By Reporter
NBC News
updated 4/14/2005 4:22:20 PM ET 2005-04-14T20:22:20

As the Roman Catholics cardinals prepare to elect a new pope, the faithful in the United States hope the pontiff can help stem the decline in one of the church's most visible institutions -- the sisterhood of nuns.

The new pope must address huge challenges as he takes over at the helm of an institution with 1 billion members.

He must consider the growth of Islam, the relationship with other Christian denominations, the fall in priestly vocations, and charges of sexual abuse by clergy across the world.

Yet, according to Sister Patricia Wittberg, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the shortage of American women in religious communities is one of the biggest problems facing the Catholic church in the United States. 

“This is an important issue,” Wittberg said. “But there are larger issues, so the Vatican does not see this as a problem.”

But she added, “This shortage will cause many orders of nuns to die out.” 

A 2004 survey by Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac showed there were approximately 71,486 nuns in the United States, down 50 percent from the 1960s.

More alarmingly, from the church's point of view, is that the average age of nuns is 70 years old.

“I just don’t think there is the context and the milieu for that kind of institution in today’s world,” said Dr. Helen Rose Ebaugh, a University of Houston sociologist, author of "Women in the Vanishing Cloister" and former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. 

Lack of visibility
With the number of American women in religious communities dropping drastically over the past 30 years, the virtual disappearance of nuns from institutions likes hospitals and schools has impaired the recruitment of young women into the sisterhood, says Bob McCarty, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry. 

To survive, the church needs to clearly articulate its vision for nuns in the 21st century "and then figure out how to present that to young people as an option,” he said.

The presence of nuns in the educational and health service was the best advertisement for the religious way of life, said Sister Jean Alice, who has been involved in religious life for more than 50 years. “Seeing women who were educated and dedicated to service is what made me want to become a Carmelite,” she said. 

But because young women do not seek out the convent as she once did, Sister Jean Alice admits that one of the biggest frustrations these days is that so many young people grow up without ever knowing a nun.  

Ironically, one of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council has hurt recruitment, according to experts.

Lay women are now encouraged to take a greater role in church life, which is a disincentive to joining religious orders, said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, Executive Director of National Religious Vocation Conference. 

As social and ministerial opportunities for women increased, the nation experienced its first decline in women entering religious communities.   

"I think the costs and rewards shifted," says Ebaugh. "And the cost of giving up a family and marriage and children was too much."

Advertising for recruits
To survive, some orders are reworking their recruitment methods. The Carmelites, for example, now offer weekend programs of religious contemplation for single and married women. 

“A lot of people are called to lives of contemplation,” Sister Jean Alice said.  “I joined this particular life because I wanted more time for prayer.” 

And although she would like to have more women joining the sisterhood, Sister Jean Alice said the Carmelites would also like to offer the option of contemplation to young women, who could use the skills to maintain balance and spirituality in their lives, whether they enter the convent or not.  

The order also hired an advertisement agency to help recruit through the Internet. The Carmelites says that their Web site, praythenews.com, draws around 67,000 hits a month, bringing the world of the cloistered nuns to homes around the country and across the globe. 

And although the Carmelites may not gain as many sisters as they have in earlier years, Sister Jean Alice said they are hoping for three new recruits this year. 

Yet the fear of extinction has caused panic among other orders.

“Some orders of nuns are so traumatized and so tired that they are basically doing nothing, said Sister Patricia Wittberg. “They have resigned themselves to dying out.” 

Yet, Sister Dianne Bergant, a professor at the Catholic Theological Union, says she does not predict an American religious life without some nuns, “There will always be a small number of women willing to forgo marriage and children to do God’s work.”

Bergant added, “While the institution as it has been known over the past 30 years may die, the 300-year-old institution will continue to thrive in America in some small form." 

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