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New Generations of Catholic SistersThe Challenge of Diversity$

Mary Johnson, Patricia Wittberg, and Mary L. Gautier

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199316847

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199316847.001.0001

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Distinguishing Elements

(p.79) Chapter 5 Identity
New Generations of Catholic Sisters

Mary Johnson

Patricia Wittberg

Mary L. Gautier

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter covers the elements that comprise a religious institute’s identity: demographic characteristics such as its size, median age, location, and international spread; its “charism” or spirit; and specific externals like the wearing of a religious habit. The attraction of intangibles such as an institute’s progressive or traditional reputation and whether the sisters seem welcoming or joyful is also compared across generations. Identity markers are important in drawing boundaries between group members and outsiders; this function is explored for the identity markers cited by the respondents. Generational differences in the importance attached to these identifiers are explored: In each case, the generational cohort to whom a respondent belonged was significant.

Keywords:   generations, Catholic sisters, charism, group identity, boundary maintenance

Maria’s visits to several local groups of sisters had left her more confused than ever. On the one hand, she was attracted by their joy and their commitment to their various ministries, and she was deeply moved by their evening prayer. On the other hand, however, she had a hard time figuring out what differences, if any, there were between their religious congregations. None of the sisters wore habits, their lifestyles appeared similar, and their descriptions of their “charisms” seemed somewhat general. “Those words could apply to any good Christian, ” Maria thought. “We are all supposed to ‘follow the call of Jesus’ and ‘stand with the poor.’ Why is being a sister any different from being a group of Catholic laywomen who live together?”

ANY GROUP COMPOSED of voluntary members will continue to exist only as long as it maintains a discernible identity. Without a strong group identity, potential recruits will have no incentive to join it, and existing members will not be motivated to continue any meaningful participation in it. But while a clear identity is necessary for a group’s survival, it is not sufficient. This identity must also be congruent with the interests, fears, and desires of some culture or subculture within the larger society in order to entice new members to join.

Most sisters are accustomed to considering how attractive their institute’s identity and practices might be to persons from different racial and/or ethnic cultures. A predominantly German-American or Irish-American institute may not necessarily appeal to Hispanics or African Americans. A North American institute with a thriving new province in Korea, Nigeria, or Brazil may struggle with divergent expectations among its members as to what it should be and do. In previous centuries, cultural differences (p.80) such as these were sometimes so severe that several religious institutes eventually split along ethnic lines.

As chapter 4 pointed out, however, generations are also subcultures, each with its own distinctive preoccupations, memories, and expectations that will render a given religious institute more or less attractive to that generation. The appeal of membership in a given institute will wax and wane as the desires and preoccupations of succeeding generations of Catholics change. Chapter 4 noted that younger entrants to both CMSWR and LCWR institutes were more likely in the 2009 survey to cite their institute’s prayer life as being a very important attraction, and its mission and ministries as less important. Conversely, the survey’s older Vatican II respondents, who had also entered between 1993 and 2008, rated the desire to be of service and the institute’s mission as more important. In answering the open-ended questions, the Vatican II respondents in both surveys were the least likely to mention spontaneously the attraction of prayer, no matter whether they had entered their institutes as young adults prior to 1980 or in middle age after 1993. In other words, one’s generational cohort—the years in which one was born and grew up—has a strong effect on whether a particular aspect of a religious institute’s identity will be attractive to the members of that generation, an effect that is visible throughout their life. Institutes whose identity was quite attractive to young Catholics of one generation may need to consider how to rearticulate this identity in order to attract the next one. Otherwise, the differential appeal of this or that aspect of their institute may result in the predominance of one generational cohort and the underrepresentation of other age groups. To the extent that the two umbrella conferences to which religious institutes belong—LCWR and CMSWR—tend to have member institutes with differing identifying characteristics, we might expect the institutes in these two conferences to be differentially attractive to different generational cohorts. This appears to be the case: As chapter 4 showed, institutes in LCWR tend to attract women who are older than those attracted to CMSWR institutes. Do these disparities reflect the differential attractiveness of the various institutes to different generations? Do differences in generational composition, in turn, affect the identity of the institutes?

