Editor’s note: The following comes from Jack P. Oostveen, emeritus assistant professor of soil mechanics and foundation engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and David L. Sonnier, associate professor of computer science and director of international studies program, Lyon College.
Now that over fifty years have passed since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, we can observe the development of patterns and attempt to understand why some religious orders are surviving while others – in fact, the vast majority – are stagnant or dying. In this study, we seek common traits among various male religious institutes by categorizing them according to patterns of either growth or decline from 1950 to the present. We will refer to these patterns as “characteristic timelines.” By grouping the various institutes among others with similar characteristic timelines, we can seek common threads among those that are thriving and those heading toward possible extinction. We can also identify the precise point at which flourishing religious institutes began to decline.
This study is an abbreviated version of an observational analysis of data from the public domain pertaining to Institutes of Consecrated and Societies of Apostolic Life for male religious over the period from 1950 to the present. For a more comprehensive version, please visit the Christendom Restoration Society page and download by clicking here.
This research includes in its original version 110 Institutes of Consecrated Life and 24 Societies of Apostolic Life using data taken from a variety of sources. Leaving out the smallest institutes, 88 are included herein. All of these institutes experienced a prolonged period of steady growth for decades prior to the Second Vatican Council. Almost all went into decline following the Second Vatican Council.
The diversity of institutes that went through a period of decline is stunning.
There are few similarities among these organizations other than the fact that they all suffered some form of decline beginning between 1963 and 1966. This prevents one from speculating on a cause other than Vatican II itself, since each of these congregations responded in its own way to the canonical reforms and underwent internal changes. For the Institutes of Consecrated Life, the overall membership declined from 256,137 in 1967 to 162,732 in 2014. For the Societies of Apostolic Life, membership declined from 25,347 religious in 1967 to 14,038 religious in 2014. This represents a total decline for these congregations of about 36.5% and 44.6%, respectively, between 1967 and 2014. We also use data from 14 congregations representing about 1.5% of all religious in 2014, which were founded after 1967 and therefore counted zero at that time. These particular 14 congregations are not a complete list of those founded after 1967.
Institutes Grouped According to Characteristic Timelines
The institutes for which we have sufficient data for analysis are grouped by characteristic timelines that can be distinguished from one another. Seven different categories were established. The data used for the timelines are provided primarily by  and . Additional references are found in the original report.
The categories are as follows:
- Category 1: Institutes in Severe and Extreme Decline
- Category 2: Institutes in Decline but Eventually Finding Stability
- Category 3: Institutes in Decline but Eventually Reaching a Slow Rate of Growth
- Category 4: Institutes Eventually Restoring the Pre-1965 Membership Level
- Category 5: Institutes Eventually Restoring the Pre-1965 Rate of Growth
- Category 6: Institutes Suffering No Post-1965 Decline
- Category 7: Institutes Founded after 1967
Figure 1 shows the timelines of those religious institutes that represent Categories 1 to 5. This is the vast majority, leaving out those institutes in Category 6 (there are only five of them) that suffered no post-conciliar decline and also leaving out those in Category 7, which were founded after 1967.
Category 1: Institutes in Severe and Extreme Decline
Figure 2 and Figure 3 depict the timelines of those institutes in severe decline and extreme decline, respectively. Figure 2 includes all large institutes such as Jesuits, Franciscans, Salesians, Benedictines, and Dominicans. The Jesuits and Franciscans together and by themselves represent 24% of the 110 religious Institutes of Consecrated Life in 1966 and 19% of these religious in 2014. While the average decline of all these religious in 2014 is about 38.1% of their high point, the decline of these two institutes is about 53.5% and 48.2%, respectively. In other words, by 2014, the Jesuits and Franciscans were reduced to about half of their 1966 numbers, and the decline continues.
This category also includes the Benedictines, within which there is not a universal decline. Notable exceptions are found among those monasteries in which a traditional prayer life is retained. So while they are a part of the larger “Benedictines” of Category 1, those Benedictines who live according to the original understanding of “Ora et Labora” belong to another category in a future study.
A note should be made about the Basilian Alepian Order (Ordo Basilianus Aleppensis Melkitarum), whose trend is radically different from the others in Figure 3. Its immediate and extreme decline started at the same time as the others, but from 1973 onward, there is a certain stability not demonstrated by the others. This is a religious order of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church; hence, they were shielded from many of the liturgical and doctrinal disturbances following Vatican II. Without further information, we can speculate that the timing of their decline is coincidental and that the decline is related to disturbances in the Middle East rather than liturgical and doctrinal disturbances. The authors welcome input from anyone having insight.
Category 2: Institutes in Decline but Eventually Finding Stability
The nine institutes in Figure 4 exhibit, after the initial post-Vatican II decline, a period of stability beginning about 1980. These institutes include congregations that are actively engaged in parish, school, and missionary work. Some in this category maintain the use of the habit and a full community life of prayer.
Category 3: Institutes Initially Declining but Eventually Reaching a Slow Rate of Growth
Figure 5 depicts timelines of three institutes representing about 5.2% of the mentioned religious of Consecrated Life in 1966 and 8.4% of the religious in 2014. After the decline in the first decade following Vatican II, these institutes stabilized and began to grow at a rate sufficient to reach a rather constant membership in 2000.
Category 4: Institutes Eventually Restoring the Pre-1965 Membership Level
Figure 6 shows the timelines of six institutes representing 0.8% of the mentioned religious in 1966 and 1.6% in 2014. After the decrease of the number of religious in the first decade for some of these institutes, even to about 50%, the number of religious then increased rather rapidly by a rate of 2.5% per year until a sudden stabilisation occurred.
