In 1900, there were approximately 40,340 sisters in the United States (Wittberg, 39) and by 1950, this number had risen to 147,310 sisters (Ebaugh 46). Orders were clearly growing and flourishing in the first half of the twentieth century, and as the roles of women in society were changing, Pope Pius XII encouraged women religious to also change. During the decade of the 1950’s in the United States, the economy flourished, life was changing--it was becoming fast-paced, with the introduction of new technologies--and more women were in the workforce than ever before. Pope Pius began in 1950 by asking the women’s orders to do away with superfluous ritual; in 1952, he spoke to a conference of leaders of women’s orders regarding modernization of the sister’s habit, or clothing. Via a radio address in 1958, he urged the orders to do away with outmoded practices that prevented them from keeping in touch with the world around them.. (Carey 19-20) This leader of the church clearly realized the importance of aligning missions with the people they were serving, and he effected positive change to ensure that the majority of women religious were no longer the sheltered, cloistered sisters of past centuries.
In 1954, the Sister Formation Conference was created in the United States for the purpose of not only furthering the education of sisters, but also aiding them in obtaining financial aid for university study (Wittberg 212). Sisters were the educators of thousands of students in the catholic parochial school system in the United States. The sisters, particularly the teaching sisters, recognized that higher education was very important if they were to keep pace with not only the times, but also their students. Throughout this decade and most of the next, women’s religious orders continued to increase in numbers of members, and prosper under the new opportunities afforded their members. By 1965, the number of sisters totaled 179,954 (CARA 7.1:5).
Before discussing the effects of the tenets of Vatican II on women religious, it is important to note that no women were invited to participate in the council meetings. A pamphlet entitled The 2nd Vatican Council was released in 1962 with the approval of the Vatican to aid church members in understanding the history and importance of both Vatican II and all councils called by the Catholic Church. It explained that an ecumenical council (like Second Vatican Council) is made up of bishops, cardinals and other members of the Holy See, and is called to conduct business of major importance to the Catholic Church. Only twenty such councils have ever been called in the history of the church (Campion 4). When the council closed in 1968, they had instituted epic changes in the lives of women religious without the benefit of the official counsel of the women themselves. The leaders were accustomed to the silent obedience of their female servants of God. They failed to foresee the chaos that would ensue by simply charging the orders to update and reform their constitutions within the spirit of the council’s canons, without the providing them with the benefit of a structured framework.
Pope Paul VI released the council’s “Perfectae Caritatis, or Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life” on October 28, 1965. The Decree continued Pope Pius’ message by proclaiming that religious should adapt their way of life to the environment and circumstances in which they minister. Customs, ceremonies and rules should be reevaluated, and then rewritten if they were not in keeping with the decrees of the council. Pope Pius’ original message was then taken a bit further, though, when the decree instructed Mother Superiors to listen to the input of the members of their respective orders regarding the future direction of their missions (Pope Paul VI, “Perfectae Caritatis”).
Pope Paul presented the “Dignitatis Humanae, or Decree on Religious Freedom on the Right of the Person and Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious” on December 7, 1965. This decree gave religious orders the right to govern themselves. The declaration also stated that religious were to teach and bear witness to their faith as they individually deemed acceptable (Pope Paul VI, “Dignitatis Humane”). The decree, in combination with the “Perfectae Caritatis,” effectively removed centuries of structure within women’s religious communities. Rather than giving the women specific guidance upon renewal that followed along with the future vision of church leaders, they simply told them the orders to change as they saw fit. In addition, the church leaders undermined the authority of the leadership of each order by stating that each sister was to minister and bear witness to her faith as she personally felt was appropriate. These directives set in motion a major loss of sisters in vital service positions throughout the United States.