Elements of Group Identity

Demographic Characteristics

What elements make up a religious institute’s identity? In a secular organization, the most obvious would be its various demographic (p.81)

IdentityDistinguishing Elements

Figure 5.1 How much did these influence your decision to enter your religious institute? (percentage responding “Very Much”)

characteristics: whether it is large or small, concentrated in one (rural or urban) locality or spread internationally, ethnically homogeneous or heterogeneous, recently established or celebrating its 200th anniversary. However, as figures 5.1 and 5.2 show, relatively few respondents in the 2009 survey said that the size, geographic location, or internationality of their institute’s identity had attracted them “very much.” These characteristics were the least important to the youngest members, and the respondents in CMSWR institutes typically were less attracted by these identifying characteristics than the respondents in LCWR institutes. The one exception to all of this was the age composition of the institute, which was more important to younger and CMSWR respondents.

The 2009 survey shows that, while the demographic composition of a religious institute may strongly impact its identity and mission—a religious institute with 100 members concentrated in a single area is obviously different from an international institute with several thousand members—it was not the major attraction cited by the survey respondents. Respondents of all ages in the 2009 survey were more than twice as likely to cite their institute’s spirituality as being very attractive than they were to cite its size, location, or international character. But these preferences were uniformly expressed; they did not reveal many differences either between the generations or between the two conferences. For example, in their answers to the limited choice question, “How much did the spirituality of your institute attract you to enter? (Not at all, Only a little, Somewhat, Very much), ” all age groups in both LCWR and CMSWR institutes expressed (p.82)

IdentityDistinguishing Elements

Figure 5.2 How much did these influence your decision to enter your religious institute? (percentage responding “Very Much”)

equal attraction—with about 70 percent saying that their institute’s spirituality had attracted them “Very much.”

A similar lack of variation occurred in the answers to whether “A sense of call to religious life” had been an attraction: Between 75 percent and 90 percent of respondents in all generations and both conferences answered “Very much.” To discover some of the finer distinctions, therefore, it is necessary to examine the open-ended questions at the end of each survey—the questions where the respondents were asked to write their own answers instead of picking from a limited selection of options (see below). The spontaneously volunteered information gleaned from these answers shows some surprising patterns in which characteristics are, or are not, attractive elements of the institutes’ identities, as seen from the varying perspectives of newly entered respondents from different generations.

2009 Survey:

  • “What most attracted you to your religious institute?”
  • “What do you find most challenging about religious life?
  • 1999 Survey:

  • “Why did you enter your particular institute?”
  • It should be noted that answers to open-ended questions always vary widely. It is noteworthy if even 10 percent of the respondents spontaneously volunteer a similar response. In both the 1999 and 2009 surveys, the percentages of respondents giving a common answer to the open-ended (p.83) questions rarely rose above 40 percent. Percentages in the single digits were much more typical. This should be kept in mind when considering the open-ended responses discussed below.


    Every religious institute is considered to have an identifying “charism, ” the particular spirit or collective personality developed and passed on by its founder. Taken from the same Greek root as “Eucharist, ” a religious charism is considered to be a particular gift of the Holy Spirit for the benefit of the entire Church. But as chapter 3 pointed out, the exact definition and contents of a charism are not precisely specified, even in Church documents. As a result, it was difficult to know what respondents meant by this term when they used it to delineate the identities of their institutes. The percentage of respondents in the open-ended sections of both surveys who spontaneously cited their institute’s charism as a key attraction of their community varied widely (from 9 percent to 58 percent across the various age groups and conferences). There was no discernible generational pattern in this variation, but there was a slight tendency for LCWR respondents to mention charism more frequently than CMSWR respondents (14–57 percent of the various LCWR age cohorts as compared to 14–24 percent of the CMSWR cohorts). For the most part, however, the respondents did not indicate what their institute’s charism was; they tended simply to say that “The charism” or “The charism of our founder” had attracted them. Only a minority attempted to specify their institute’s charism in more detail, and even these usually did so in relatively general terms:

    What attracted you to your religious institute?

    Charism: Eucharistic and Marian

    (millennial, CMSWR).

    Our charism of reparation to the Sacred Heart really drew me

    (millennial, LCWR).

    Charism—making Christ’s merciful love visible

    (post-Vatican II, CMSWR).

    Their charism of unity and reconciliation

    (post-Vatican II, LCWR).

    I was delighted to learn that the charism is the offering of ourselves as victims to the Justice of God for the sanctification of the world

    (Vatican II, CMSWR).

