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Another Catholic order fades away: AP offers a familiar story, from only one point of view…

Another Catholic order fades away: AP offers a familiar story, from only one point of view…

The sad Catholic story format has become rather standardized by now.

First, you need a declining college, seminary, parish, local school or a religious order. Then (2) you add the details of the crisis and some brave quotes from the people who have decided to make hard decisions about the future — including their beliefs about the reasons for the decline.

Here’s the optional part: There may be (3) quotes from critics of the fading institution, as well as it’s supporters. This implies that there are Catholic issues being debated that are connected to this case study.

Now, I will argue that there needs to be (4) an additional factor, one other question, added to this increasingly familiar equation: Are there a few Catholic institutions of this kind that are surviving or even growing? The answer may be relevant to the big picture.

The Associated Press recently published a better-than-average story of this type, with this headline: “The end of an era for the Sisters of Charity of New York.” It offers the first two factors and at least admits that the third exists, with supporters mentioning the views of critics (perhaps even some in the order) — with AP declining to actually interview any of them. Here is the familiar overture:

NEW YORK (AP) — Through more than 200 years, the Sisters of Charity of New York nursed Civil War casualties, joined civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, cared for orphans, and taught countless children.

They’re proud of their history of selfless service. But they can’t ignore their current reality: The congregation continues to shrink and age — and not a single new sister has joined their U.S. group in more than 20 years.

After much prayer and contemplation, they made a tough decision that marked the beginning of the Catholic congregation’s end. They will no longer accept new members, and announced in an April 27 statement that they are now on a “path to completion.”

This leads to the required background material, with a Big Idea statement (which I have placed in bold type):

Over the decades, they opened schools, colleges and hospitals; launched missions in the Bahamas and Guatemala; protested the Vietnam War and were arrested for doing so during Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1972. They continued to serve people on society’s margins, including immigrants, the homeless and the aging.

Their numbers ballooned, peaking in the 1960s with 1,300 nuns. Today, they have 154; their median age is 85. That drop reflects a global trend. The number of Catholic nuns is in a free fall as fewer young women devote their lives to religious orders.

The number of religious sisters in the U.S. peaked in 1965 at 178,740, and has sharply declined to 39,452 sisters in 2022, according the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Why did this happen?

Hold that thought, because AP includes — sort of — a suggestion that there are issues there worthy of discussion.

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A tremendous group of selfless Catholic women who have the humility to accept what they call their &quot;path to completion.&quot; Thank you, Sisters, for your service to Our Lord and his church.

&mdash; James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) May 9, 2023

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But first, let’s glance at this story — “The orders growing so fast that they are running out of room” — from The Catholic Herald in the United Kingdom. This is, of course, a religious-market publication with a “conservative,” pro-Catechism slant in its coverage.

Here is a byte of summary material, which helps frame three short case studies.

While such stories of decline are common among women’s orders in the West, there are a handful of communities bucking the trend. While each community is unique, those doing well typically share some common characteristics, such as wearing the habit, living and praying together in community, and fidelity to the teaching authority of the Church.

This “conservative” story seems to argues that journalists need to realize that the familiar “sad story” of decline is a bit more complex than it appears at first glance. Thus, it’s time to include the evidence that not all Catholic religious institutions are in decline. Is this concept worthy of discussion, if consistent patterns can be seen (backed with on-the-record facts)?

The Associated Press does include some material discussing a possible “Why?” factor in this story. For example, read this carefully:

In decades past, operating the order’s hospitals and schools afforded the sisters leadership opportunities that were off limits to women elsewhere in society, said Sister Margaret O’Brien.

Eventually more avenues for leadership opened up for all women, including nuns across the U.S. who’ve become champions for social justice causes and leaders of vast hospital networks. In a recent historic reform, Pope Francis gave women voting rights at a global meeting of bishops.

But members of the Sisters of Charity in New York had hoped for more, said [Sister Margaret O’Brien], who lamented that women still cannot be Catholic priests.

In other words, the orders are in decline because the Roman Catholic Church has not changed enough to appeal to modern women. It wasn’t enough to move from traditional religious garb and move to modest street clothing (see this joyful 1964 New York Times piece discussing that decision).

Once again, read the following carefully (and look for the implied voices of critics):

In their beginnings, the Sisters of Charity nuns wore long black dresses and bonnets. They gradually began to wear a modified version of the habit and eventually secular clothes.

This came after reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, which brought the 2,000-year-old church into the modern era. Some wondered if the updates to the life of the church eventually contributed to their recent decision to stop accepting new sisters.

“When something like this is looming, you think, ‘What did we do wrong?’” O’Brien said. “I’m sure there were many times when we questioned all those changes that we made back in the seventies — the habit, leaving schools, going into other various ministries.

“But when you stop and think, you recognize that each person who did any of those things was doing it in faith, trying to read the signs of the time, and do what they’re called to do. And that can’t be wrong.”

Did you catch the words “some wondered”?

That’s it. That’s the implication — with second-hand quoted material — that there is another side of the debate. That’s the third factor (sort of) in this kind of report. That’s all the AP can handle, on that front.

What about the possibility of actually TALKING to critics of the trends that shaped the current Sisters of Charity of New York and similar institutions? What about seeking evidence of (4), the possibility that there are similar Catholic institutions — in this case religious orders for women — that are growing? It might be possible to insert two, maybe three, fact-based paragraphs.

I know, I know.

Quoting voices on the other side of this drama would be “old school,” old “liberal” journalism. That was then. This is now.

FIRST IMAGE: Sisters of Mercy wearing their original habits. Photo from the PatricksMercy Flickr social-media stream.

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