The fact that religious life was experiencing a period of difficulty was known. But the figures detailing the past fifty years of the life of the Church raise serious questions on the solidity of a lifelong project of consecrated life in the third millennium. When Paul IV closed the Second Vatican Council in 1965, women and men religious were in full bloom. Male religious amounted to 329.799; women religious neared one million (961.264). Those were years when the religious exemplified the universality of the Church: they were present in areas of mission throughout the world. They did not fear confronting the hostility of secular Countries; they embodied the thrust of the mission and the encounter with local populations. Europe had already lost the exclusivity of consecrated life while in the Americas, notably in the United States, were seen increasing numbers of cassocks and veils. However, the time of prosperity was winding down. No less than a decade later men religious dropped by 18.51 percent (-61.053) while women religious by 9.72 percent (-93.491). No trend reversal has been registered since then.
The reception of the Council and the beginning of the decline. An explanation of the dramatic drop that started off in 1964 is provided by Claretian Father Angel Pardilla in the book “La realtà della vita religiosa” (The reality of religious life). The author drew a balance of the figures collected across the years, providing cues for reflection. Fr Pardilla ascribes the main reason of the decline to the negative reception of Vatican II, owing to a “lack of a clear positive identity” that has placed consecrated life at the same (or lower) level of any choice of life. From this perspective, he says, the re-reading of the Council is critical to “a better pastoral care of vocation and a more effective preventive medicine against the drop in vocations.” Considering the Congregations existing at the time and those established in later years,
the number of men belonging to religious orders in the years 1965-2015 declined by 39.58% (-130,545). Although figures are similar in women’s religious institutes (-44,61%), the overall number is dramatically lower, involving half million women (-428.828)
Moreover, the downward trend is not exactly the same for men and women religious.
The situation of male religious Congregations. The destabilizing impact of the first decade gradually stabilised in male religious orders (214). In the period 1975-1985 was registered a 7.77% decline (-25.637), 4.58% in the years 1985-1995 (-15.129), 3.96% in the period 1995-2005 (-13.077), followed by 4.74% in the years 2005- 2015 (-15.649). The greatest impact was registered in lay Congregations: figures dropped from 49,002 – the third worst impact following Clerical congregations and Mendicant Orders – to 16.378 (-66,63 per cento) in 50 years. To get a full picture, it should be considered that during the first 40 years after the Council clerical or priestly congregations registered a mean decline of 24.58%.
Among the Institutes topping the list of male religious orders in 2015, Jesuits rank first (16.740) despite their figures fell by more than half since 1965 (-53,54 percent); followed by Salesians (15.270, -30.72 percent), Friars minor (13.632, -49.52%), Capuchin monks (10.598, -33.08 percent) and the Benedictine Confederation (6.970, -42.25%).
Among the few orders that registered an increase over the past twenty years figure the Divine Word Missionaries (6.032, +4,48%) and the Carmelites of the Most Blessed and Immaculate Virgin (2.544, +147.47 percent).
Women and the resurgence of the crisis. The total number of women Religious Institutes and Societies of Apostolic Life (1 402) is almost seven times those of men. Delving into the details is thus difficult given the numbers and the variety. The decline registered in the first three decades gradually waned, registering the weakest decline in 1995 (-6,77 percent). However, numbers dropped again as of 2005 (-8,25 percent) with a peak in 2015 (-10.53%).
Significantly, Istitutes with over one thousand women religious amounted to 240 at the closing of the Council, while today they dropped to 98. As regards total figures, 1132 Congregations have less than 500 members (80 percent) and 418 have less than one hundred (30%).
The most numerous women institutes of consecrated life are: the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paoli (16,179, -64.08 percent), the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (13,057, -30.42 percent), Discalced Carmelites (10,504, -5.15 percent), Franciscan Poor Clare Sisters (7168, +105.09 percent), Clares (6686, -33.27 percent). The group that has grown the most, also owing to the recent erection and charismatic figure of the founder, is the Missionaries of Charity-Sisters of Mother Teresa.