Mary JOHNSON, S.N.D. de N., Patricia WITTBERG, S.C., and Mary L GAUTIER. New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity. New York: Oxford Press, 2014. Pp.216. $29.95 ISBN 0199316848. Reviewed by Mary Heather MACKINNON, SSND. 1010-1276 Burlington, ON, Canada, L7S 2J9
Written by three distinguished sociologists, this text provides a “comprehensive examination of the generations of women who entered religious life in the United States after 1965 (Front Flap).” To begin, the authors highlight extensive data from various sociological studies dealing with the decline of entrants to US communities of women religious in recent years. They then focus their analysis of this data on the possible challenges and implications it presents for the future of religious life, particularly for women in what they designate as LCWR, CMSWR, and Contemplative religious communities in the United States.
Readers will find excellent explanatory and foundational material in the first chapters of this text concerning current demographics in US women’s religious institutes; distinctions of different forms of religious life; church teachings about religious life; and generational cultural differences as delineated in six North American, primarily white, middle-class generational cohorts from 1915-1996+.
The final chapters of the text deal with complex issues facing contemporary women’s religious communities in the United States in light of studies that point out many different understandings of religious life, especially between millennial and post-Vatican II entrants and entrants from older generations. The authors examine in detail and offer recommendations for how communities might address such generational differences about identity, prayer, spirituality, the vows, community and ministry.
In many ways, this is a hard book for this reviewer to read since I am a long standing member of an international congregation of women religious and someone who entered religious life right in the middle of Vatican II. It is hard for me to read since the authors challenge my life-long commitment to living out the ideals of Vatican II when they recommend that dialogue and futuring is necessary with young women who do not appear to embrace those ideals and who wish to live religious life in ways that my generation spent years trying to change. My vision of religious life and my adherence to my worldview are a perfect example of what the writers document. This is a text in which many types of readers will easily find themselves.
This book is extremely timely, clearly written, passionately presented and I suggest it is a “must read” for all who attempt to understand the present reality of religious life and its possible future, not only in the United States, but in the world and church today. It is well suited for any interested reader and it would work well in undergraduate or graduate courses in sociology, theology, or catholic studies.
A significant aspect of this text is the vibrant way that the authors outline opposing views about the future of US religious life that could lead to its demise; but for them these dichotomies suggests a challenge to us all because the authors are convinced “religious life is essential to the mission of the Church in responding to the needs of the world (141).” As a theologian, nevertheless, I would love to dialogue with the authors about how some of their conclusions and recommendations might relate more to “restorationist” perspectives of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and seemingly less to the current approaches of Pope Francis.