    Charism of peace through justice

    (Vatican II, LCWR).

    (p.84) In a similar manner, the “spirituality” of the institute was often cited in general rather than specific terms, such as “The sisters’ spirituality” or “Carmelite spirituality.”

    Specific Distinguishing Features

    While “charism” and “spirituality” were rarely mentioned in a way that could give any clear idea of how these identifying features attracted the various age cohorts to a specific religious institute, other, more specific features did differentiate the respondents. The most striking feature—drawing a sharp distinguishing line both between CMSWR and LCWR communities and between generational cohorts as well—was the wearing of a religious habit. In the limited-choice question, “How much did your religious institute’s practices regarding the habit influence your decision to enter?” 91 percent of the youngest respondents answered “Very much.” The different generations of CMSWR respondents were uniformly likely to attach a great importance to the habit: In all four age cohorts, over 90 percent said their institute’s practices regarding the habit had strongly influenced their decision. Among the LCWR respondents of the three oldest generations, only 24 percent to 30 percent attached this level of importance to the habit—but close to twice as many (56 percent) of the millennial cohort did. While a “habit” can mean a variety of things—a simple cross, a common color of clothing, a short veil—in the open-ended questions of the 2009 survey, a third of all CMSWR respondents, of every generation except the very oldest, volunteered that they had been attracted to their institute precisely because its members wore a full, traditional habit. Recall that this is an unusually high percentage for an open-ended question. Few respondents (usually fewer than 5 percent) from LCWR institutes volunteered this response in 2009, and even fewer (1 percent) of the respondents did so in the 1999 survey.

    An interesting age pattern appeared in the answers of the LCWR respondents to the open-ended questions: Almost all of the millennial and post-Vatican II respondents in the 2009 survey who mentioned the habit (admittedly a small number—only twenty-one women) stated that they had been attracted to their community because the sisters wore a habit. In contrast, half of the Vatican II and pre-Vatican II respondents who mentioned the habit (again, a very small number) said that they had entered their institute precisely because the sisters did not wear one. In the 1999 survey among respondents who had entered prior to (p.85) 1980, the cutoff was at a slightly different point: Half of the respondents born in the 1940s who mentioned the habit in the open-ended questions entered their institute because its members did not wear one, while all of the respondents born after 1950 who mentioned the habit stated that they had entered their institute because the sisters did wear a habit. In either case, however, the older the respondent in an LCWR community was, the more negative she considered the habit as a sign of religious identity to be. This generational pattern held whether the respondent had entered her institute before 1980 or after 1993: The younger respondents were more positive and the older ones more negative regarding the religious habit.

    What attracted you to your religious institute? (LCWR institutes only)

    Wearing the habit, their love for one another, the charism of our foundress, the Blessed Sacrament

    (millennial, 2009 survey, born 1984).

    A community that still wears a habit, values community life, common prayer life, and authentic to the Church

    (post-Vatican II, 2009 survey, born 1974).

    The sisters were joyful! Our sisters wore a habit when I entered, but I came in spite of the habit

    (post-Vatican II, 2009 survey, born 1961).

    The “down to earth” lifestyle and spirituality of my community. Lack of habit. Strong collaboration with the laity, love for the Eucharist, a variety of ministries

    (Vatican II, 2009 survey, born 1954).

    I saw how happy the Sisters were. I also was attracted by the full habit. Many communities had recently removed the habit

    (Vatican II, 1999 survey, born 1951).

    My community taught me through grade school and high school. However, it was the changes—the moving out of the habit into lay clothes that made them seem more human

    (Vatican II, 1999 survey, born 1949).

    The sisters’ hospitality and joyful spirit. They were also updated—no habit. The sisters reflected the mentality of Vatican II

    (Vatican II, 1999 survey, born 1946).

    I was looking for a group that did not wear a habit and allowed members to live in apartments—basically, I wanted a group that (p.86) allowed for individuality and personal needs

    (Vatican II, 2009 survey, born 1946).

    An even more striking generational difference was evident in the use of “spousal” or “bride of Christ” images in the open-ended questions, when articulating the identity of a religious community. This occurred only among CMSWR respondents:

    What attracted you to your religious institute? (CMSWR institutes only)

    Their realization that they are brides of Christ, first and foremost

    (millennial, 2009 survey, born 1986).

