The usual reasons given for the decline are competition from an increased array of secular careers for women and today's climate of me-generation materialism that discourages a life of sacrifice. The real reasons, however, may be more complex. Many Catholic women in their 20s and 30s yearn, like Sauers, for a life of religious service, and they are searching for a sense of religious community, according to studies by sociologist Sr. Mary Johnson, SND, of Emmanuel College in Boston. However, many can no longer find what they are looking for in today's shrunken women's religious orders. Some are turning instead to the booming numbers of Catholic lay movements, sometimes called ecclesial movements, which offer them a model of community and service that seems right for them.
"Christine" (not her real name), a 23-year-old graduate student at Harvard University, may be typical of this dissatisfied new breed. She would like to become a nun because it's a way "to embody your belief by who you are," she explains. "You live your faith." Finding an order that fully integrates what she is looking for--service to the poor, vibrant theological debate, and strong community life--with her own progressive view of the church has been difficult. "I haven't found a place to go," she says. "Either [the orders] are very conservative theologically, which doesn't appeal to me, or very liberal without community, and it becomes secular activism."
Until the Second Vatican Council, most Catholic nuns lived either in secluded monasteries or in convents, where they typically pursued a narrow range of occupations--teaching, nursing, caring for orphans--and had limited contact with the outside world. After Vatican II, the sisters were encouraged to rethink their traditional way of life, and many did just that, redefining both their ministries and their living arrangements.
Abandoning their religious habits for street dress, they became social workers, prison ministers, homeless-shelter operators, community activists, lawyers, and doctors. Instead of living and praying together in isolation from the rest of the world, many sisters focused their lives entirely on the wider community, gathering together perhaps only once a week for prayer. Most American nuns today do not live in convents but in houses or apartments with a few other sisters.In her book "Women in the Vanishing Cloister," sociologist Helen Rose Fuchs writes: "Even more common in many orders is the individual nun living alone. . .or in some instances with one or two other nuns of her own or another order. Usually, each nun has a different job, is assigned the use of a car, has an individual budget, and often her own circle of friends."
While some women's orders do maintain a more traditional model of community and religious life, such as Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, Christine does not believe that God is calling her there. Traditional orders are an important part of the church, she says, but they are too constricted and hierarchical to allow for what she sees as her unfolding understanding of the church and her place within it. "I am looking for a new vision of how the church could be." says Christine. "I feel like in those groups, there is not room for that. They have strong community and worship, but I want to be involved in helping the church grow and change, not hold on to the past."
Christine and other young Catholic women like her seek a combination of the best of both the old and the new religious life. They yearn for the strong sense of solidarity created by gathering together with other nuns daily for prayer, meditation, and meals. But they also want to be able to examine what they believe should change in the church--and what must not, because it is eternal and true. That ability to develop a new vision of the church may be available in the more progressive women's religious orders, but those are the same orders that lack a daily, lived experience of community. "It is not an issue of mother superiors or habits," Christine says.For this reason, the new ecclesial movements, open to both sexes and including married and single laypeople as well as nuns, brothers, and priests, have replaced convents as a source of religious community for many young women (and men). They range from the theologically conservative, such as Regnum Christi, to the highly progressive, such as Catholic Worker.
Hilleren has always been attracted to the idea of becoming a nun--but she also wants a family. "You ask yourself, how else do you live your life dedicated to your faith?" she says. For her, Sant' Egidio offers an answer. "It was the first time I found something where you could incorporate prayer and service. The focus on friendship makes it a community, not just a program. It is a way of life."
Patricia Bailey, 24, of Rochester, N. Y., is studying to become a "consecrated laywoman" in Regnum Christi. She intends to make traditional promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience--but not as a nun, because Regnum Christi is not a religious order. It defines itself as an "apostolic" movement that encompasses families, married couples, and singles. Bailey once considered becoming a nun, but none of the traditional religious orders she considered could offer the lay spirituality and diverse membership she also seeks. When she finishes her spiritual formation at Regnum Christi's main center in Rhode Island, she will live in a house with five to 10 other women who may be consecrated like herself or non-consecrated volunteers. For her, Regnum Christi offers "indispensable support. You need it. We play sports together, celebrate feast days, play Frisbee, talk."
Amanda Walker, 24, of Long Island, found her own sense of community when her godfather sent her a picture of Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement during the 1930s. Although Catholic Worker keeps no records of its membership, thousands of people have been part of the movement at different levels of involvement, from living in the "houses of hospitality," as Day called the movement's facilities for the homeless, to merely reading the Catholic Worker newspaper.
Now engaged to be married, Walker never considered becoming a nun. "I do seek the community that the religious have," she says, but she has found it in the Catholic Worker houses, where a range of people living a range of lifestyles, from celibate to married with children, all work toward a common goal of living radical social justice, in Gospel poverty, as brothers and sisters of the poor.
Drastic declines in religious orders have occurred before in the Catholic Church, and they have always been followed by the emergence of new types of communities of service and prayer. Kerri Hilleren, Patricia Bailey, and Amanda Walker may represent the new, lay-focused, intensely communal model of religious life that will predominate for Catholic women of the third millennium.