Author: Eve Fairbanks
More and more young women are being called to the religious life, after 50 straight years of decline. What on earth is going on?
I went to a science magnet high school, graduating in 2001, but in my late 20s, I began to notice that some of my classmates were turning toward the Catholic faith. It surprised me: My high school was ostentatiously secular. We had a steel statue on the front lawn depicting the triumph of mathematical logic. Our senior class president wore a giant calculator costume to football games. When my government class held a mock debate over abortion, only two students out of 18 volunteered to argue the “pro-life” case.
And near the end of the 2000s, a half-dozen old friends I’d remembered as logical skeptics and trend-forward internet connoisseurs had become deeply religious. Some of them had been raised loosely Catholic, some had not. They blogged. They wrote Facebook posts about their conversions and shared memes about contraception-free family planning. They seemed to want to celebrate their lives.
One Catholic classmate chronicled her experience starting an organic farm with her husband and seven children, twinning advocacy for lefty, soyboy things like non-GMO baby yoghurt with tributes to the late Justice Antonin Scalia and pictures of homemade pizzas with tomato-sauce patterns meant to look like Jesus’s wounds on the cross. My friend Meg, the center of attention at our high school parties, started calling herself a “hobo for Christ.” She couch-surfed around the world and made her income from speeches booked off of her pop culture-savvy blog—only the gist of these speeches was a profound religious evangelicalism. “God,” she wrote in one post, is “demanding radical discipleship.” She also considered becoming a Catholic nun.
These people intrigued me, because they didn’t quite fit. The presumption, I had always thought, was that the U.S. is on a steady, if bumpy, progressive drift. Books published about America’s demographic destiny like to warn religious folks to be afraid of the young. Each successive generation, the thinking goes, wants to exercise more choice over what they eat, over how they live, over who they love, over their dreams, over their truths. The young aren’t interested in tradition or moral constraints.
Catholicism seems especially out of step with contemporary American life. Protestantism easily accommodates rock bands and a personable, almost life coach-esque Jesus. But even liberal Catholic communities require submission to a gold-crowned pope who theologically can’t be wrong (in certain circumstances) and who is chosen by a hundred-odd men—only men—who undergo a ritual of eating the literal body of Christ embedded in a cracker. To say the sex scandals didn't help is putting it mildly. A 2008 Pew Research Center study found that Catholicism lost more adherents in the late 20th century than any other religion in the U.S. About a third of Americans raised Catholic reported that they had left the church.
The contraction hit church staff, too—its priesthood and its community of nuns. In 1965, America had 180,000 perpetually professed Catholic sisters, the technical term for women who have pledged their lives to chastity, poverty, obedience and serving the church. By 2010, that number tanked to fewer than 50,000. In 2009, more Catholic sisters in America were over 90 years old than under 60.
But right around the time I began to notice my high school classmates’ burgeoning faith, something flipped. After 50 years of decline, the number of young women “discerning the religious life”—or going through the long process of becoming a Catholic sister—is substantially increasing. In 2017, 13 percent of women from age 18 to 35 who answered a Georgetown University-affiliated survey of American Catholics reported that they had considered becoming a Catholic sister. That’s more than 900,000 young women, enough to repopulate the corps of “women religious” in a couple of decades, even if only a fraction of them actually go through with it.
And the aspiring sisters aren’t like the old ones. They’re more diverse: Ninety percent of American nuns in 2009 identified as white; last year, fewer than 60 percent of new entrants to convents did. They’re also younger: The average age for taking the final step into the religious life a decade ago was 40. Today, it’s 24. They’re disproportionately middle children, often high-flying and high-achieving. Typical discernment stories on blogs or in the Catholic press start with lines like “she played lacrosse and went to Rutgers” or she was “a Harvard graduate with a wonderful boyfriend.”
You’ll find these 20-somethings, like other 20-somethings, all over Instagram and YouTube. Some investigate which religious order to join on a website called VocationMatch.com, basically a dating app for nuns. You get the sense that these young women get a kick out of demonstrating their enduring link to “basic bitch” concerns like food Instagramming, college sports or Benedict Cumberbatch’s facial hair—and then pulling a fast one on the rest of us with flinty tweets like “You die unprepared without the sacraments.”
These young women have one last surprise: They tend to be far more doctrinally conservative than their predecessors. If you go deeper into their social media feeds, past the wacky photos of habited nuns making the hang-loose sign, you’ll find a firm devotion to the most traditional of Catholic beliefs. They fervently protest abortion. They celebrate virginity not as a necessity to free up time to serve God—how some “liberal” sisters see it—but as something in itself holy. It’s a severity that overlaps neatly, actually, with the OMG maximalism that dominates social media.
Patrice Tuohy, the publisher of guides for people considering the religious life, including VocationMatch.com, told me that not long ago she used to get only about 350 queries a year by phone and online. Last year, she got 2,600. And 60 percent of those women, Tuohy said, explicitly asked if they could join an order that would force them to wear a habit. (Currently, only about 20 percent of sisters in America wear one.) Amid all their freedoms, Tuohy deduced, these young women wanted to be led. Even constrained. She said she wished I wouldn’t emphasize that point, however. Something about it seemed to make her uncomfortable.
Two years ago, Meg, the “hobo for Christ,” introduced me on Facebook to a friend of hers named Tori. Tori was both discerning to become a nun and serving in the Army. As a first lieutenant, she commanded men older than she was, but when she spoke to me over Skype from a base in South Korea, she looked younger than her 23 years. The green military fatigues were baggy on her lean frame, her pale brown hair—dyed blonde on the bottom—pulled away from her sunburned face into a wispy ponytail. She said “wicked” a lot, cursed occasionally and referred to herself as “a super-duper paratrooper!” with a wink and a mocking thumbs-up. It didn't take me more than a few minutes talking with her to think: This woman wants to become a nun?
In high school, she said, she “had an automatic seat at the cool kids’ table.” She was known for her crazy, uninhibited dancing at parties. She hiked, she kayaked and she was good enough at soccer to earn a spot on a professional-development team. On her Facebook page, she can be seen photobombing group shots on snowboarding trips by sticking her tongue out at the camera. She always assumed she’d marry, have kids and work as a nutritionist.
When I asked Tori what made her stray from this path to become a nun, her whole demeanor changed. Her face got pinker, and she looked almost shy. She asked if she could read the full story to me from her prayer journal. This was too important to discuss extemporaneously.
One afternoon when she was a senior at her all-girls high school, Tori found herself drawn to the chapel. She wasn’t deeply religious growing up, and the chapel was a space she usually avoided: small and dark and silent, with uncomfortable knee-high prayer stools. But on that day, as she sat to pray, a thought occurred to her that was so unbidden and forceful “that I stood up from my seat and physically ran. I mean, I ran out of the chapel. I was so filled with fear.” The thought: What would it be like to wear a nun's habit?
She didn’t want to be a nun, she explained. But in the ensuing years, she just couldn’t get the vision out of her head. In the goalie box, putting on strapless dresses for dances—she kept seeing herself in a black veil.
And then one day, at a chapel on her college campus, she heard His voice.
“What does it sound like?” I asked her.
“It doesn’t sound like anything. I just knew it was Him,” she said. And His message was clear: “Evangelize.”
Tori put down her prayer journal, looked up and started to laugh. She said she expected this story must sound “crazy” to me. She didn’t seem to mind. Discerning the religious life, she explained, is “a process of falling in love.”
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