Young women discussing their futures often talk of balancing a family and career in law or computer programming, but rarely include the possibility of religious life as a future.
While many young women dismiss religious life, some embrace it — both despite and because of its countercultural nature.
“My vows, while they do involve a certain degree of renunciation, also give me tremendous freedom for others things,” Sister Clare Marie Tice, a 30-year-old Dominican sister who entered religious life six years ago, said.
Religious sisters vow to live lives of poverty, chastity and obedience, which many young women view as a restricted life, according to sophomore Bella Kearney.
“A lot of girls don’t want to become nuns because they want to start a family and get married,” Kearney said. “People often assume that being a nun is synonymous with being locked up and being very restricted. Even though that’s not true, girls don’t always see the freedom in it.”
This notion may be partially responsible for the number of religious sisters in the United States decreasing by 72 percent, from 179,954 to 49,883 between 1965 and 2014, according to Pew Research Center.
“Most people think they need stuff to be happy,” Sister Teresa Benedicta Block, a 34-year-old Dominican Sister, said. “Society emphasizes getting ahead. The message we hear over and over again is that if someone reaches the standard of success then they will be important. Living a life of poverty and vowing not to have anything is a tremendous witness to the world that the treasure that we ultimately need is God and real relationships and friendships, not material things.”
Living a life of poverty in a community of sisters means expenses are shared.
“I couldn’t go out to dinner with friends and just order whatever I want,” Sister Anne Wachter, RSCJ, the former head of Convent Elementary said. “I have to budget. It’s not just about my enjoyment, it’s about living more simply. It’s a mind shift to know that I’ve thrown my life in with another group and it’s no longer just about me.”
Block says the vows contradict the lifestyles portrayed in media.
“Through obedience I promise to put the will of God first,” Block said. “We are often taught that we can’t be happy unless we have our own way.”
The decline of young women entering religious life may also partially be due to a lack of interaction between sisters and teens, according to Wachter, the last sister to work at a Sacred Heart, San Francisco school and now headmistress at the Sacred Heart School of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“A lot of young kids today don’t know any religious who they can imagine growing up and being like,” Wachter said. “There were RSCJ at my school that were fun and young. They had a great sense of humor and it was clear that prayer and God were a big part of their lives. I could imagine growing up and being like them.”
Like in most life choices, many nuns are not sure of their vocation right away, according to Block.
“All my life I knew I wanted to be a mom and have lots of kids,” Block, who entered religious life at 18 years old, said. “If someone had asked me growing up, I would have said I wanted to get married and have a family. A turning point for me was when I understood that I had this great desire to give God everything and in a radical way I wanted to belong to him.”
Becoming a religious sister is not a choice but rather a call from God, according to Tice.
“I resisted my vocation for a very long time before realizing that God’s will for my life is ultimately what will make me happy,” Tice said.
American nuns represented about 16 percent of the world’s religious sisters in 1970, but now, they make up about 7 percent of the global total, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
“Statistically there are less numbers,” Block said. “Some of it has to do with the fact that we are living in a world where Christianity is being challenged and our culture isn’t as Catholic as it once was. There are less Catholics to be called, but God is still calling.”
Centuries ago, women often joined religious life to receive an education as a convent was one of the few places girls were permitted to learn, according to Religious Studies teacher Rachel Bundang.
The decline of Catholic nuns began after 1965 with the Second Vatican Council, which called for all religious orders to re-examine their mission and lifestyle.
“With Vatican II and the changes that came as a result, a lot of orders who had once had more restricted ministries expanded into other fields,” Bundang said. “That piggybacked with the Women’s Movement and women being able to have a wider range of careers beside the typical nursing and teaching.”
Only 3 percent of Catholic nuns are 40 years old or younger while the median age of nuns in the survey is 65, according to a survey of 1,049 sisters in the United States and Puerto Rico by The Los Angeles Times.
“In Protestant denominations women have the ability to be ordained,” Bundang said. “I think the fact that women in the Catholic Church are not allowed to is a factor in why many girls don’t join the sisterhood. Women see that there are certain leadership opportunities that might be denied to them and it says something significant.”
Unlike Wachter, many young women, including Convent students who haven’t had a religious in the high school faculty for the last decade, don’t have much experience with religious sisters and are only familiar with their stereotypes.
“Sometimes people think it’s not good to be spiritual or devoted to God because doing so will make you seem old fashioned or conservative or uncool,” Kearney said. “That lifestyle doesn’t seem to be one that society encourages.”
Despite the countercultural mission of religious live, 87 percent of religious sisters are satisfied with their lives, according to a survey by The Los Angeles Times.
“Becoming a nun is a vocation for those whose spirituality is really central to their lives,” Kearney said. “They are surrounded by people who share their beliefs and passions which strengthens their faith, but ultimately most girls I know would rather get married and have kids, how much of that is from society’s unspoken pressure, I’m not sure.”
Five percent of Convent girls reported they have considered religious life as a sister according to an online survey of 39 percent of students conducted on Dec. 4.
“There are fewer young women courageous enough to face the reality that they have a vocation to religious life” Tice said. “God never stops calling. Young women are so plugged into such a noisy world that they cannot, or will not, hear the small sound of God’s voice calling them.”