Shortly after the “Perfectae Caritatis,” Pope Paul issued the “Ecclesiae Sanctae,” giving religious orders guidelines by which they were to implement the “Perfectae Caritatis.” The orders were to hold a general chapter meeting by October 11, 1969, when they would formally approve trial changes to their individual constitutions allowing for the Vatican II mandates. The orders would then undergo a trial period of implementation and evaluation. At their next scheduled general chapter meeting (from three to twenty years), they would review the effects and benefits of the proposed changes, and adopt those deemed beneficial. The revised constitutions would then be sent to Rome for official approval (Carey 38).
Where in the past, the vow of obedience to a sister’s order and superiors would have prevented open dissention, sisters were now being encouraged by the Holy See to openly challenge the rules and practices. Lucy Kaylin, in her book For the Love of God, and John Fialka, in his book Sisters, both discuss the inevitable dissention that occurred when sisters debated theological issues and the future of their orders. Sisters who were content and satisfied with the mission of their orders prior to Vatican II now felt they were losing their way of life. Sisters who were dissatisfied with what they deemed restrictive in their orders began to pressure the older sisters, under the pretext of implementing Vatican II mandates, to lessen rules, traditional clothing, and even prayer schedules. The dissatisfied sisters felt completely justified in creating this conflict for they felt they were simply following Vatican II’s urge for experimentation (Kaylin 39; Fialka 206). John Fialka interviewed Sister Joan D. Chittister, a Benedictine sister, who remembered the turmoil in her own order in 1968. Sister Joan recalled telling her parents,
“It’s leaving me. Everything is falling apart. Nothing is the same anymore. There’s no reason to stay. People don’t want to teach; they don’t want to wear the habit; they don’t want to live together. I have to leave while I’m still young enough to be able to make a living.” (Fialka 206)
Wilma Sullivan, a Sister of Mercy, also spoke of the disruption of her own community in her book Sister of Mercy. Women in her order began to experiment with alternate housing arrangements by moving out of the main house with a few members of the community. Within the small groups of roommates, personality clashes inevitably arose regarding appropriate lifestyles and practice of their faith. Within the structured community of the past, the Mother Superior quickly resolved issues; now the sisters who lived apart from their orders had no one to facilitate resolutions to these differences (Sullivan 24-25). It is evident that sisters who had spent their lives in structured communities were unprepared for the upheaval brought about by the new experimentation and freedoms. They were concentrating on what was best for the individual and neglecting the effects on the missions that had fostered their vocation.
To compound matters, perhaps in an attempt to bring about a shared goal, in 1970 the Conference of Major Superiors of Women called for their members to focus on services to others rather than restructure within their own communities (Weaver 84). In retrospect, this was a mistake. Focus on the continuity of mission for orders, within the vision of Vatican II was precisely what was needed. The sisters were in need of focused attention to their internal communities, if the communities were to be sustained throughout this period of experimentation and renewal. A study of convents was conducted in 1970 by Helen Rose Ebaugh, a professor of sociology at the University of Houston and former president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. She found that the “degree of structural change was a major variable in predicting rates of defection” (Ebaugh 51). Sisters became disillusioned and confused. The orders had difficulty redefining their post-Vatican II missions. When they finally reached a decision on new constitutions, many women left because they felt they were no longer in the orders they had joined.
By 1975, the number of women in religious orders in the United States had dropped to 135,225, reflecting the beginning of a quick and steady decline. By 2001, there were only 78,095 sisters in the United States. During roughly this same post-Vatican II period, Catholic church membership in the United States rose from 45.6 million in 1965 to 60.6 million in 1998 (CARA 7.1:5). Church membership and practice of faith was not declining. Increased opportunities for women has also been presumed to be a major reason for the sharp decline in women in religious orders, however data for single women in the workforce during the 1970-2000 timeframe does not directly support this supposition. The age range for the largest percentage of new recruits to orders fall in the age 20-34 category. U.S. Census figures tell us that in 1970, seventy-three percent of single women aged 20-34 were employed. By 2000, the percentage of working single women in this age group had only risen to seventy-six percent (U.S. Census Bureau 390). This data reflects a mere three percent increase in women in the workforce, versus a forty-two percent drop in the number of sisters
Today, sisters also have greater opportunity for careers within their mission. Women religious are now highly educated professionals, with opportunities for careers in a wide range of professional fields. The sister who aided the poor with food and clothing in the first half of this century can now fight for their civil rights as an attorney. Unfortunately, this new identity has become a double-edged sword. Inconspicuous in their new careers and modern clothing, they are superficially indistinguishable from other women in the working world. They no longer serve as easily identifiable role models for new recruits. In an article entitled “Religious Orders Affected by Withdrawal,” Sister Patricia Wittberg, Ph.D., and author of The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders, discusses the effects of the disappearance of the community-style religious orders who maintained schools and hospitals.
