Women’s Religious Orders

The Vatican recently initiated a major reform of women’s religious in America. Particularly targeted was the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) which represents about 80 percent of the country’s 57,000 women religious. The reform comes in light of a hardened defiance against Catholic morality in areas of family life and human sexuality and is meant to ensure the nuns’ fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.

While we often hear about the present day priest shortage, few seem aware that all religious communities, great and small, male and female, contemplative, active or mixed, if not strictly decimated, have been reduced to a fraction of their former selves in the course of the past fifty years. In Canada, the U.S. and Western Europe, nuns are vanishing at an alarming rate. A recent study by the U. S. National Religious Vocation Conference found the number of nuns in the United States had fallen a stunning 66% over the past four decades. In Canada, there are 19,000 nuns, down 54% from 42,000 in 1975. Indeed, at the beginning of the sixties, Quebec was the region of the world with the highest number of women religious in relation to the population. Today, all sociologists agree that unless there is a reversal of the present trend, women’s religious life as we have known it will be only a memory in Canada.

Pope Benedict XVI has reduced the problem mainly to a certain “radical feminism” that has crept into women’s religious orders causing an identity crisis among active orders and congregations. Women religious, the pope says, have turned away from theology and sought liberation in psychologists and psychoanalysts who can only say at most how the forces of the mind function but not why and to what purpose.

After Vatican II, religious communities began every kind of reform imaginable: abandonment of the religious habit, degrees at secular universities, insertion into secular professions, a massive reliance on every type of “specialist.”  Not surprisingly, modern secular values were often uncritically adopted and the concept of “love of neighbor” was soon replaced by that of “social welfare.”  In the process Christianity gradually became reduced to an ideology of doing.  Pope John Paul II later warned against this minimalist approach saying that the true leaders are those who are “profoundly rooted in contemplation and prayer. Ours is a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of ‘doing for the sake of doing.’  We must resist this temptation by trying to be, before trying to do.”

A major cause of the decay is a distorting of the evangelical councils by taking them as a psychological and sociological outlook rather than as a special state of life structured in accordance with the counsel Christ gives in the Gospels. True renewal means an adaptation of external activities with a view to a more effective pursuit of holiness. It is begotten by a disgust with weakening of discipline and by a desire for a life that is more spiritual, more prayerful and more austere. Post conciliar reform tends to move from the difficult to the easy or less difficult rather than from the easy to the difficult or more difficult. Today, a religious order questions itself, confronts experiences, demand creativity, searches for a new identity (which implies that it is becoming something other than itself), moves toward building “true communities” (as if for centuries past religious orders had consisted entirely of false communities).

Ultimately the crisis among religious is the result of an excessive conforming to the world, and a taking up of the world’s positions because one has despaired of winning the world over to one’s own. A by no means small or unimportant sign of this alienation is the change in the dress of members of religious orders, inspired by a wish that it should no longer differ from that of secular persons.

This drift in reform of religious life today is parallel to the one governing the reform of the priesthood. On the one hand there is the obfuscation of the difference between the sacramental priesthood and the priesthood of all believers; and on the other, of the difference between a state of perfection and the common state. What is specific to religious life is washed out or watered down in thought and behavior.

Take for example, the three evangelical counsels (chastity, poverty, obedience) that are essential to religious life. Today, there is a certain distaste for chastity. A certain decline in delicacy and care are obvious not only in the widespread slackness in clerical dress, but in the more frequent mixing of the sexes, even on journeys, and in the abandonment of the precautions adopted even by great and holy men. In regards to poverty there is a habitual and at times uncontrollable use of such technology as the television and internet. Of all the counsels, obedience is the one where the drift towards relaxation in religious orders shows itself most clearly. The concept of obedience has been lowered by lowering the principle of authority and mixing it up with a kind of fraternal relationship by means of a fruitful dialogue. True Catholic obedience, however, implies submission to the will of the superior – so long as the command is not manifestly illicit–and not a re-examination of the superior’s command by the one obeying. Catholic obedience does not seek a coinciding of the wills of subject and superiors. Such an agreement negates any sacrifice of one’s own will by conforming it to somebody else’s. It ultimately produces self-government, self-teaching, self-education and even self-redemption.

This weakening in obedience has lead to a weakening of the spirit of unity. Individuals are now left to do the things proper to the religious state as if the community did not exist. Mass is said at anytime, prayer is left to the spirituality of each person. With this aim in mind it is easy to see why religious institutes have virtually disappeared. It is a contradiction in terms to join a community in order to do individually, and on one’s own account, things one has joined the community to do in common.

