Below is an excerpt from The CARA Report from SPring, 2014. For more information about The CARA Report, click here.

New Generations of Catholic Sisters

The CARA Report for Spring 2014 features a review of a new book from Oxford University Press which explores institutional and individual aspects of women religious in the United States. The authors of New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity, are Sister Mary Johnson, professor of sociology and religious studies at Trinity Washington University, Sister Patricia Wittberg, professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Mary Gautier, senior research associate for CARA at Georgetown University. The authors incorporate research from two major national studies of women religious conducted ten years apart. The first was a 1999 study by Sister Mary Johnson which surveyed institutes of women religious and women who entered those institutes after 1965 and remained as members. The second was a 2009 study commissioned by the National Religious Vocation Conference and conducted by CARA. The combined results of the national studies allow for comparison of the experiences of women who entered religious life in two periods, 1965–1980 and 1993–2008. A principal point of comparison is the existence in the United States of two very different leadership organizations of women religious. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), founded in 1956 as the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, revised its bylaws and changed to its present name in 1971. A small group of leaders broke with LCWR at that time, “due to disagreements over what they considered to be essential to religious life.” This group was first known as Consortium Perfectae Caritatis, and in 1992 was officially founded as the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR). In the popular media, the LCWR is typically presented as more progressive and CMSWR as more traditional. Media reports also declare that CMSWR institutes have all the new vocations, although the authors observe that “almost equal numbers of women have been attracted to institutes in both conferences in recent years.” A key difference between the conferences, however, is that over 50 percent of new CMSWR institute members are in their twenties and 34 percent in their thirties, and only 15 percent are older than forty. For LCWR institutes, more than 50 percent of new members are over forty, with only 15 percent are in their twenties and 28 percent in their thirties.

The book is largely structured around survey responses from women religious according to their generation (Pre-Vatican II, Vatican II, Post-Vatican II, and Millennial), and whether their religious institute is associated with LCWR or CMSWR. Some of the comparisons are illustrated in the accompanying graphics. The authors find that women of each generation are attracted to religious life by their desire for prayer, ministry, and community, but their understanding of and expectations for each of those aspects differs according to their generational culture. The authors predict that to survive and thrive the religious institutes of women must attract younger and more diverse members. The concluding chapter describes some important cultural characteristics of millennial Catholic women and presents implications for the Church to consider as it grapples with the future of religious life.