One thing to be noticed about these organizations is their strong association with nationalities outside Western Europe. Also in this category we find the Ordo Antonianorum Maronitarum, a congregation attached to the Maronite Rite, which maintains most of its traditional ritual. This suggests a growth in congregations attached to a more stable liturgical tradition. Like other churches in the Eastern tradition, the Maronites were at least partly shielded from the well known reforms implemented so vigorously in the West, and they may have benefited by attracting Catholics seeking stability.
Category 5: Institutes Eventually Restoring the Pre-1965 Rate of Growth
Figure 7 shows a cluster of institutes representing 0.3% of these religious institutes of Consecrated Life in 1966 and 0.6% in 2014. The timelines of these institutes show an eventual restoration to a rate of growth similar to that experienced prior to Vatican II. After a moderate decline in the first decade after the council, they increase up to 2014. These institutes have grown to about 140% to 150% of their number of religious in 1966.
Category 6: Institutes Suffering No Post-1965 Decline
Figure 8 shows five institutes representing in 1966 only 0.8% of the mentioned religious, but by 2014, their proportion had increased to 4.3%. These institutes did not suffer the post-conciliar decline during the first decade after Vatican II. While one of these institutes made a remarkable increase of the number of religious up to about 750% in 2009, the other institutes grew to about 250% to 300% with respect to the numbers in 1966.
Here we should note that this analysis also marks irregularities that can be caused by specific events. An example can be seen in the timeline of the Legionnaires of Christ (Congregatio Legionariorum Christi) that shows, after a period of prolonged growth, a sudden decline due to well publicized internal problems.
Category 7: Institutes founded after 1967
Figure 9 gives the timelines in absolute values for some institutes that have been founded since the Second Vatican Council. The membership of these institutes cannot be expressed in relative values regarding a maximum number of religious during the period of the Council.
Figure 9 has an overlay of the Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Pie X (SSPX) clerical population, showing a solid black line representing their timeline and showing 575 priests at the time this data was made public. Data from the SSPX was not included in the original study, but statistical information has been requested, and we await that as well as the clarification of the SSPX’s status within the Church.
Of those institutes whose timelines are depicted in Figure 9, we can ask ourselves what they have in common, aside from the fact that they were founded at a time of liturgical and doctrinal crisis in the Church. They all, in some way, are meeting the challenges of today. Each of them is confronting the crisis through sound liturgy and doctrine, like teaching, preaching, or living their religious lives in accordance with the Deposit of Faith.
According to St. Matthew, “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them” (Matt. 7:16-20). Such statistics can objectively indicate a distinction between the work of the spirit of the time (zeitgeist) and the work of the Holy Spirit in the modern Church. The Holy Spirit cannot be held responsible for the long-term continued decline of a congregation if we are to believe the words of St. Matthew.
We hesitate to use the word “conservative” to describe the pre-conciliar period or “liberal” to describe the post-conciliar period. These words represent human ideological constructs and have political meanings that vary from one country to the next. In the search for an appropriate term, we find no alternative other than “traditional” to apply to those institutes that seem to still have a future. Those whose members obey the laws of their founders and preach and teach the gospel in accordance with what was handed down to them, dress and comport themselves as their predecessors did, and pray as their predecessors did seem to have a future. In short, if their religious lives represent a continuation of the visions of their founders, and that of the Founder of our Faith, Jesus Christ, then they seem to have a future. Those institutes founded after 1967 were founded in an attempt to resurrect the religious life that was lacking in larger, well established (but dying) institutes. The authors welcome an alternative term, but for lack of a better one at the moment, the word “traditional” seems to apply to those institutes that are not dying.
Considering the magnitude of the loss, one has to wonder: why is there such reluctance among so many of the prelates and Superiors of the Congregations to acknowledge the reason for which the decline began and then to respond accordingly? The ongoing decline does not only pertain to those religious congregations in severe decline; it affects the entire Church and all humanity. The loss of those religious who, for centuries, worked in missions worldwide has handicapped the Church. The loss of orders that once ran hospitals and schools has left our inner cities violent and destitute. The superiors of those congregations in continued decline have a heavy responsibility in this and will be called to account for it. They can continue propagating this ongoing catastrophe, or they can begin the process of recovery by returning to the original spirituality of their founders.
The authors hope that this study will inspire further investigation into the subject. But more importantly, it is our hope that it will inspire action by those responsible for leading the Church into the future. Those institutes that are thriving should be held up as models to be emulated. Those that are slowly dying and show no signs of recovery should be corrected on points of doctrine and liturgy, and if they refuse to conform, they should be suppressed. The stakes are too high simply to ignore the devastation of the vineyard.
1 The Hierarchy of the Catholic Church statistical data per institute: http://www.catholic-hierarchy.org.
2 Annuario Pontificio (1960, 1961, 1962, 1965, 1967 and 1969); Typografia Poliglotta Vaticana.
3 Agenzia Fides: http://www.fides.org/en/stats#.WEBYCa-V419.
4 GCatholic.org (formerly Giga-Catholic Information): http://www.gcatholic.org/about.htm.
5 CARA, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate: http://cara.georgetown.edu/frequently-request ed-church-statistics.
6 Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2001, L’Osservatore Romano (2001): https://www.ewtn.com/library/chistory /annu2001.htm.
Jack P. Oostveen is emeritus assistant professor of soil mechanics and foundation engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.