Not surprisingly, cloistered contemplative orders are under no such Vatican scrutiny. This is because they have withstood very well due to the fact that they are more sheltered from the Zeitgeist, and because they are characterized by a clear and unalterable aim: praise of God, prayer, virginity and separation from the world as an eschatological sign. Their wonderful capacity to give love, help, solace, warmth and solidarity did not give way to the economistic, and trade-union mentality of the “profession.”

We are at a point now when religious life in the Catholic Church should be presenting an alternative to the dominant culture of death, of violence and of abuse, rather than mirroring it. Hopefully the new reform will remedy this.

One thing is clear: sisters need to refocus their communities on the founding charisms or original purpose of their orders. They also need, as a remedy against radical feminism, Mary whose mystery was inserted into the mystery of the Church at Vatican II making her a focal point for the equilibrium and completeness of the Catholic Faith.

When one recognizes the place assigned to Mary by dogma and tradition, one becomes more solidly rooted in authentic Christology. As both a Jewish girl and mother of the Messiah, Mary also binds together, in a living and indissoluble way, the old and the new People of God. She is, as it were, the connecting link without which the Faith (as is happening today) runs the risk of losing its balance by either forsaking the New Testament for the Old or dispensing with the Old.

Finally, according to her destiny as Virgin and Mother, Mary continues to project a light upon that which the Creator intended for women in every age.

Mary is the one who rendered silence and seclusion fruitful. She is the one who did not fear to stand under the Cross. As a creature of courage and obedience she was and will always remain an example to which every Christian man and woman should look.

In 2005 Pope Benedict XVI issued a resounding call for reform in the Catholic Church. He lamented “How much filth there is in the church, and even among those…in the priesthood.”  In May, 2010 he reiterated this plea stating: “Today we see in a really terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside, but is born from the sin in the church.”  These exhortations were widely interpreted as references to the sex–abuse scandal affecting the church’s standing in North America and other parts of the world. However, the Pope’s comments were also directed more widely to the phenomenon of modernism that is poisoning the church at its core–the result of decades of liberal exegetical, theological, and “pastoral” creativity in the name of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council. One of the key areas where modernism has been allowed to take root, fester and spread has been women religious.

Thankfully, there are still some very good contemplative orders who have never given up the vision of the Eternal Church and have passed this on to younger religious, who in scattered places preserve the Apostolic faith, much as the monks did on their lonely islands during the Dark Ages. It is with this hope that the church will again be revitalized and become once more a vehicle for re-Christianizing the world.


Mr. Paul Kokoski holds a BA in philosophy from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His articles have been published in several journals including, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, and Catholic Insight.

  • Pingback: Women’s Religious Orders | Catholic Canada()

  • Jlizm

    I also believe that when religious women left their traditional ministries ( education and health care)  en masse  literally speaking in the 70’s and later that they signed their demise.  By this I mean that when they left their institutions the role models that they would have been for young women considering religious life ceased to exist. What we have today is the sum total of the outward mass migration of those years.     

    • Christophe

      Thank God that no one is joining these orders, which are filled with anti-Catholic, radical, harridans. By their fruits ye shall know them.

  • Paul

    Hollywood’s “Sister Act” starring Whoopi Goldberg as Sister Mary Clarence glamorizes this issue of ‘radical feminism’ & “liberal activism” plaguing our religious orders.

    On the contrary, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta would be the best role model especially for nuns and religious. Her quotes:

    “To God there is nothing small. The moment we have given it to God, it becomes infinite.”

    “Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness.”

    “Love to pray — feel the need to pray often during the day and take the trouble to pray. If you want to pray better, you must pray more. Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of Himself. Ask and seek, and your heart will grow big enough to receive Him and keep Him as your own.”

    “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature — trees, flowers, grass — grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

  • Peter Freeman

    “Of all the counsels, obedience is the one where the drift towards relaxation in religious orders shows itself most clearly.”
    I agree that this is central to our current problem. Many women have been trained to believe that authority is merely an ideological state apparatus designed to perpetuate patriarchal self-interest. The idea that Church authority serves the best interests of the faithful rather than the self-preservation of a male hierarchy simply doesn’t compute for many female religious.

  • clingermanocds

    “Thankfully, there are still some very good contemplative orders who have never given up the vision of the Eternal Church and have passed this on to younger religious, who in scattered places preserve the Apostolic faith, much as the monks did on their lonely islands during the Dark Ages.”
    Yes, there are dear Carmelite sisters who don’t even use Internet access or have air conditioning to this very day.  And they have a full house (18 sisters), including a good percentage of young ones.

