intention should be for an increase in vocations to religious life.

Articles by Ryan T. Anderson

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