Over the weekend, renowned theologian and spiritual writer Sr. Sandra Schneiders spoke at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, about the future of women’s religious life. The National Catholic Reporter covered Schneiders’s lecture, which addressed the shifting dynamics of the women’s religious communities in the later half of the twentieth century and first part of the twenty-first century. As nearly anybody can observe, the number of religious sisters has decreased over the years and this shift has concerned some who question whether or not the future of religious life for women might be heading toward extinction. Schneiders makes her perspective clear: this way of life will not disappear, but will necessarily change. The NCR reports:

“Women’s ministerial religious life has a future in this time and beyond,” said Schneiders, professor emerita at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. “We will not look today or in the future as we looked in the past — either in outer appearance, or in age, or in numbers, or in lifestyle, or in ministry. But we will be what we have been since the first century, disciples personally called by Christ to commit ourselves totally to him.”

Religious life will continue, Schneiders asserted, but communities of religious women will be smaller in number, renewed through reconfiguration and less institutional in their ministry. And, like the rest of the U.S. population, women religious will be older, but still active in their advanced years.

Schneiders has been vocal in public lectures and in her books about the need to appreciate the complexities surrounding the boom in women entering religious life in the post-war twentieth century, particularly in the United States. There were many concurrent factors, among them economic and socio-cultural reasons, that contributed to the quick rise in numbers. Schneiders believes that lower numbers, those figures more representative of the time before this mid-century boom, are not an inherently bad thing, but simply a reflection of how the Spirit is calling particular women — and, in the case of religious communities such as my own, men — to religious life and how they are responding.

Schneiders has written before on the need not to focus on how numbers of religious women and men today compare to the 1950s or 1960s when the numbers were unusually high. On a related note, Schneiders makes clear that the decline in numbers since then should not be viewed as a negative reaction to the Second Vatican Council (as some self-described conservative Catholics suggest), but viewed as a reflection of what consecrated religious life in the Church has always been — a strong and powerful witness in the Church and world, but not usually consisting of large numbers of people.

I’ve always appreciated Schneiders’s interpretation of this reality, at times I’ve been criticized for not embracing an interpretive approach that equates our current state with a “vocation crisis.” Likewise, one of the major reasons that I think her approach makes a lot of theological sense has to do with the ecclesiological implications of her observations. Power in the Church, which is of course the Body of Christ, has shifted in positive directions with conciliar texts like Lumen Gentium, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and Gaudium et Spes, more genuinely opening up the work and participation of ministry to all members of the Church, not just reserving authority for the small percentage of professed religious and clergy.

For this reason I believe it makes absolutely no sense to return to the understanding of Church found in 1950s America that placed the responsibilities of the Church only in the hands of religious and clergy, relegating the rest of the Body of Christ to a passive place in the pews. While it is never as simple as this, I think that is in large part the reason I don’t share the pessimistic indulgence of lamenting over smaller numbers of religious. It will, as Schneiders posits, ok. Going back through the millennia of Christian history, one recognizes that the numbers and responsibilities of religious life have shifted, but there has always been consecrated religious life and I believe there always will be.

Schneiders does offer a constructive interpretation of what she sees as the future of women’s religious life in the United States as these dynamics continue to shift.

Schneiders grouped them into four “clusters”:

  • Social justice ministers focused on systemic or structural change, whose “theological glue” tends to be Catholic social teaching. These include social scientists, activists, lawyers, political and community organizers, economists and sociologists, urban farmers and legislators.
  • Ministers who work directly with the victims of social injustice or natural disasters, whose theological glue is deep compassion for the suffering Body of Christ. These include chaplains, social workers, counselors, literacy tutors, providers of child care or elder care, managers of low-income housing, those who work in homeless shelters or with victims of torture or sex trafficking.
  • Intellectuals, scholars and artists, whose theological glue is faith seeking understanding in our time. These include composers, performers, journalists, writers, teachers and researchers in theology, philosophy and the sciences.
  • Ministers who address the thirst for meaning and transcendence, with the theological glue of spiritual nourishment and growth. They work in spirituality centers, campus ministry, spiritual direction, retreats, holistic healing, or as popular writers or speakers on the lecture and workshop circuit.

Whatever the discrete shape of religious life for women might look like in the future, I too am confident that it will always exist as a vocation in the Church. It is, of course, the Holy Spirit who guides and directs the Body of Christ and calls people to their respective vocations, none is better or worse than another. My prayer for vocations is that each person respond to the call of the Spirit in his or her life, and live that life to the fullest.

Photo: IHM Community

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