    How the community preserved being a bride of Christ through prayer and their daily life

    (millennial, 2009 survey, born 1985).

    Above all, their love for Jesus as Spouse

    (millennial, 2009 survey, born 1982).

    I fell in love with the Lord and realized he was calling me to be His spouse

    (post-Vatican II, 2009 survey, born 1972).

    Among millennial respondents in CMSWR communities, 14 percent spontaneously mentioned this spousal identity when responding to the 2009 open-ended question about what had attracted them to their religious institutes; 6 percent of the post-Vatican II cohort of entrants also did so. No older respondent in the CMSWR institutes mentioned spousal identity in the open-ended questions of either the 2009 or 1999 survey. Thus, just as the LCWR respondents displayed diversity across the generations with regard to their opinions on the habit, the CMSWR respondents displayed a similar generational diversity in their use of the “bride of Christ” image.

    A final striking difference could be seen in the respondents’ attraction to their institutes’ loyalty/obedience to the Church’s official magisterium. As figures 5.3 and 5.4 show, almost 90 percent of the CMSWR respondents said that their institute’s fidelity to the Church was very important in influencing their decision to enter it, while only 21 percent of the LCWR respondents said this. The attraction of fidelity to the Church was highest among the youngest respondents in both conferences: 93 percent in CMSWR and 44 percent in LCWR rated this as very important, while only 36 percent of the pre-Vatican II and 20 percent of the Vatican II LCWR respondents did. The youngest LCWR respondents were also almost twice (p.87)

    IdentityDistinguishing Elements

    Figure 5.3 Influences on decision to enter and evaluation of religious institute (percentage responding “Very Much” or “Excellent”)

    IdentityDistinguishing Elements

    Figure 5.4 Influences on decision to enter and evaluation of religious institute (percentage responding “Very Much” or “Excellent”)

    as likely as the older generations to evaluate their institute’s fidelity to the magisterium as “excellent”; among CMSWR respondents, all generations were equally likely to evaluate their institute highly on this question.

    The responses to the open-ended questions reflected similar differences between the conferences. In the 2009 survey, 35 percent or more of each age cohort in the CMSWR institutes spontaneously mentioned fidelity to the Church, the pope, or the magisterium as very important in attracting them to their institute. This is a very high rate for an answer to be volunteered without prompting and was among the highest of all the responses. In contrast, fewer than 1 percent of the respondents from (p.88) LCWR communities in 2009, from any generational cohort, and fewer than 1 percent of the 1999 respondents who had entered before 1980 included this in the list of their institute’s attractive aspects. A related, if subtle, difference occurred in the open-ended responses about the institutes’ charism: Only CMSWR respondents stressed that their institute was faithful to the original charism of its founder—which may imply that, in the minds of these respondents, other institutes were not as faithful as their own had been.

    What attracted you to your religious institute?

    Love for the Church and the Holy Father. Fidelity to living authentic religious life according to the heart and mind of the Church

    (millennial, CMSWR).

    Fidelity to the Church’s teachings, monastic customs, contemplative-apostolic life

    (post-Vatican II, CMSWR).

    Fidelity to the Church and Pope. Devotion to the Holy Eucharist and Mary. Community life. Religious habit and name. Monastic customs. Faithfulness to founder

    (post-Vatican II, CMSWR).

    Community life, faithfulness to the Church, spirit of sacrifice, faithfulness to the original spirit of the founder

    (Vatican II, CMSWR).

    Traditional versus Progressive

    In the larger U.S. society, a group’s reputation as traditional or progressive, or conservative or liberal places it on one side or the other of an increasingly widening ideological divide (Bishop 2008). The same split occurs in the open-ended questions: Only the LCWR respondents in both the 1999 and 2009 surveys mentioned that they were attracted to their community because of its progressive reputation, while the CMSWR respondents were the most likely to cite the traditional character of their institutes as attractive. But the percentages in all of these cases are quite small: Fewer than 5 percent of LCWR respondents, of any generational cohort, cited their institute’s progressive reputation as attracting them to enter, and fewer than 8 percent of the CMSWR respondents cited their institute’s traditional reputation. There are also two interesting generational cohort effects on these answers: Millennial respondents in CMSWR were the most likely to name the traditional reputation of their institute as an attractive aspect of its identity; Vatican II and pre-Vatican II respondents in LCWR orders were the most likely to be drawn to institutes they identified as progressive.

