The New York Times has an article, Nuns, a Dying Breed, on the disappearance of Catholic sister from the Catholic Health system
The history of religious women has had its ups and downs, There was an order if widows in the early church, but it gave Paul headaches, and he advised the younger widows to marry and raise families, rather than gadding about and spreading gossip. The Middle Ages saw formal and informal groups of women such as the Beguines, but the Council of Trent, in its attempt to bring order to a chaotic church, ordered that all religious women be subject to cloister, thereby ending any active charitable work.
The Daughters of Charity were the first to escape from this prohibition; they scrupulously avoided anything that would make them look like a nuns to avoid being forces into a cloister. . The nineteenth century saw an extraordinary increase in the sisters of the active congregations 0 8n 1898, 13,000 members, but in 1878, 135,000 members. They founded numerous schools and hospitals and social welfare services, educating, to the displeasure the anticlericals, the majority of the girls in France.
Historians look for human motives, and there were natural motives for a woman to join a congregation. At a time when women were confined to the household, a congregation gave a women opportunity for work in education and health care that no other lay women had. A sister lived with like-minded and supportive women, respected by all, and had security in illness and old age. Lay people were also told that religious life was superior to married life. There were no doubt supernatural motives, but the natural motives contributed to the vast increase in sisters, There were 1.5 sisters per priest in France at the height of the congregations, and 3 sisters per priest in the United Sates. The vast majority of the staff of the Church was female.
But this is all gone with the wind. Prosperity and the opening of careers to women meant that women could choose their work and support themselves outside of a congregation. The emphasis in theology changed and the dignity and importance of the lay state of life was now recognized. Ill advised changes also undermined many congregations.
The congregations are dying, and many are making plans to shut down. The one in the NYT article has not had a new member in 25 years, and has decided to accept no more.
The congregations that ran hospitals have done well financially. A few years ago the Wall Street Journal tracked the money the Daughters of Charity had gotten for their hospitals and found a billion of so of it in the Grand Caymans. This will pay for the retirement of the sisters in those congregations. I am not aware that the prosperous congregations have shared any of this wealth with the aging sisters of the teaching congregations, who had few or no assets when the schools they had staffed shut down.
I do not expect any rebirth of these congregations on a grand scale in the West; there will always be a few women who are drawn to the contemplative life and A few small vital congregations will survive. Women in the third world are still drawn to the congregations for the same reasons Western women were in the nineteenth century, but eventually those societies too will modernize.
Catholic health care can be run economically with employees, but Catholic educations is vanishing. No alternative method of educating the laity in the rudiments of the faith has been put in place, and we are returning to the middle ages in the level of religious literacy.. In the book on Catalonia I previously mentioned, the zealous clergy of the Counter Reformation were astonished to find the level of ignorance of basic doctrine among the population – and I am afraid we are returning to that. What that curious word Trinity means, what or who the Holy Spirit is, who wrote the four gospels, will all be mysteries to most Catholics – who are confronting biblically literate Protestants. Sounds familiar? — 16th C redux.