Rorate Caeli

Year of the Consecrated Life - I: Some Statistics and Observations.
The Accelerated Decline of Women Religious

Reunion of Catalan Abbesses and Religious Superiors, Feb. 9, 2015. Source

February 2 was instituted in 1997 by Pope John Paul II as the world day of prayer for women and men in consecrated life, and it was on this day, just three weeks ago, that Pope Francis opened the "Year of Consecrated Life" (although it already started on November 30 last year). It is the latest in a long string of "special years" proclaimed by the Popes - the Year of the Rosary (2002-2003), the Year of the Eucharist (2004-2005), the Year of St. Paul (2008-2009), the Year for Priests (2009-2010), and finally, the Year of Faith (2012-2013), itself the second such year to be declared after Vatican II (the first was in 1967-1968). 

Surely we are not alone in observing that the current "Year of Consecrated Life" is low-key compared to its predecessors? There is, apparently, very little talk about it, very little excitement. Perhaps it is weariness over "special years"? Perhaps it is because of the very real barrenness and exhaustion in much of Catholic religious life, despite the propaganda in official statements and in much of the "establishment" Catholic media and blogosphere? There are many signs of hope when it comes to religious life (we hope to write more about these soon) but in the immediate term the main trend in Catholic consecrated life will continue to be that of decline. 

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (source - see "World Data over Time"), in 2012 the total number of female consecrated religious in the Catholic world was 705,529 for a reported (nominal) Catholic population of 1.229 billion. Only two years before, in 2010 there were 721,935. In 2000 there were 801,185. In 1970 there were 1,004,304 female religious for a reported Catholic population of 653.6 million. Overall, there has been a reduction by nearly a hundred thousand since the "Great Jubilee" that was meant to be the celebration of the "New Springtime" / "New Pentecost" in the Church.

Coming back to the 2012 statistics, around 38% of Catholic women religious (273,055 out of 705,529) can be found in 8 countries hit hardest by secularism and the post-Conciliar crisis: Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, United States and Italy. (The numbers for select countries, including these 8, can be seen in the graph below.) Numerous sources online and in print speak of the advanced age (75 +) of the great majority of the women religious in these countries, not to speak of other Western European nations. In the United States alone, as early as 2009, 69% of them were aged 70 and above. (Source - see figure 3). By all accounts, the situation in most Western European countries (and certainly in Canada) has been far worse than in the USA, and average ages are even higher. We may say that the statistics of women religious would be far worse by now were it not for the exceptional longevity they tend to enjoy in the West. Nevertheless, longevity will only go so far, and we can expect an even sharper fall in female religious in the next 5-10 years. For the USA itself (source - see "US Data over Time"), CARA gives a figure of 49,883 women religious as of Jan. 1, 2014 - a vertiginous drop of 3,322 from the 2012 statistics given below by CARA and sourced from the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae.

The decline can be observed not just in North America and Western Europe, but also in Poland, Brazil, Colombia and many other great Catholic countries. There is growth in Africa and Asia (especially India, which now accounts for one out of seven women religious in the Church) but this is far from outweighing the crisis faced by women religious in Europe and the Americas.

In the next part of this article we will discuss the February 2 homily of Pope Francis, and revisit the "Final Report" on US Nuns that was published by the Congregation for Religious late last year.