    In short, religious orders all over have gone a bit ‘soft’.  They have forgotten their roots a bit, and perhaps allowed themselves to ‘conform themselves to this age.’  They ditched their habits.  As a lay person, I know I rejoice when I see a nun in habit, I am delighted – how fantastic to see someone who has such commitment to her Spouse.  It gives the dreary secularized, liberalized, scandalized world hope.

    It is in sacrifice and self-abnegation by which the Carmelite sisters have continued their faithful zeal for the Lord God of hosts, in the spirit of Elijah.  They never take meat, except if sister is ill and it is prescribed for her.  They toil in absolute anonymity, ever prayerful and watchful – without them this world would be in even a greater mess than we are.  Pray for our sisters, and if you visit a Carmelite monastery, ask them to pray for you.  It is their job, which they do with joy.  Love makes labor light.

  • Pingback: Women’s Religious Orders « Newsessentials Blog()

  • Edmund

    Suggesting that the “filth” within the Church is somehow the faithful practice of religious women living and working for the Gospel and equating it with the true filth of Priests who violate children has to be one of the most misguided opinions that this reader has encountered in ages. While they may have understood and pursued the message of the Gospel in a manner that is not to Mr. Kokoski’s liking, or from within the viewpoint that others like him share, there can be no doubt that these women have faithfully and bravely pursued the work of God and Christ for the good of all God’s children. Not something that can be said of the priests who caused great harm to children and the Bishops who values were seriously compromised as they covered it up. In the leaders Women’s Religious we have examples of great intelligence and spirituality who can and are willing to take on modern issues not by retreating from modernism but by addressing it with intellectual integrity.

    • Adam Baum

       It is truly fascinating to here somebody talk about women who advocating abortion as “faithfully and bravely pursued the work of God, while wrapping oneself in indignity about other forms of child abuse.

      • Adam Baum


    • James Stagg

      I find your use of the words “faithful practice” to be an immature realization of the LCWR “ideal”.  They are no longer faithful Catholics.  Any idiot, such as myself, can plainly see this IF ONE LOOKS. 

      And do you have actual statistics on the treatment of children and young novices by nuns?  While this has been viciously pursued by those who hope to harm the priesthood, there are NO comparable investigations into teacher abuse of children, or novices who are demanded by their superiors not to speak of a variety of abuses.

      Pull in your horns, please……they are in distinct view.

      • Edmund

        We should be clear that the LCWR was not called to task for the abuse of children. If you, or anyone, is aware of such an abuse by anyone, we are called to act and report it. We must work to stop this no matter where it occurs and if it occurred, as you suggest, I would be equally as angry and critical.

        My point is simply this, the LCWR has been called to task for expressing ideas outside the authority of the Church. I will not malign these women because they have ideas that may be different than my own, especially when their intention has always been from within a framework that they believed was true to the Gospel. I may disagree, debate, and if of proper authority, call for them to better express or correct those ideas. But I will not malign them or equate them with the dreadful acts of individuals. The truth of the matter is, that while we may not agree with them, we have much to learn.

        • Edmund

          Oh, and I floss my horns daily!

  • Pingback: SATURDAY EDITION | Big Pulpit()

  • John O’Neill

    The one poignant question that should be put to the LCWR and its leftist american catholic supporters is why do you stay in the Roman Catholic Church.  There are so many religions in the New American State alone; churches like the EPUSA et al would welcome these liberationists and their theology with open arms.  If you no longe want to be a religious in the Catholic Church but have chosen to become members of the American university professoriate or American government social workers union, why not go out and profess your religion to your comrades in the New American World State.

  • Alecto

    I notice conservative Catholics label any women’s group “radical feminist” when it asserts views that differ with conservatives.  I believe the label is often applied when they want to shut down debate and discussion as liberals do.  I have to ask, what makes a radical feminist?  Is it abortion, contraception, etc…?  If a group asserts that women have equal rights, but condemns abortion, contraception, etc…, does that make it radical feminist?  And, what exactly is the difference between radical feminists and regular feminists?  Or is it “feminist” that is the problem?  Feminist = Heretic?  Catholics believe all women have one of two purposes:  mother or nun.  That’s really it, isn’t it?  You cannot be a “full” woman if you aren’t having babies or cloistered up in a convent.  Whenever I attempt to discuss this, men always rebut with “There’s Mary.”  Yes, there is, God bless her.  She is nothing like any other real woman.  She isn’t one of us.  She is an entirely different creature and therefore, not analogous to a typical woman.  No woman can be that or imitate it, so why would you saddle women with that unattainable ideal? 

