Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why Nuns Matter to YOUR Parish

Nuns matter.  Even if you are a Lutheran.  Or a Presbyterian.  Or a Baptist.*  Here's why.

Readers surely recall the recent hubbub regarding nuns, in which the Vatican's Congregation on the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) offered a withering report on perceived doctrinal irregularities among the largest umbrella organization of American women religious (the LCWR), and insisted upon some outside supervision.  The Margaret Farley business is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a further development.  In the media, this is generally portrayed as "power-driven bishops cracking down on saintly servants of the poor."  A minority view runs with "theologically orthodox bishops rein in heretical crypto-Wiccans."

Neither side shows a lot of interest in, or knowledge of, a core division among American religious orders:  in addition to the LCWR, there is a smaller umbrella organization called the CMSWR.  Briefly, the LCWR is the original organization, represents more women in more orders, and certainly skews toward sisters without habits.  The CMSWR was founded in 1992 because of dissatisfaction with the LCWR; it represents many fewer women, and skews toward habit-wearing.  The LCWR represents roughly 80% of American women religious, the CMSWR roughly 20%.

There's an obvious liberal/conservative divide between the two organizations.  But, as we've often said, those words lose much of their meaning in a theological discussion; it was Dorothy Day's doctrinally conservative Catholicism which made her such a powerful advocate for the sort of political views normally called "liberal."  The divide between the LCWR and the CMSWR might better be described as "post-Vatican II" versus "post-post-Vatican II."  You know:  reform against reform-of-the-reform.

There is another strong difference between the two organizations.  The LCWR skews much, much older than the CMSWR.  A fascinating 2009 report by the National Religious Vocations Conference found that the average age of an LCWR-affiliated sister was 74, while that of a CMSWR sister was 60. (Point of comparison:  in 2009, the average ELCA member was 55).  In fact, though, the age gap among the nuns runs much deeper than this.  More than half of all new vocations in the CMSWR orders were among women in their 20s, as opposed to 15% in the LCWR.  Although the report doesn't spell it out, one also gathers that the CMSWR communities are attracting a disproportionately large number of the new vocations overall.

Basically, the more visibly and intentionally traditional orders are attracting young women in a way that the less traditional, although more numerous and deeply entrenched ones, are not.  This matters to you, if you are part of a church, because all of us are interested in appealing to highly-committed young people.

So -- what is the appeal of the CMSWR over the LCWR?  Father John Larson offers a straightforward analysis:
Have you ever met a young woman that wanted to spend her life with a group of grumpy old women that hate the Church (or at least the leaders of said Church) that produced the community in the first place? There aren’t many.
There is probably some truth to that, and it could probably be extended, by analogy, to conditions in many Protestant communities as well.  Grumpy old people who complain about their denomination are a turnoff.

But the NRVC study offers some other possibilities as well. For instance,
Millennial Generation respondents [here, meaning born after 1982] are much more likely than other respondents -- especially those from the Vatican II Generation [born 1943-1960] -- to say that daily Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharistic Adoration and other devotional prayers are "very" important to them.  Compared to younger respondents, older respondents place greater importance on faith-sharing and, to a lesser degree, on non-liturgical common prayer.
This adds to the small but steady trickle of research supporting what we have always believed:  there is a vast gap between the liturgical preferences of [most] Boomers and [most] Millennials.

Mind you, the liturgy is only part of it, an external expression of the desire for authenticity.  Younger people are more likely to be drawn in by "a desire to be committed to the Church and to their particular institute by its fidelity to the Church."  They are noticeably less resistant to wearing their habits, at least some of the time.  Quotations from individuals reflect an even sharper generational gap; one young monk writes that he finds "loyalty to the Church, orthodoxy, seriousness about living the vows, commitment to common life ... lacking in many members older than 40."  Ouch.

Now, one doesn't want to extrapolate too much from a study of Roman Catholic religious orders to the lives of Protestant congregations.  But one would be shortsighted not to extrapolate a little bit in the face of such strong evidence.

The most crucial point, it seems to us, is to be careful with the Boomers and their predilections.  At the moment, they have a lot of the power in American churches; they hold many of the leadership positions, earn (and therefore donate) a lot of the money, and so forth.  As so often during their lives, they get what they want, which is ironic given that of all American generational cohorts, it is the Boomers who have least known what they wanted.  But for pity's sake, be careful of their brilliant ideas for parish life, and especially for parish liturgy.  Be careful of their individualism and their reactive disdain for institutions and authorities.  Be especially careful of their conviction that novelty is always good, that "tradition" is a word best qualified with "hidebound," and that they know what "young people" care about.

It cannot be said often enough that tradition is a powerful thing, and that in a world of constant change, people are drawn to stability.  Nor can it be said too often that pandering is a bad thing, because people raised in a world run by cynical marketing consultants crave nothing more than authenticity.  Don't be afraid of your church's traditions -- the good ones, the ancient ones, the ones that speak truths worth passing on.  Because, if we learn anything from the nuns, it is that people want to hear those timeless truths.

* Although, seriously, does the Egg have any Baptist readers?  It's hard to imagine.


Anonymous said...

The average age of the Pro Vatican II nuns is, by their own admission and statistics, around 68. They get fewer women joining than Christian Science or the Disciples of Christ. Why the Vatican just didn't wait for these groups to shrink to a few thousand old ladies in nursing homes is beyond me.
When you see your opponents disappearing into wheelchairs, it's time to relax.

Father Anonymous said...

Actually, according to the study, their average age is 74, which sort of strengthens your point.

Diane said...

although, having met some of the younger, extremely conservative Catholics (a couple of them tried to convert a Japanese Lutheran woman because they were sure she was going to hell), I'm sort of feeling of two minds (at least) regarding your assessment.

On the other hand, regarding traditions are truthful and valuable and worth passing thing along is a perspective worth sharing.