Last December, the Vatican congregation for religious life issued its final report on the Apostolic Visitation of religious congregations of women in the United States. The visitation was ordered in 2008 in response to concerns about the future of these religious congregations, and reports of internal problems in some religious communities.
The Apostolic Visitation was ordered by the head of the Vatican Congregation, after consultation with Pope Benedict XVI. Mother Mary Clare Millea, the American Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was appointed to serve as the Apostolic Visitor.
Cloistered communities of contemplative sisters were excluded from the visitation.
This visitation was separate from the ongoing inquiry by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. This arose from statements made by the Leadership Conference about women's ordination, the theology of religious pluralism, and the morality of homosexuality and abortion.
Mother Mary Clare delivered her report to the Vatican Congregation for Religious, which issued a public report, as well as preparing private reports for religious congregations where problems were seen.
The Vatican report was delicately balanced: recognising the extraordinary role which women religious had played in the Church historically, but pointing to severe problems at the present time.
It said, "Since the early days of the Catholic Church in their country, women religious have courageously been in the forefront of her evangelising mission, selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and marginalised.
"Throughout the nation's history, the educational apostolate of women religious in Catholic schools has fostered the personal development and nourished the faith of countless young people and helped the Church community in the USA to flourish.
"In addition, a great majority of the Catholic healthcare systems in the United States, which serve millions of people each year, were established by congregations of women religious."
However, it found that there is a crisis in many religious congregations, partly arising from a lack of vocations.
It pointed out, "Today, the median age of apostolic women religious in the United States is in the mid-to-late 70s. The current number of approximately 50,000 apostolic women religious is a decline of about 125,000 since the mid-1960s, when the numbers of religious in the United States had reached their peak."
Many sisters expressed great concern during the Apostolic Visitation for the continuation of their charism and mission, because of the numerical decline in their membership.
"Currently, a significant number of religious institutes are expending considerable spiritual and material energies in the area of vocation promotion. While some of these have since shown an increase in the number of candidates entering and remaining, for many other institutes the results are not commensurate with the expectations and efforts."
This is a major challenge for the future. Why are women not attracted to religious life?
The report observed, "In general, candidates to the apostolic religious life tend to be older, more educated, and more culturally diverse than in the past.
"Vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted that candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognisable as consecrated women. This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasise these aspects of religious life."
The report diplomatically is suggesting that young women want to live in communities with a strong religious community life, and want to dress like religious women.
The fact that the report called on "all religious institutes to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption", implies that in a significant number of cases, this is not happening.
The report also noted that the Apostolic Visitation was met with "apprehension and suspicion by some women religious. This resulted in a refusal, on the part of some institutes, to collaborate fully in the process."
It added, "While the lack of full cooperation was a painful disappointment for us, we use this present opportunity to invite all religious institutes to accept our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with them."