Graphs released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on July 25, 2023, project a steep decline in the number of religious in the United States over the next decade. Relying on data drawn from the Mercer Mortality Tables for Men Religious and Women Religious (2014) and the Conference’s own National Religious Retirement Office, the data paints a grim picture.
According to the graph entitled, “Projected Population of Religious by Age Group 2023-2033,” the number of religious is expected to fall from 33,000 in 2023 to 17,000 in 2033. During this period, most male and female religious are expected to remain over the age of 75.
Another graph, “Population of Religious by Age Group 1985-2023,” reveals that this is not a new trend. In 1989, the total number of religious in the United States was approximately 124,000 as compared to 33,000 today. Additional data supplied by the USCCB indicates that the cost of caring for elderly religious continues to increase, with the average cost being over $55,000/year per religious and specialized care running over $80,000/year per religious.
Although the retrospective data is set in stone, the projections are not. Despite the damage that has been dealt to the Catholic Church in the United States for more than half-a-century, reforms can be put in place to push back against doctrinal indifference and catechetical confusion, both of which have contributed mightily to the overall decline in religious observance among American Catholics. However, “righting the ship” in America is only part of the problem. If Church leadership in the Vatican continues to promote irreverence by promoting an “anthropocentric liturgy,” religious indifferentism in the name of “ecumenical dialogue,” and liberalized ecclesiastical governance under the banner of “synodality,” then the future for religious in the United States will likely remain dark.
Unfortunately, a secularized mindset is now deeply engrained even among practicing Catholics. They see worldly success as measured by college degrees and income level as primary over spiritual sacrifice. A call from God is now perceived as a distraction from “a good life” rather than an invitation to work out one’s salvation while living a life of service and prayer to the Church.
This is why it is more important than ever for Catholic families to promote the importance of vocations and support their children when they are called. Moreover, those without children can assist in a new flowering of vocations through material support to traditional religious institutions and placing a growth in clerical and religious life at the center of their prayer intentions.
If top-down reform is unlikely to come in the foreseeable future, then it is incumbent on Catholics to continue to lay the ground floor for building up Catholicism once again in America and throughout the world.