    (p.89) Intangibles

    In addition to readily grasped characteristics—whether visible like a religious habit or conceptual like “bride of Christ” or “traditional”—a group’s identity will also be formed from less easily articulated elements: small daily customs, the sum of the personalities of the sisters, and even the physical features of the motherhouse buildings and grounds. These intangibles were not measured by the limited-choice questions in either the 1999 or 2009 survey. The open-ended questions, however, elicited many such intangibles. For example, all groups of respondents named “joy” as the characteristic of the sisters that had most attracted them, with the millennial and post-Vatican II CMSWR respondents the most likely to do so (44 percent as compared to 7–33 percent among LCWR or older CMSWR respondents). Similarly, all groups were equally likely to mention that the sisters were “normal” people. With regard to the other personal characteristics volunteered by the respondents—characteristics that imparted an intangible distinctiveness to the institute’s identity in the eyes of its newest members—the following patterns emerged:

    • LCWR respondents were more likely to say that the sisters were

      • Welcoming (9–20 percent of the various LCWR generations mentioned this, as compared to 2–3 percent of the CMSWR respondents);

      • Loving to each other (10–17 percent among the various LCWR generations, compared to 8 percent among young CMSWR respondents and 0 percent among the older ones); and

      • Kind to those to whom they ministered (2–8 percent among the LCWR generations compared to 1–2 percent of the CMSWR respondents).

    • CMSWR respondents were more likely to say that the sisters were clear about their institute’s identity and mission (5–15 percent of the various CMSWR generations compared to 1–2 percent of the LCWR respondents).

    Boundary Drawing

    A common way of reinforcing the identity of a group is to construct strong boundaries distinguishing it from outsiders. Other researchers (e.g., Smith 1998) have noted that a sense of being beleaguered by hostile outside forces or of being a “true remnant” among a faithless majority can unite a religious group—so much so, in fact, that its members often retain (p.90) this image of themselves even if outside observers cannot find any basis for it in fact.

    This appears to be the case for both ends of the ideological spectrum among the new entrants who responded to the surveys’ open-ended questions. The tendency of CMSWR respondents to cite their institute’s fidelity to the magisterium and to its charism has already been mentioned. Such a response might lead an outside observer to infer that these respondents thought other religious institutes had not been as faithful. But the perceived unfaithfulness of other religious institutes, however, might not be grounded in reality, at least according to the responses in our survey. Only three individuals in all of the open-ended responses in both the 1999 and 2009 surveys mentioned that they had been attracted to their institutes because the sisters there were willing to question the magisterium: two from LCWR institutes and one from a CMSWR institute. But whether or not other institutes really were more or less faithful to the Church, if some of the CMSWR respondents thought that they were, this could be a strong boundary marker between them.

    CMSWR respondents were also the most likely to volunteer the information that the outside world in general opposes religious life. The younger respondents from both conferences were also equally likely to mention the danger of secular values infecting religious institutes. Such comments were, however, relatively rare—given by only 2–9 percent of the various generations of CMSWR respondents and by 3–4 percent of the LCWR respondents.

    What do you find most challenging about religious life?

    The opposition of the current culture/society (millennial, CMSWR).

    Religious life is so countercultural that it’s hard to be living in a different lifestyle than most of mainstream America. This is especially true when religious values are being replaced with secularism (millennial, from an institute belonging to both LCWR and CMSWR).

    We need to be firm in our faith and our calling. The world and its views are all over, and we need to be careful in keeping the Church’s teaching and living our charism to the fullness. Sometimes all the world’s thinking infiltrates our religious communities, making life harder and more superficial (post-Vatican II, CMSWR).

    (p.91) Meeting the challenges of a Culture of Death society

    (Vatican II, CMSWR).

    The open-ended comments of some older LCWR respondents sometimes reflected a sense of being beleaguered or persecuted by the Church itself. It was primarily the Vatican II and pre-Vatican II respondents in LCWR communities who expressed dissatisfaction with the policies of the Church hierarchy, its teachings about women, and the perceived preference of bishops for conservative, habited religious orders. Few post-Vatican II LCWR respondents—and no millennial LCWR respondents—mentioned these concerns, and the percentages even of the Vatican II and pre-Vatican II respondents who did so were quite small (4–8 percent). It is worth noting, however, that the data in our surveys were collected prior to the 2009 apostolic visitation of U.S. religious and prior to the 2012 release of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR. A more recent survey might elicit different responses.