The institutions defined and transmitted the religious sponsor’s identity and culture, they provided an important locale in which the sponsor’s faith calling could be put into practice, and they served as valuable resources for membership recruitment and leadership training (qtd. in CARA 6.4:8).
Sister Wittberg quoted the unidentified head of a religious order who said, “We have no programs of recruitment, mentoring, exchange, or promotion of sisters in the ministry, no programs of leadership development or succession, no programs of mission assessment or enhancement” (CARA 6.4:8).
In addition to fewer opportunities for recruitment, Vatican II facilitated the loss of an important social structure that drew so many women to religious orders. There are dwindling opportunities for living in a community with other women who share a life of calling to religious service. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at GeorgetownUniversity released the CARA Compendium of Vocations Research in 1997. CARA surveyed men and women in religious orders in the United States, asking, among other things, their reason for entering religious life. Second only to their calling by God to a spiritual life, respondents stated they had an attraction to community life (Froehle 19). The focus of “Dignitatis Humanae” on the individual had removed one of the primary motives for women choosing a life of service to the Catholic Church.
Loss of shared goals, collective communal identity, and opportunities for recruitment all occurred as a direct result of the Second Vatican Council tenets for renewal and reform aimed at women religious. Almost as an afterthought, church leaders instructed sisters to simply change. They did not qualify that changes should effectively incorporate the successful components of the orders that had enabled them to grow and flourish for centuries. Had they taken the time to study the effects of revolution on social order, they would have found that a structured reorganization would have aided the Catholic Church’s mission of renewal for the twentieth century. Forty years after Vatican II, the shortage of sisters in the United States has reached a critical level and orders are now making a concerted effort to regain what they lost. Studies show us that missions with structured orders are attractive to the new recruits of the twenty-first century and women’s religious orders must realign themselves to pre-Vatican II communities if they are to remain open and recover.
Campion, Donald R., et al. The Second Vatican Council. New York: The America Press, 1962.
Carey, Ann. Sisters in Crisis. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1997.
Ebaugh, Helen Rose Fuchs. Women in the Vanishing Cloister. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993.
Fialka, John J. Sisters. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003.
“Frequently Requested Church Statistics,” The CARA Report 7.1 (2001): 5.
Froehle, Bryan T., ed. CARA Compendium of Vocations Research 1997. 19.
Kaylin, Lucy. For the Love of God. New York: William Morrow, 2000.
Pope Paul VI. “Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis.” Vatican Archives. 28 Oct. 1965: (n. pag.). 20 Feb. 2005
---. “Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.” Vatican Archives. 7 Dec. 1965: (n. pag.). 27 Jan. 2005
---. “Second Vatican Council II Closing Speech.” Papal Encyclicals Online. 8 Dec. 1965: (n. pag.). 9 Apr. 2005
Wittberg, Patricia. The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders. New York: State Univ of New York, 1994.
“Religious Orders Affected by Withdrawal.” The CARA Report. 6.4 (2001): 8.
Sullivan, Wilma. Sister of Mercy. Greenville: Emerald House Group, 1997.
United States. U.S. Census Bureau. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2003. Washington: GPO, 2003. 26 Mar 2005
Weaver, Mary Jo. New Catholic Women. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986