    In my heart, I believe much of what the Catholic church represents is confining to women and I do not write that lightly.  I believe because I see and experience the Catholic church wants and likes women who are subservient as this article seems to suggest.  Women should be seen and not heard.  Sadly, the only powerful examples for women are these radical leftists.  I don’t agree with them, but I sympathize with their frustration. 

    Women have never had any input into doctrine, practice, or much of any aspect except to accept and obey men.  Why do Catholics believe such a church is attractive to women?   These are difficult issues for me.  I am pro-family and anti-abortion, contraception, and do not believe in female ordination, but then what’s left?  Women do all the grunt work in this church while men take all the credit.

    • Peter R Freeman

       “Women have never had any input into doctrine, practice, or much of any aspect except to accept and obey men…Women do all the grunt work in this church while men take all the credit.”
      I’m having difficulty reconciling the description above with the Church I know, nor does Church history resemble the description above: (for starters, try sampling http://www.catholic.org/saints/female.php )
      Plus, the most recent three individuals dubbed “Doctor of the Church” were women.
      And, of course, the only men to be given any “credit” (I can think of no saints that have ever “taken credit”) were men who accepted the Church’s authority and obeyed the Church.

      Finally, I don’t understand what the comment above means when it says Mary is “nothing like any other real woman.” Mary’s immaculate conception made her a pure vessel for Christ, but I don’t think it made her life any easier. Nor do I understand why the comment suggests we “saddle women with that unattainable ideal.” The Church calls all Christians to emulate Mary, men and women alike. We are all “saddled with” with the ideal of submitting ourselves to God’s will and carrying Christ incarnate into the world.

      • Alecto

        Yes, I notice that three women have been elevated to “Doctor of the Church”.  With the exception of Terese of Lisieux, it’s centuries after their deaths.  I feel like this is a church that drags its feet where women are concerned – it is so chauvinistic.  Notice the comments, too.  Women’s vocations extend to healthcare and teaching.  No wonder so many women are and have left the Catholic church.  You people just do not get it.  If you cannot show women a new direction, a way to contribute their talents and time in a way that is meaningful to their station in life or level of education, they will continue to leave.  How does that help them or the Church? 

    • Tisantir

       ” except to accept and obey men.”

      False. A woman is subject to her husband and not to “men” and that too politically, as per Aristotle. The political rule is among equals, as friends.

      What makes a radical feminist is the denial of the subjection of wives.

      • Alecto

         You cannot possibly be married.  No 21st century woman would ever buy what you’re selling.  Marriage is a partnership between equals.  What you describe is 12th century bondage.

  • Colonist1745

    Americans think they should have the right to vote on everything. Like our faith is subject to a town hall meeting and that by discussion we will replace 2000 years of decernment with some new truth we have now discovered.

    Candidly- the old taboos and sometimes unfair social structures that have gleefully been ripped out of our culture have not been replaced with anything that really works. No one knows who they are any more and the resulting personal distruction wrought by adopting what the televison tells you is Good has’t worked out.

    Sister Fahey is obedient to her own mind. Wow, there is a new age faith, a congregation of One. If the church doesnt survive because we believe in a top down guidence then she is right. If not, she as some other religon.  

  • Richardmdykstra

    This is just another problem brought on by Vatican 2.  I believe this Council did enormous harm to the Church, and caused millions of Catholics to abandon their Faith!  It dosen’t help that you have a Pope on a “witch Hunt.”

  • poetcomic1

      I was meeting a priest friend who is part of Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis.  They are completely refurbishing Kenrick and so seminarians and teachers have moved totally into the lovely old convent behind St. Mary’s Hospital.  The convent where they are resident will be home for maybe another year or so and then when they leave – the exquisitely mosaic-ed chapel, the lovely grounds, an oasis of peace in the city with its immense old trees its grottoes and crucifixes all will be sold off, demolished.  The bustling, holy order of nurse-nuns is virtually extinct. This is the Springtime of Vatican Two. 

  • Eric

     Being a person that has a certain preference for the stricter contemplative orders, I find it easy to agree with Mr. Kokoski’s observations.  I would think it is fine for the Sisters to consider new ideas (which are, for the most part, actually old ideas), but in obedience to Church leadership and doctrines.  Such questioning is best conducted in private and out of sight of the lay Church and the non-church.  Finally, I hope the Catholic modernists are not looking to the Episcopal church as a model as the Episcopal leaders have sown the seeds of their own demise.   History teaches us that whenever the Church bows to modern trends in order to be “relevant,”  it has the opposite intended effect. 

  • Pingback: Religious Orders – N. America | He calls....()