Modern US Religious Vocations Plummeting

News: US News
by Church Militant  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  January 31, 2024   

Traditional liturgy flourishing

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - Religious vocations across the United States are plummeting, a new report shows, with 87% of religious communities reporting nobody taking perpetual (lifelong) vows in 2023. 

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The study, titled "A Report to the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops," was published this month by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The study looked at 508 religious communities. Out of these, 438 had no one professing lifelong vows in 2023. In total, 144 people made perpetual vows, including 68 women and 76 men. On average, they were 36 years old.

Perpetual vows involve a life of poverty, chastity and obedience within the religious community. 

The only numbers increasing in the Church are those leaving.

This data follows liturgical shifts within the Church as well as demographic declines that have been cited as contributing factors. 

Changes in the Church

According to some, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae, or new Mass, in 1969 introduced reforms that might have negatively affected vocations.

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For example, in a recent piece published in the Gettysburg Times, Greg Maresca argued along these lines:

The Catholic Church is nearly six decades into this post-Vatican II epoch and maintains a front row seat in reaping its contentious fruit that includes a significant drop in priestly and religious vocations, the closings of churches, schools, seminaries, convents, hospitals and even monasteries like the one in Elysburg [Pennsylvania]. The only numbers increasing in the Church are those leaving and the doors closing. God's Kingdom is meant to expand, grow, and proclaim. Ironically, that is what Vatican II had hoped for, but its results have proven just the opposite.

Critics allege that the introduction of the Novus Ordo Mass, intended to make liturgy more engaging and understandable to the laity by allowing the use of vernacular languages and the altering of some liturgical practices, may have backfired.  

Pope Francis issued a document in 2021 reversing Pope Benedict XVI's allowance of the Traditional Latin Mass. Pope Francis' edict requires primacy of the new Mass in Catholic parishes except in certain circumstances approved by diocesan bishops. 

Changes in the World

In addition to dynamics within the Church, societal demographic shifts may be contributing to vocational decline.

The United States has experienced falling birth rates, leading to a reduced demographic base from which new vocations might emerge. Fewer individuals are entering the age range typically associated with discerning a religious vocation.

Fewer individuals are entering the age range typically associated with discerning a religious vocation.

Compounding the issue, aging religious communities are increasingly faced with the challenge of sustaining their ministries while also providing care for their older members. The dwindling number of younger members entering these communities exacerbates the difficulty of providing this care.

Tradition on the Rise

Still, some traditional organizations dedicated to the priesthood are demonstrating greater success in cementing vocations.

For example, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter and the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest — both dedicated to the traditional liturgy — saw higher ordination rates in 2023, with three and four men ordained, respectively. 

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This results in an average annual ordination rate of 3.5 for these communities, significantly outpacing the 0.28 average among the 508 religious orders reporting final vows taken in the same period. 

Rising interest in traditional liturgy among young people — a trend now acknowledged outside religious communities, including by mainstream media — may be reinforcing improved interest in ordination.

The New York Times recently published an article titled "Old Latin Mass Finds New American Audience, Despite Pope's Disapproval" to illustrate the resurgence in traditionalism. 

Priestly ordination includes a vow of celibacy and obedience to one's diocesan and ecclesial superiors, as well as the duty to administer the Church's sacraments.

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