    What do you find most challenging about religious life?

    As a religious woman, I often feel like a second-class citizen. Prayers for vocations seem to center around priests only. It is hard to believe in “the Church” when it fails to recognize the giftedness of at least half its members—because we are female rather than male

    (post-Vatican II, LCWR).

    The judgmentalism of the Religious Right. The support given to the “more conservative” newer religious communities in our diocese by our bishops after our sisters’ years of free service to the Church as parish teachers

    (post-Vatican II, LCWR).

    The absolutism within the institutional Church in general

    (Vatican II, LCWR).

    Belonging to the Institutional Church which is oppressive and yet I love

    (Vatican II, LCWR).

    The institutional Church, i.e., the hierarchy

    (pre-Vatican II, LCWR).

    Overall, the LCWR respondents expressed less concern with drawing a boundary against the outside world than the CMSWR respondents did. Although this lack of boundary-drawing may help them become closer to those they serve, it may also mean a loss of their distinctive identity. The post-Vatican II LCWR respondents, especially, worried about the (p.92) seductions of a middle-class lifestyle in their institutes and wondered if the distinctiveness of religious life was being obscured:

    What do you find most challenging about religious life?

    I find it challenging to identify or be aware of the relevance of religious life in the world today when what I do isn’t any different from others. To keep in the forefront my relationship with God is challenging in a culture of so much material goods, activities, etc.

    (post-Vatican II, LCWR).

    I find giving witness to the values I hold to be challenging—it is so easy to let the world influence me! Living a middle-class lifestyle doesn’t always give the witness I desire

    (post-Vatican II, LCWR).

    I have found that while some are claiming a vow of poverty, they are living middle-class and even upper-middle-class lives....I find this hard because we could be leading lives radically committed to the Gospel, but too often we are choosing consumerism and individualism

    (post-Vatican II, LCWR).

    The Importance of Visible Identity Markers

    The elements of identity are manifold. Some are subtle; others are readily visible, both to the members themselves and to those outside of the institutes. A religious institute with visible and/or easily articulated identity markers—wearing a habit, emphasizing its loyalty to the magisterium on its website—will find it easier to attract entrants with similar preferences, even though, as we saw in chapter 4, these entrants are only a small percentage of all young adult Catholics. In contrast, religious institutes with less visible or not easily expressed identities—a charism expressed in relatively vague terms, or an institutional spirit based on personal qualities of their “welcoming” or “down-to-earth” sisters—will find it harder to attract potential entrants who have not had a chance to meet them in person. The 2009 and 1999 surveys both show that the younger respondents were less likely to have had prior contact with the sisters of their institute through being taught by them in school, working with them, or having relatives who were also members. But they were more likely to have learned of their institute from a media story—precisely the mode in which visible identifiers like the religious habit or easily summarized traits like loyalty to the (p.93)

    IdentityDistinguishing Elements

    Figure 5.5 How did you first become acquainted with your religious institute? (percentage selecting each response)

    pope are most easily presented, and in which more subtle cultural differences might easily be missed. figure 5.5 reports the generational variations from the 2009 survey.

    The responses in the 1999 survey show the same pattern. As many as two-thirds of the Vatican II respondents who entered prior to 1980 had been educated by the sisters in their institute, as had almost half of the post-Vatican II respondents and 38 percent of the pre-Vatican respondents. In the open-ended questions of the 1999 survey, between 21 and 28 percent of the Vatican II and pre-Vatican II respondents who had entered before 1980 mentioned having had extensive prior contact with the sisters in their institute. Regular interaction with the sisters allowed these respondents to “pick up” on the subtle, less easily articulated intangibles that distinguished their institute’s identity and made it attractive to them:

    Before I entered my community, I was privileged to work as a nurse’s aide, taking care of our sisters at our infirmary. Although I could not have put into words then how they influenced me, now I can say that the faithful witness of their lives—in joy and suffering—communicated our charism (millennial, 2009 survey, LCWR).

