Yesterday’s New York Times article (subscription required) by Charlie LeDuff focused on the image challenges faced by the Catholic Church in recruiting ‘next generation’ nuns. According to the article, there were 180,000 nuns in the United States in 1966 (when, btw, a young Repman was doing battle with a particularly nasty order of nuns as a student at St. Francis Grammar School).
Talk about a classic marketing challenge. Just like Cadillac and Buick, which are dealing with an aging population that is slowly dying out, the Catholic Church finds itself struggling to make the sisterhood attractive and relevant to young women.
According to LoDuff, multiple socioeconomic factors have precipitated the decline in nuns. First, there was the women’s movement. Then, there was the decision of the Second Vatican Council, which ruled that religious women were no more holy than lay women. So, in one bold stroke, the Church took away the motivation for young women around the world to enlist.
Having had first-hand experience with an order of nuns known as the Sisters of Charity, I have to admit to not shedding many tears over the Church’s plight. The sisters, who were anything but charitable, were a holy terror. They meted out serious corporal punishment, inflicted all sorts of mental anguish and seemed to take great delight in making kids cry. They’d do all this while citing passages from the Bible and Baltimore Catechism #2, and lecturing us on the need to live a Christian life. The nuns were a major reason why I turned away from the Church and still have issues with organized religion to this day.
My issues notwithstanding, can the Church turn things around and somehow make the sisterhood appeal to young girls? I doubt it. The Church is too much of an old boys’ network that has done little, if anything, to change the way it thinks or acts across the board. And, unless the powers that be re-classify the role and importance of nuns, why would a young woman want to dedicate her life to such a vocation? There are so many other, competing organizations that provide more visibility, rewards and satisfaction for young women, that I can see the day when nuns in the U.S. disappear completely. No matter what business you’re in, and the Catholic Church is a business, you must constantly reinvent yourself and be relevant…or be gone.
But, who knows? Maybe the Vatican has a master marketer lurking in the wings who can turn things around and, like what Led Zeppelin, Hip Hop and Tony Soprano did for Cadillac, breathe new life into an old brand. Now, that would truly be a miracle.