"Do the American nuns have a future," asks our David Gibson, in his latest report from the annual meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in St. Louis. The answer is: "Yes, but a small one." And that will be true whether they're members of the longstanding LCWR orders or the new conservative bodies that set some American bishops' pulses to racing.
The fortunes of nuns have always depended on the cultural values and socio-economic circumstances of the wider society. The holy women who clustered around St. Jerome had the means to support themselves. Noble families in the early middle ages needed places to park their surplus daughters. Women (along with men) flocked to the cloistered life in the high middle ages because an increasingly prosperous society needed orderly institutions to do its spiritual work, and could afford to set them up with lands and serfs.
Over time, the desire for proxy holiness gave way to the need for women to perform useful work for the church in the world. Whatever the spiritual aspirations of young Catholic women in America in the early 20th century, they would not have been able to sign on to the religious life if the church hadn't required an army of them to staff its schools.
It is nonsense to pretend, as critics like George Weigel do, that it's the post-Vatican II loss of devotion to the traditions of the church that is responsible for the shrinkage of the traditional service orders. American society and the church's role in it have shifted dramatically over the past half century; even if there were lots of young Catholic women eager to live a celibate life while staffing the schools for a pittance, today's church doesn't have the schools to accommodate them.
Those in the hierarchy so eager to stick the shiv into the LCWR must recognize that there's no going back to the days of the nun army. What they'd like, no doubt, are modest cadres of loyal, habited special ops, doing visually appealing good works for the least among us, captained by Mother Teresa types who can raise the money and weigh in as required against abortion and for traditional marriage.
Just as there are a handful of women who continue to called to the cloistered life, so there will certainly be a somewhat larger group who wish to serve as nuns in the world. What the powers-that-be really don't want is any of them using their moral authority in ways that seem to weaken the agendas of the powers-that-be. And, being the powers-that-be, they can make sure that happens. Whether the church will be stronger for it, however, is another question.