According to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), the LCWR reported a loss of 14,191 sisters during the last five years due to the death of many religious who joined communities during the 1940s and 50s and the declining numbers of new members over the last 30 years. The LCWR, which represents 95 percent of the sisters currently living in communities in the U.S., projects an expected loss of another 2,787 sisters in 2012.
In total, the number of sisters in the majority of religious communities of women in the U.S. dropped from 60,642 in 2007 to 46,451 today.
A separate study, conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting for the National Religious Retirement Office, projected that by 2019 the number of religious over the age of 70 will outnumber those under 70 by four to one.
Alarm bells have been sounding over these bleak numbers for several years. As the NCR reports, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reported in 2009 that 91 percent of fully professed women religious were at least 60 years old, with the majority of those under 60 being in their 50's. Even more worrisome is that more than half of all women in formation in LCWR institutes are 40 or older.
However, the same report showed a marked difference between LCWR communities and those of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) which represents approximately 100 orders. These orders, which are more traditional, appear to be attracting new members who are at least 10 years younger than those joining LCWR congregations. The women seeking admission to CMSWR communities want to wear religious habits and to live in large or medium-sized communities with members of their particular order.
While the future for the CMSWR appears brighter than that of the LCWR, Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at CARA, told NCR reporter Tom Roberts that the highest number of final professions in either group of women religious last year was nine. She also said that neither group has a retention rate of more than 50 percent of women who enter formation.
These steadily declining numbers are raising questions about the future and how to keep communities alive. One option would be to merge with other orders and to network with congregations that share the same founder or charism. Others are reducing the number of provinces or districts within their order. Some have even decided that when the last member dies, the order should be allowed to disappear.
The LCWR said they intend to combat the problem by becoming partners with the Spirit in the emergence of new forms of religious life in order to continue God's work.
These "new forms" of religious life may be part of the reason why the order came under "assessment" by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Aside from the widespread embrace of New Age practices among women religious in the U.S., the LCWR has also run afoul of the Vatican for its vocal support of female ordination and for professing an improper doctrinal view of homosexuality.
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