Last orders: extreme unction for some great traditions
If you are under 50, there's a good chance you don't know any Catholic religious (nuns, brothers, priests in religious orders). If you're under 30 you've likely never seen one, especially as so few now wear habits or distinctive clothes. Today they are an endangered species, as a new survey of 161 Catholic orders shows.
The Society for the Ransom of Captives of the Turks went out of business when the Turks stopped taking captives
Millions of Australians were partly or largely shaped by these men and women over the past two centuries. I acknowledge that for many, it was an experience they have cause to regret, whether they were abused or crushed or bullied. Others found them inspirational.
I believe the legacy is overwhelmingly positive: these nuns, brothers and priests provided education where none existed, ran hospitals, provided social welfare, tended to the distressed and to the poorest. As Jesuit Chris Middleton observed, the Jesuit schools (Xavier, Riverview, St Aloysius) were instrumental in creating a Catholic professional class in medicine, law, politics and media. This meant Catholics, long disdained, were able to take a full share in Australian life.
Once the religious filled the teaching positions in their schools, nursing roles in their hospitals. Today these jobs are overwhelmingly done by lay professionals.
There are many reasons for the decline, some of which should be applauded – for example, the state taking responsibility for providing free, secular education and health and welfare services. Groups like the Josephite nuns and Christian Brothers have largely moved out of running schools as a result.
The social revolution of the ’60s was enormously influential. It brought the pill, the sexual revolution, feminism, civil rights of various sorts, affluence and more choices for people, plus a loss of trust in institutions of all sorts, the glorification of self, a reduced willingness to make such permanent commitments, and the emphasis on personal autonomy. Within the church, the great reforming Vatican II council changed everything: it brought engagement and openness to the world and, for the religious orders, a profound re-examination. Hundreds began leaving.
Although the report does not mention this, the celibate life has often been a haven for people uncomfortable with their sexuality and there is today far less stigma attached to homosexuality. That also means fewer vocations.
For those who are interested, here are some of the report’s figures. In 1966, the high-point of membership in the 161 religious orders in the survey, they had 19,413 members. Today the number is 8422, and the report predicts that in 10 years it will be 6000, less than a third. The median age today is 73. Many, many of those orders will be extinct – dozens now are down to their last few. Only 20 congregations have more than 100 members, while 75 of them have fewer than 25.
The report shows that 401 people joined the orders in Australia between 1997 and 2009, of whom a quarter did not stay. In all 483 resigned, and more than 2500 died. Some of the larger international orders are growing in other parts of the world and can bolster Australian numbers from overseas, but – as report co-author Noel Connolly told me – this brings a fresh set of challenges of its own.
Many of the orders are reinventing themselves. The biggest changes are the nature of the work they do: education occupied 60 per cent in 1946; today that figure is under 12 per cent. Many have rediscovered their prophetic origins, and are working at the outermost margins, such as the Josephites, and others boast top scholars in secular institutions, such as the Jesuits.
The nuns and brothers themselves naturally feel some pain and regret at their diminution, but they have seen it coming. As Noel Connolly, a Columban priest, said, they have been planning to involve laypeople more for a long time – this is not unexpected. “Religious today have been through a fair amount of questioning, and have a mature and tested hope.”
Most also recognise that most religious orders have a natural life span of 150 to 200 years, beyond which they have to reinvent themselves. As Jesuit historian Michael Head observes, “the Society for the Ransom of Captives of the Turks went out of business when the Turks stopped taking captives”.
The Jesuits’ Australian leader, Steve Curtin, finds what I consider a very bright side in his reflection, quoted in the report. “The sexual abuse of children and young people in the church over the last 50 years points to a serious problem in the way that power is exercised in the church. There is a problem of clericalism, there is a problem with priests, bishops and religious who cannot be made accountable by the people of God for the quality of the leadership that they exercise. We need to change canon law to change the way power is restricted in the church to clerics. We need to change clericalism and give laypeople positions of authority at the highest levels of the church. This calls for a change of mindset and changes in the church’s law. Perhaps that is what God is doing in the church at the moment.”
To which call for change, most of us would heartily say (depending on our religious orientation), “Amen” or “hear, hear”.
For myself, I have always had questions about the theology behind religious orders, yet admire the dedication and sacrifice of many who heard the call. Though I strongly agree with Curtin about the need to remove clericalism, I have to admit to a twinge of sadness about the orders’ decline. What do you think? What was your experience, if any, of the Catholic religious? Do you see any social costs to their decline? Will it help produce a maturer church?