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October 1997

Purdue researcher suggests convents learn from communes

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- When reforms following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) gave many Catholic nuns the freedom to live outside the convent and dress like the laity, the efforts were seen as a way to help save religious orders from extinction. In fact, they may have done just the opposite, suggests a Purdue University sociologist.

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"A growing number of scholars have recognized that when religious orders blend in, they fade away," says Roger Finke, associate professor of sociology and anthropology and director of the American Religion Data Archive housed at Purdue.

Finke says he believes that the explanation can be found not only in the spiritual world, but in maxims that dictate survival in the business world costs and benefits.

He notes that the call to life in a religious order is costly in terms of personal commitment. The costs were believed to have been lessened as a result of Vatican II, he says, with the reasoning that a less-restrictive life would make religious orders more appealing.

Finke says the costs may have been reduced, but so were the benefits.

"Many observers are perplexed by the sudden membership drop in Catholic religious orders following Vatican II reforms, and now the recent growth of more traditional orders," he says. "They are faced with the paradox that increasing individual liberties and decreasing communal demands have been associated with membership declines."

Finke says Catholic religious orders can learn from the successes of communes and some conservative Protestant denominations. He says people are attracted to a stable community and desire to be part of a distinctive group. "Strong communes create a sense of community by requiring members to give up individual freedoms for the benefit of the collective," Finke says.

He says groups can limit their members either by outright prohibition of certain activities or by encouraging members to invest so heavily in the group that they have little time, money or motivation for outside activities. In the second instance, the group provides alternatives that replace other interests.

Finke shows how these principles relate to religious orders by using the results of a 1993 Catholic survey. The survey, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, received responses from 531 women's religious orders.

The respondents reported 2,136 women were in formation programs, which consist of various stages that prepare initiates for full integration into religious orders. In contrast, in 1965, 4,110 women entered religious communities.

In the 1993 survey, the new-member rate for orders that had lessened requirements after Vatican II was 41 per 1,000 members in final vows, compared to a rate of 95 per 1,000 members for orders that hadn't changed.

One of the most telling differences was in communal living. "When major superiors rated living in religious houses and in physical proximity as extremely important for their orders, their new-member rates were four times higher than those who did not," Finke says.

He says requirements such as communal living and distinctive dress set apart sisters from outsiders. Thus interactions with the secular culture are decreased and their interactions with each other are increased. This, he argues, leads to greater bonds of friendship, support and loyalty to the group -- factors that lead to dependency on the group.

"When a group requires high costs for membership -- such as vows of chastity, poverty and obedience -- the group must also generate a high level of 'collective goods' such as close social networks and religious experiences which make membership worthwhile," Finke says.

Living among one's peers also leads to greater scrutiny of behavior and more accountability. "Compliance and transgressions are readily apparent to all in the tightly bound network of the convent," he says. "And, when moments of doubt arise, support and confirmation of the faith are also close at hand.

"Recruits are seldom attracted to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience -- or to the traditional garb that sisters might wear. To the contrary, they tolerate these limits on their behavior because they are attracted to the wealth of social and religious rewards provided by a stable community of 'religious life.'"

Finke's observations were reported in the summer edition of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and in Review for Religious.

Many of today's most vital religious orders combine an appreciation of tradition with new innovations.

The Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Ind. have used the Internet and an award-winning advertising campaign to recruit new nuns. At the same time, they still adhere to traditional monastery life, with its emphasis on communal living and prayer three times a day.

Karen Katafiasz, director of communications for the Benedictines, says four new women are in their first year with the community, bringing the order's membership to 233. Three women are in their second year, and 10 women have made temporary, or first, vows. "That's very rare," she says. "Some religious communities go for years without any new members."

Sources: Roger Finke, (765) 494-4715; e-mail, finke@sri.soc.purdue.edu
Karen Katafiasz, (812) 367-1411; web site, http://www.thedome.org
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail, beth_forbes@purdue.edu
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, purduenews@purdue.edu

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Copies of Roger Finke's articles in Review for Religious and Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion are available from Beth Forbes at Purdue News Service, (765) 494-9723.

Graph Caption:

Reforms meant to make life in Catholic religious orders more appealing may do just the opposite. Purdue sociologist Roger Finke says a 1993 survey of women's religious orders found that the new-member rate for orders that had lessened requirements after Vatican II was 41 per 1,000 members in final vows. That compares to a rate of 95 per 1,000 members for orders that hadn't changed. (Purdue University graphic by Shirley Yeung.)

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