    While participating in a lay volunteer program, living with the sisters, I realized that their lifestyle attracted me, and that by becoming a religious I could live out my calling to mission, justice, and be who God created me to be (post-Vatican II, 2009 survey, LCWR).

    I knew the sisters because they served in the schools I attended. They were not my teachers, but were principals and taught (p.94) religion or other grades. I liked the sisters and the way they served people (post-Vatican II, 2009 survey, LCWR).

    I have aunts and other, more distant relatives in my community and I had the sisters in my community as teachers from the first through the twelfth grade (Vatican II, 1999 survey, LCWR).

    The sisters were my college professors. The novices and postulants were my classmates. The spirit of the order was evident everywhere (Vatican II, 1999 survey, LCWR).

    I had [sisters from my institute] in high school and remained friends with two of my high school teachers from the time I graduated high school until I entered nine years later

    (pre-Vatican II, 1999 survey, LCWR).

    In contrast, fewer than 2 percent of millennial and post-Vatican II CMSWR respondents in the 2009 survey mentioned similar experiences, and no older CMSWR respondents did so. For most, just seeing or hearing about the visible identity markers of their institute was sufficient. An institute’s habit and its explicit profession of loyalty to the Church can easily be ascertained by reading a news article or looking at a website; the sisters’ welcoming spirit, their kindness, or their love for each other require personal contact to be experienced. This renders it easier for CMSWR institutes to recruit new members from the specific subculture of young Catholics who are attracted to their distinctive identity markers.

    The differences in clarity of identity persist after entrance (see figure 5.6). CMSWR respondents in the 2009 survey were twice as likely to evaluate their institute’s sense of identity, both generally and specifically, as “Excellent.” And it was primarily the LCWR respondents who stated in their open-ended responses that one of the things they found challenging was that there were diverse opinions among the sisters about their institute’s identity—although, again, this was only a small percentage (3 percent in LCWR as compared to less than 1 percent in CMSWR communities). It is also notable that none of the youngest entrants in either conference mentioned these difficulties with identity.

    What do you find most challenging about religious life?

    I find the conversations, processes...about identity, purpose, and mission of religious life the most challenging, because of the (p.95)

    IdentityDistinguishing Elements

    Figure 5.6 Evaluation of religious institute’s sense of identity (percentage responding “Excellent”)

    diverse attitudes, experiences, perspectives (ecclesial and theological) among our members

    (post-Vatican II, LCWR).

    The lack of a unified vision and purpose...the challenge of diversity

    (post-Vatican II, LCWR).

    Individuals who are prophets of doom or question the identity and charism of the congregation

    (Vatican II, LCWR).


    As generational cohorts succeed each other in Catholicism, the identities of its various religious institutes may become more or less attractive to them. Or it may be that Catholics of a particular generational cohort will be attracted to one aspect of a particular religious institute (its spirituality, for example, or its service to the poor), but alienated by another aspect (the vow of chastity or some teachings of the magisterium). In any case, institutes that have built an identity around, for example, ministry and social justice (reflecting the priorities of the generational cohort that predominates among their current membership) may need to explore ways of emphasizing other aspects of their charism—their founder’s devotion to the Eucharist, for example, or radical service to the poor—in order to appeal to a subsequent generation. Institutes that languished in more activist or ecumenical times may find that their insistence on traditional prayer styles and orthodoxy have come back into fashion among some (p.96) young adult Catholics. And to the extent that the institutes clustered in one or the other of the two conferences are able to attract younger entrants, the institutes in that conference will display strikingly different identifying elements than those in the other—as we have seen in this chapter.

    U.S.Catholicism, however, is not monolithic—even within its generations. Although the majority of a given generational cohort’s members may prioritize the identifying elements of one style of religious life over another, not all of the members will do so. Even in the most progressive and activist age cohort, there will be some who desire the stability and permanence of traditionalist forms of religious life. And even within generations stereotyped as conservative or traditionalist, there will be some who wish to work for social justice and systemic change.

    The important thing is for an institute to have a clear identity, preferably one that can be portrayed or articulated in the media outlets that today’s youngest generation of Catholic adults most commonly use. The characteristics described in this chapter are some of the elements that might comprise such an identity. Others—prayer styles, community living practices, and ministry—will be covered in chapters 6 and 7.